Philadelphia Fine Art Fair opens its doors for the first time April, 2019. It seems hard to believe that a city with the history and the cultural significance of Philadelphia had, up to this point, lacked a fine art fair but that was the case.
Rick Friedman, the fair’s executive director, says there are many reasons he decided it was time.
“Firstly it has a long history of being a mecca for the creation, exploration and patronage of visual arts. There are 30 local art museums and foundations, each with members, patrons and top tier donors--the esteemed Philadelphia Museum of Art has 55,000 members, alone,” says Friedman. ”There are five arts schools. There are about 30 commercial galleries (and) there is a sizable base of wealthy, influential art collectors and art philanthropists with outstanding, mind-blowing collections”
He says the city is also considered one of the “mural capitals” in the USA. has a large population (6.5 million in the greater Philadelphia area), the largest collection of sculpture in the country (1,100 works).
“If you blend those tasty ingredients together, you have one of the greatest potential art fair cities in the nation! On the east coast, this is the only art fair that sits between NYC and Palm Beach..and there are a lot of people between those two cities.” says Friedman.
Merritt Gallery (Maryland, Pennsylvania)
Given that all of this is true why hasn’t Philadelphia had a fair before and why did Friedman decide to start now?
“I recently re-emerged back into the art fair producing business after retiring. And when I evaluated various locations around the world, Philly was compelling.” he says “Also, we were able to find a suitable, accessible, well-known, and affordable site, with good dates, that was not a union controlled building, so The Armory was perfect, which is actively run by the US military , in the center of town.”
Just don’t call it The Armory Show although you can perhaps call this boutique fair AN armory show. PFAF is a smaller fair with 35 galleries. Visitors to the various New York Art Fairs and Miami’s Art Week will find this refreshing and far less ulcer-inducing.
“We want to visitors to have a manageable and comprehensive experience, to really meet each dealer, and explore the art, so each gallery will have greater mindshare than in larger fairs, say, with 75-100 dealers” he says. “Also about 25 percent of the galleries are local, so we present a Philly flavor not found anywhere else. This is the first Contemporary gallery focused fair ever in Philly, so it is geared to the 6.5 million residents in that region. Can you imagine if there was one contemporary art fair in NYC?”
Choosing the galleries to participate in a fair is, of course, key. The galleries who wanted to come on board also helped shape what the fair.
“It became apparent that the exhibitors that were jumping up and down were contemporary, not modern dealers, so we migrated more towards 1970’s- present. Evolving from what we originally planned, a modern, 1930-present,” says Friedman. “We evaluated galleries on their quality of painters, reputation , past art fair history, knowledge of gallery owner, price point, and what they were going to bring.”
“We created a charity silent auction SculptCare, which raises money for the restoration and conservation of the city’s sculptures around town. We are inviting top tier donors from all the leading regional museums .and 25%of the galleries are from the Philly area. Many are showing Philly based artists,” he says. “A panel discussion, A Passion for Possession: Collectors on Collecting features local powerhouse collectors. We created a Collectors Circle of most renowned patrons in town. We are honoring the Philadelphia Outstanding artists – Dina Wind, and Philadelphia 2019 Art Collector of the Year- Cecily Sherman, who lives four blocks from the fair site.”
Each city, each region has its own particular challenges. One issue for Philadelphia is that it has been seen as an antiques and turn of the century market. PFAF needed (and needs) to change that perception and show the city is a contemporary art city.
“I don’t know anyone under 60 years old buying antiques. Times are changing.” he says.
Another issue is not Philadelphia-specific.
“Also, whenever you do the first, something new, many people want to take a wait and see attitude, so it took a lot of convincing,” says Friedman. “ And cajoling, and kissing a lot of frogs, but our team was driven, steadfast, and determined. We saw the vision. But that is OK, doubt is expected, but we finally found our prince.”
This year the fair aims to maximize commerce at the exhibitor booths. Friedman says the art being shown is extraordinary. As the fair goes on, year after year, he hopes to make the fair a must attend stop on the national art fair train.
The art fair train finally has a stop in Philadelphia.