Illustration by Mark Kaufman

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As art fairs thrive around the globe, Seattle Art Fair prepares for its debut this summer. Will it help Seattle seize a place in the international art world? 
Does it matter?

A jaunt through today’s international art fair circuit isn’t complete without gallerinas hawking million-dollar artworks in six-inch heels, cabana parties where investment bankers mix with trendy creatives, and billionaires on a shopping spree-cum-cultural bacchanalia. Will that pomp fly in Seattle?

This summer, Seattle will debut its own ambitious new fair, conceived and funded primarily by local development powerhouse Vulcan, Inc. For four days—July 30 to Aug. 2—some 50 galleries will fill CenturyLink Field Event Center with offerings designed to lure international collectors and create local ones. Seattle Art Fair aims to seize a potent moment in the city’s cultural history and claim its place as an essential destination in the art world. If it succeeds, the fair could also have a big impact on the local art economy.

Sizable exhibitions have roots in the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the glitzy, international art fair began to take shape. In 1913, The Armory Show became the first American-based blockbuster, debuting work by more than 300 modern painters and sculptors inside the 69th Regiment Armory building in New York City. The wildly popular cultural extravaganza introduced American audiences to European avant-garde art (Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” scandalized attendees) and shifted the international art center from Europe to America.

In the 100 years since, art fairs have increased in size and number, determining how cities and nations position themselves as economic and intellectual centers of the art world. Today’s behemoth Armory Show, launched in 1994 at the same site as its historical namesake but otherwise unrelated to the original event, attracts some 52,000 attendees a year. Switzerland’s Art Basel, founded in 1970, attracts almost twice as many. In 2014 Art Basel hosted more than 300 galleries from 36 countries. During Art Basel Miami Beach, the U.S. offshoot of the Swiss fair, art aficionados, celebrities and millionaire collectors flock to convention centers and modular beachside showrooms to view the trendiest art from around the globe. In 2013, Art Basel launched a Hong Kong edition, Asia’s largest annual art festival.

The money passing hands at these events is staggering. Last year Art Basel Miami Beach offered an estimated $3 billion in art, with works by artists like Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder priced as high as $18 million. And it’s not just the participating galleries who make bank. According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, based on accommodation and restaurant expenditures alone during that one week in December, the city’s tourism businesses bring in an estimated $13 million. Since the fair’s inception in 2002, Miami’s regional arts organizations have also exploded, generating as much as $1.1 billion in annual revenue. With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that nearly every city with a reputation as a cultural center is vying to establish some kind of art fair. Along with Seattle, Honolulu, Denver and Vancouver are each launching a fair or biennial this year.

Seattle Art Fair’s origins are almost apocryphal. By all accounts, art-collecting tech mogul and Vulcan CEO Paul Allen is a devotee of the Venice Biennale, parking his 414-foot superyacht Octopus near the sinking city to enjoy the offerings by top-tier international artists. Like the iterations of Art Basel and the proliferation of Armory Week art fairs, the Venice Biennale is an art world essential, held every two years since 1895. Select artists are invited to represent their homelands, Olympics-style, in national pavilions scattered throughout the city. Art commissioned by world-famous curators fills exhibition halls, palazzi and churches. Hundreds of thousands attend the spectacle.

Allen returned to Seattle from the 2013 Biennale wondering why Seattle couldn’t have a fair like Venice’s. About a year ago, he sat down with Seattle gallerists and curators to explore the idea.

“We can’t do a Biennale right now,” says Vulcan senior curator Greg Bell, who oversees the company’s art holdings as well as Allen’s personal collection. He’s sitting in a small conference room at the Vulcan headquarters in SoDo, where the view is breathtaking: An expansive glass fishbowl looks out on Chinatown, King Street Station and the swarming entrance to the Link light rail station. Beyond that, the bustling waterfront is girded by walls of glittering, cerulean skyscrapers shooting skyward.

The scope of something approaching Venice—at least initially—is absurd for a city that hasn’t previously attracted a steady stream of international collectors or established a strong art presence beyond its insular, Northwest sphere. But something smaller and more concentrated is possible.

“We started talking with Art Market Productions, who were very interested in working with us to kind of morph the context of the fair here so that it’s a little different,” Bell says. Finding an appropriate, feasible model is key to the success of Seattle Art Fair.

