When it was announced eight months ago that there would be a new visual arts fair this fall overlapping the long-established Art Toronto, headlines and articles presented the congruence as a case of "an upstart" "challenging" Art Toronto, of "Canada's No. 1 art fair" being "put on notice" that it now had "direct competition."
With both events finally under way in downtown Toronto – the "upstart," Feature Contemporary Art Fair, opened to the public Thursday, Art Toronto bows at noon today – no one seems to be characterizing the situation in quite such bare-knuckle terms. At least that was the case when The Globe and Mail recently interviewed spokespersons for each fair as well as selected art dealers who are participating in one fair or the other or both.
The arrival of Feature, brainchild of the Montreal-based Association des galeries d'art contemporain (AGAC), was, in fact, described largely positively, as "a welcome evolution," an indicator, in the words of Art Toronto director Susannah Rosenstock, "of a strong and growing, active, dynamic art market in Toronto and Canada." One prominent Toronto photography dealer, Stephen Bulger, even suggested that artists without representation should "rent a few rooms" in Toronto's trendy Gladstone Hotel and run their own commercial showcase conterminous with Art Toronto and Feature.
Such satellite events are, of course, already an established part of the fair phenomenon, which has come to shape and, in many respects, defines the contemporary art market in the last 10 years. Art Basel Miami Beach, for example, perhaps the planet's most famous art jamboree, has spawned at least 20 satellites of varying sizes and influence even as it has retained top dog status during what's now called "Basel Week" in December.
Certainly, it could be argued that Feature is more complement than competition to the mighty Art Toronto, at least for the foreseeable future.
Founded 15 years ago by businessman Linel Rebenchuk, and owned since 2012 by Informa Exhibitions, AT for its 2014 edition is hosting more than 100 exhibitors from across Canada and countries such as the United States, Germany, France, England and Israel, at its Metro Toronto Convention Centre home. As ever, the spending-and-getting is buttressed by institutional support from the likes of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Power Plant, the Art Dealers Association of Canada and the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art as well as a program of talks, panel discussions and special events.
Feature, berthed less than a 10-minute drive east of AT in the historic Canadian Opera Company building, is, as its full name suggests, resolutely tailored to contemporary art. It features just 23 vendors, from a handful of Canadian cities (Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa), but already it's claiming some impressive partners, including Calgary's Esker Foundation and the Albright-Knox Contemporary and Modern Art Foundation Canada.
Feature's arrival in Toronto is testimony to the rising fortunes of its parent organization. Although established 27 years ago, AGAC has strived to expand both membership and influence beyond Quebec only in the past five. The impetus for this has come via the popularity of the Papier art fair AGAC started in 2007 and now runs every April in downtown Montreal. Toronto galleries, in particular, have steadily increased their participation at Papier, with some, like Jessica Bradley Gallery and Clint Roenisch Gallery, going so far as to join AGAC. (Other non-Quebec galleries among AGAC's 40 members include Calgary's TrépanierBaer, Republic Gallery in Vancouver and Edmonton's dc3 Art Projects.)
Emboldened by Papier's success, "a lot of our board members in Montreal wanted another project, something in Toronto, that would have a bigger buzz [than Papier] and occur at the same time as Art Toronto," AGAC director Julie Lacroix observed recently. "Then we asked Toronto types, 'What do you think about this?' And they were like, 'Oh, we've already thought of a fair.' So there was this mutuality, this conversation."
Besides being contemporary in focus, the new fair, it was agreed, would be small-ish and intimate, audience- and artist-friendly, and held in a space possessing what AGAC director Julie Lacroix called "cachet" and "atmosphere." There was consensus, too, that it should be curated. "So, we set up this advisory committee [of five corporate and museum curators, all anonymous for the time being] to pick the galleries … and set the project of each gallery. Each gallery could only propose three artists maximum and one backup artist." From there, the committee and the gallery would discuss whether the gallery's booth would feature one artist, two or three, what "the dialogue among the artists should be," how the booths would be configured for the roughly 900 square metres of space at the COC.
