What's up with stARTup?
This essay was written collaboratively by Joseph del Pesco & Bean Gilsdorf.
“Unsatisfied with the brevity of Twitter and the isolation of a coffee-shop conversation, we thought it could be productive to post a critical analysis of the fair.”
Here’s how it started: On December 3, 2014, Bean received a press release about a new art fair called “stARTup,” a joint venture by artist Ray Beldner and former gallery director Steve Zavattero. Bean raised her eyebrows at the application fee and hotel costs, and posted this to Twitter:
Joseph retweeted and a short conversation ensued. The fair’s organizers responded:
Shortly after, stARTup reduced the application fee from $75 to $45.
On December 22nd, after corresponding with Bean via text message, Joseph posted:
Ray & Steve responded to Joseph’s post on Twitter and then emailed to request a meeting. Together they called Joseph on January 5. Bean and Joseph met a few days later and started writing:
Unsatisfied with the brevity of Twitter and the isolation of a coffee-shop conversation, we thought it could be productive to post a critical analysis of the fair. Our goal with the following text is to unpack the marketing rhetoric presented on the website and examine some of its assumptions and implications. We began with a list of stARTup pros and stARTup cons, and developed them into a set of dialectical arguments, meant to highlight debatable points.
First, stARTup sets itself apart from other fairs by creating a system in which “participating artists keep 100% of the proceeds from their own sales.” Artists who have gallery representation often complain that they’re locked into one or more galleries who take 50 percent of sales, but who don’t “do enough” for them to justify such a large cut. This fair eliminates the gallery cut, doing away with the middleman. While this may sound like an improvement, it distracts from the economic truth that artists will only start making money after they’ve recouped the up-front, out-of-pocket costs of the application fee, the room fee, and other related expenses. We’ll revisit this point in a moment.
The press release also asserts that the fair is “an innovative and experimental way to provide artists with access to a professional exhibition environment.” The model for stARTup originated with a fair called Photo Independent (PI), held in Los Angeles in 2014. Indeed, PI presents unrepresented (“independent”) artists, and charges them a fee to participate. Ray and Steve noted they were impressed by the high level of quality at the fair, and pointed out that the fees for stARTup were comparable to PI’s middle range. Fair enough, but we don’t see any innovation here—and hotel fairs have been around for decades.
The press materials promise that the fair will be “populated by dealers, curators, collectors, critics, publishers, and art appreciators,” but with the title “stARTup,” it seems to us a transparent attempt to lure the Bay Area’s newly moneyed Silicon Somebodies by aligning the fair with an entrepreneurial sensibility. Phrases like “get in on the ground floor” aren’t likely to win the hearts and dollars of the start-up elite nor venture capitalists. While we’d all like to see more of the local wealth directed toward supporting area culture in substantial ways, we feel this approach lacks a sense of dignity. The fair’s overview imagines Bay Area artists as “entrepreneurs” or “creative visionaries”; most artists we know would be loath to apply such hollow self-nominations, and the clichés of corporate culture are largely unwelcome by artists. One could argue that stARTup’s marketing is simply a kind of veneer, the platitudes most people understand are simply part of the game; but employing a superficial understanding of the attitudes and interests of the tech community at the expense of the art community is an unproven tactic that threatens to aid neither group.
Most of the artists we know are intelligent, motivated, and capable; but do they want to be cast in the position of primary salesperson of their own work at an art fair? Are they prepared to negotiate with a buyer/collector who wants, let’s say, a substantial discount (a routine matter in collector-dealer relations)? Certainly artists can fend for themselves, and some already have experience selling their own work, but these kind of negotiations can be awkward, or worse, when you’re cornered in a small hotel room. The only imaginable benefit here is the trial-by-fire skill-building for the artists as they absorb the ancillary duties of branding, marketing, interpreting, negotiating, and (hopefully) selling.
The supposition is that the fair is a particularly important opportunity for artists who’ve been ignored or dropped by commercial galleries and arts institutions. Ray mentioned during our conversation that he’s lost gallery representation three times in recent years, for various reasons. Certainly he’s not alone. But it’s worth pointing out that two-thirds of stARTup’s application review panel (four of six members, or 66 percent) is comprised of representatives from galleries and institutions. This doesn’t do away with institutional hierarchies and professional biases. Why should artists who feel they’ve been ignored by these galleries and institutions gamble $45 for the privilege of being ignored yet again?
Let’s return to the issue of cost. To participate in this fair, there’s the aforementioned application fee, then a $2,750-4,000 room fee; undoubtedly there will be other costs: Transporting the work (wrapping/packaging, gas, etc.); installation (hardware, tools, framing); and the often-overlooked costs such as food and other incidentals. And let’s not forget the cost of making the work. By our estimate, the average artist will spend over $4,000 just to show up. To be fair, Ray and Steve told us that three-quarters of the rooms are being offered to artists at the lowest ($2,700) price. As the organizers, they’re risking a large investment of initial capital, expecting that artists will apply and of course honestly hoping and planning for the fair to achieve its most successful outcome. However, it’s worth noting that at the moment the fair opens, the burden of risk will shift from the organizers to the artists.
We respect that Ray and Steve have given more than twenty years of their lives to the San Francisco art scene. Certainly they are taking a risk starting a new business, but we’re more concerned about the fifty artists than the two organizers. Our critical analysis here is not personal, it’s about their business proposition to artists. Finally, Ray and Steve kindly shared their budget with us: we can see that if the rooms fill, the organizers will make a living wage while the artists are will be operating at a deficit. The question remains for us: what does an ethical art fair look like, and is this as close as we can get?