“Seattle is on the tips of people’s tongues right now,” says Max Fishko, co-founder and managing partner at Art Market Productions (artMRKT). Fishko is a third-generation gallerist who grew up going to art fairs. “There’s a lot of interest in Seattle right now from around the world, there’s attention from the cultural centers. There’s a reputation that this region has a lot to say.”

Based in New York, artMRKT built a stable of commercial art fairs from scratch including Miami Project, Texas Contemporary in Houston, Art Market San Francisco and, most recently, Art on Paper in New York City. Instead of trying to replicate a cookie-cutter fair, artMRKT claims to take a holistic approach to designing something unique to suit a specific location. In doing so, they consider a wide range of successful alternative models.

Such models include The Independent, co-founded in 2010 by gallerist/curators Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook in the shadow of The Armory. The Independent defiantly offered free admission, while The Armory charged general admission tickets starting at $45 and other simultaneous fairs in the area ranged from $25 to $50. The Independent diverged from the Basel model by including exhibits by nonprofits and alternative art organizations and using spaces with an open, meandering floor plan without booths.

Another popular alternative model has been the hotel takeover, where exhibiting galleries rent an entire hotel for the duration of a fair, transforming each room with paintings arranged atop beds and sculptures installed over sinks. Seattle gallerist Dirk Park and his partner Jaq Chartier formed one such fair in 2005. Located in South Beach, the fair occupied the mid-century modern Aqua Hotel, with installations and performances overflowing into a central courtyard with a hot tub and bar. Like other scrappy startups, Aqua Art Miami earned a reputation as a Miami art week staple and was eventually purchased by art fair production company Art Miami in 2012.

For this summer’s Seattle Art Fair, artMRKT is beefing up auxiliary programs that will spread beyond the gallery booths at CenturyLink. (Most of the galleries with booths will be from the West Coast or Pacific Rim.) A curatorial project called Experiments will launch multiple, site-specific art installations throughout the city core—an idea that echoes some of the invasive, citywide transformations at the Venice Biennale. In February organizers issued a call for proposals, asking for projects by local and global artists who were cherry picked by a team of West Coast curators, including Bell, Scott Lawrimore and San Francisco-based gallerist Eli Ridgway. In keeping with a soft focus on technology, artists have been asked to respond to the theme “Pure Research.”

Art Fair organizers are assembling a team of established local collectors to serve as a “host committee,” which artMRKT does for most of its fairs, with regional collectors offering tours of their home collections as well as VIP museum excursions. In an effort to contribute to the community, the fair’s opening night gala will benefit local art organization ArtistTrust. These are a few of the ways Seattle Art Fair hopes to be true to the city’s character and set itself apart from other fairs.

There’s no guarantee of success. Plenty of fairs have tried and failed in Seattle over the last 30 years. In 1992, Seattle-based art consultant Irene Mahler launched the first ArtFair/Seattle, which showcased upwards of 50 galleries from the Northwest and beyond. Hosted annually at the Westin Hotel downtown, blue chip galleries like New York’s Gagosian arrived hoping to cash in on the newly minted generation of tech millionaires and grunge musicians. By 1997, the fair petered out as exhibitors lost enthusiasm. In 2012 and 2013 Seattle Center hosted the Affordable Art Fair, which takes place in more than a dozen cities worldwide, guaranteeing artworks priced at $10,000 and below. The Seattle event failed to attract enough galleries or collectors and did not return for a third year.

Seattle has never boasted a significant art market. Beyond a handful of local art celebrities like glass artist Dale Chihuly or video pioneer Gary Hill, few Seattle artists are able to make a lasting career of their work while remaining in the Northwest.

“It’s hard to sustain yourself as an artist when there isn’t a gallery that can offer some marketing muscle,” says local curator Kira Burge, who’s working as artMRKT’s project coordinator for the Seattle Art Fair. “The independent scene is really strong here in Seattle, but we have some work to do in the commercial sphere, because that’s going to build our infrastructure.” Burge is co-founder of the four-year-old, Seattle-based Interstitial Gallery and familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the local art scene.

Those strengths developed as a result of the city’s commercial vacuum. The stock market crash in 2008 precipitated a string of gallery closures in Seattle. Since then, local artists have made clever use of the humble resources at hand. The past decade has seen a crop of galleries inside living spaces: NEPO House, Vignettes Gallery, Season, Valley and Taylor, Andralamusya, Two Shelves and Calypte, among others. With few exceptions, these spaces thrive as platforms for exhibiting innovative, experimental work, but they fail to make much money or draw an audience beyond a small inner circle of extant patrons.