For Jessica Bradley, whose artist roster includes or has included Rebecca Belmore, Derek Sullivan and Shary Boyle, the jury concept was key to her involvement. "If you've participated in the great art fairs of the world like, Frieze [London], Art Basel Miami and NADA [New Art Dealers Alliance, in Miami Beach and New York], you know a great fair is made by a rigorous jurying process. So what you end up with, in this case, is a small fair but a concentrated one; you don't get into it without passing muster; they're not selling real estate; they're selling booths to people they have approved." While Art Toronto "has done a great job over the years," it's become "too big," she said. There's "too varied a cross-section. One never had the sense there was a real process for getting in except applying and putting up your money." This weekend Bradley, who bowed out of AT 2013, is showing three artists – Julia Dault (Brooklyn/Toronto), Jeremy Hof (Vancouver), Jessica Eaton (Montreal) – only at Feature.
Bulger, by contrast, is selling wares at both fairs. "I've got fairly eclectic tastes and, increasingly, I've been delving into Canadian historical photographs as well as remaining interested in contemporary photography. I find when I try to put that eclecticism on display in an art fair it can look like a bit of a dog's breakfast. I see how it all connects but I find that people, for the most part, want to look at one or the other and ne'r the twain shall meet." With Feature, Bulger has the opportunity to do a "small, tightly focused contemporary show" – in this instance, works by Phil Bergerson, Gilbert Marcin and Alison Rossiter – "while leaving me free and clear to basically show only historical work at Art Toronto."
Bulger thinks Feature's arrival is more testament to the success of AT than critique or harbinger of trouble. "In the first five or six years of [AT], a lot of people viewed it more as a social occasion than an opportunity to buy art. Now it seems there's a lot of people who only make one or two art purchases a year and what I see is at least half of those are choosing [AT] as the time to make those purchases." A "boutique" event like Feature is, he suggested, a necessary fine-tuning, "addressing the fact that there are a lot of people who don't like going to art fairs. It can be overwhelming. You have to wade through a lot of things you don't want to look at to look at those few things you do . . . " Returning to AT this year after a one-year hiatus is Toronto's Diaz Contemporary. The gallery, which represents the likes of Kim Adams and Garry Neill Kennedy, passed on AT last October not out of any antipathy but because it had earlier "decided to alternate its arts fair program strategy" between Canada one year and other countries the next," says Diaz exhibitions head Yasmin Nurming-Por. Accordingly, in 2013, it rented booths at Expo Chicago and Artissima Turin, and "we've applied for international fairs [in 2015]."
Nurming-Por said Diaz doesn't rule out participating at Feature in the future. But "at the moment we're really happy working with [AT]," not least because the Quebec art collective BGL, which Diaz represents, is installing a large immersive work at AT 2014 in association with the National Gallery of Canada. BGL – from the first letter of the last names of artists Jasmin Bilodeau, Sébastien Giguère and Nicolas Laverdière – will be representing Canada at the 2015 Venice Biennale. The trio's installation, Canada de Fantaisie or Canada Fancy, is a functioning carousel, made of metal fences and crowd barriers, occupying some 90 square metres of AT real estate.
Le manège, in fact, is one of several installations AT has to mark its 15th anniversary. Including large-scale pieces "that normally don't fit in a gallery booth or may not normally be shown in a commercial gallery" is a way to create "a feeling of spectacle . . . an exciting environment," says AT's Rosenstock. In fact, this year the fair chose to accept fewer exhibitors than previously (Rosenstock did not specify the number) to make room for BGL and projects by the likes of Thrush Holmes, VSVSVS, Amalie Atkins, Marman + Borins and the late Greg Curnoe (represented by a recently discovered three-part double-sided painting).
Rosenstock indicated AT would continue "to be a fair that is broad and inclusive and that really brings the art community together." At the same time, "we're not trying to set records in terms of having more galleries every year or showing more artists every year. We're trying to evolve and be relevant and to have some amount of spectacle and to just create something that is special and beautiful every year."
Lacroix thinks Feature may already have outgrown its current digs: an individual booth at this year's event is between 15 and 17 square metres (at AT, it can be up to 90) – "smaller than what we wanted to offer" and "it's going to be a bit busy." Nevertheless, AGAC will poll participating galleries at Feature's end before it commits to a new locale for 2015.
Art Toronto: The Toronto International Art Fair continues at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre through Monday until 6 p.m. Feature Contemporary Art Fair continues at the Canadian Opera Company headquarters, Toronto, through Sunday until 5 p.m.
Editor's note: The Toronto International Art Fair was founded in 2000 by Linel Rebenchuk, who ran it independently until 2008 when it was purchased by MMPI Canada. In 2012 Informa Exhibitions purchased MMPI, including Art Toronto. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.