Could a Seattle Art Fair bankrolled and backed by the cultural currency of Vulcan shift the art economy in the region’s favor?

An art fair that attracts an international crowd could propel the careers of local artists and stop their ongoing exodus to market-driven cities like New York and LA. But some observers are unconvinced that Vulcan—or any corporation—can wave a magic wand to transform the local art scene. They fear that, despite Seattle’s current hype, the fair’s organizers will cut out local artists, instead soliciting work by artists and galleries with greater name recognition.

“I’m disappointed that the model Vulcan decided on is not geared to celebrate our regional artists,” says Greg Lundgren, who is, among other things, founder of Lundgren Monuments, Walden 3, the Hideout and co-owner of Vito’s. Lundgren was included in Vulcan’s early brainstorming sessions about what form a local art fair or biennial might take. “There’s so much talent here and the event we need as a city is to spotlight and export our thinkers, not cater to outside galleries selling outside talent to outside buyers,” he says.

Lawrimore—director of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at University of Washington, former deputy director at Frye Art Museum and founder of the now-defunct Lawrimore Gallery—would prefer to see Seattle’s citywide art events deliver experimental and conceptual rigor rather than highlight the commercial.

“The last thing the world needs is another art fair,” he says. “So why Seattle now? How and why do we compete with what already exists?” His tone shifts. “But then, why not? At the start of the 21st century, could we not start another thing that might last a hundred years, that takes over a city and will be integral to it architecturally, spiritually and conceptually? If anyone could do it in our community, [Allen]’s the person who could do it.”

The timing, backing and vision for artMRKT’s Seattle Art Fair might be a recipe for success. As the fastest growing major American city according to the 2014 Census Bureau report, Seattle can foster a new generation of collectors. Now’s the time for a juggernaut like Vulcan to step in and give the Seattle art scene a nudge.

“We’re hitting an economic upswing,” says Burge of Seattle’s growth. “Communicating that art is something we value—our arts community already knows that, but here’s a way we can put our money where our mouth is. The fair is a part of that, a platform for the community to say, ‘This is serious. This is commerce as well as community.’”

Bell, the Vulcan curator, believes international collectors could have a long-term economic impact that will trickle down to local artists who may or may not play a direct role in the fair. “To invest $25,000 on a piece of artwork in Seattle is difficult,” Bell says. “But in New York it’s nothing. So why isn’t there that same collector confidence, that a person can go to a neighborhood gallery and be able to find good art from good artists in this region and be able to keep the money here and keep the artists here moving?”

Bell has also cast his eye on Seattle’s tech sector. For him, the city’s ripeness for an art fair has as much to do with the art community as it does with an overall cultural renaissance which encompasses that community. He wants the art fair to touch that world as much as possible.

“There are so many people working in the tech industry in Seattle that we don’t normally see interacting with the arts,” he says. “Who among those are looking at art, who’s using it in their business and what kind of ways can we interact with them? We need to figure out a way to engage them.” To that end, he’s scheming ways to carve out a nexus—a creative space or research facility located within the fair—where artists and tech creatives can interact directly.

For the foreseeable future, the Seattle Art Fair won’t be infamous for its poolside cabana parties and bankers in supercars, nor will it proliferate with blue chip galleries hawking Hirsts by the truckload. Who will come to Seattle’s art fair? Can Vulcan build a fair that will be a destination for international art lovers? And is that what really matters?

“Some really good collections got their start in the Seattle art fairs of the ’90s,” Lawrimore says, “and those people continue to support local art, contemporary art and museums and are really high-level collectors. If it were not for that art fair, that might not have happened. Is that the metric of success for an art fair? It’s one. It’s not enough. It remains to be seen if what they build from an art fair standpoint is going to matter outside the area.”

For Bell, the success of an art fair hinges on creating moments of immersion, exposure and wonder for the unsuspecting visitor.

“Success is going to these things and seeing what artists are doing, what they’re thinking about,” he says. “It’s in that kind of small sphere you start to see some continuity. That’s what I hope to see with ours—that we’ll have that continuity and we’ll start to pick up new ideas and talk back and forth to each other. Otherwise, you know, it’s just about selling. And I want it to be more than that.”