"When I look at my schedule for the weekend, I get exhausted before I even start doing anything. If you really wanted to do everything art related in Dallas, you couldn't."
That's gallerist Cris Worley on her experience of a normal weekend in this city. Spend a few minutes on a typical weekend calendar of cultural events and it's sure to give you a spell of exhaustion. If that doesn't pass quickly, you probably shouldn't look at the sheer number of events taking place during the Dallas Art Fair. What began as a regional art fair six years ago has swiftly evolved into a week-long, city-mandated celebration of all things Dallas arts.
"Year one of the fair it was just us. There was a level of nervousness amongst the art professionals and the collectors that we had the possibility of doing damage," says John Sughrue, co-founder of the fair. "Looking back six years, I think you can see that we were part of the beginning of Dallas coming into its own culturally."
Certainly, Sughrue is going to have that opinion. About 10 years ago, the local real estate investor tossed around the idea to start a fair with his co-founder, art dealer Chris Byrne. They decided that with the wealth of artistic talent combined with the amount of wealth in Texas, this state deserved its own art fair. With no one else around to do it, they began planning to launch the fair in 2008 at the Fashion Industry Gallery, an event space owned by Sughrue's company.
The fair's ambitions have never been to compete with Art Basel in Miami or Frieze in New York City, but to have a midsize fair with a healthy mixture of regional and international contemporary artists. Of the 93 exhibitors this year, two-thirds are from somewhere in the United States outside of Texas, 20 of them are international and there a dozen regional galleries. The reason for so few local participants is complicated. It's an invitation-only fair and the cost for a gallery to participate is $17,500.
For smaller local galleries, it's an investment, but the constant growth of the fair, the estimated 10,000 visitors and the chance to exhibit alongside galleries from across the globe give those who chose to participate a pretty good return on the investment. Worley has exhibited five of the past six years because she feels the fair's existence in Dallas was a mutual investment between the organizers and the exhibitors.
"I've been really active in talking to other dealers outside of Dallas about coming to Dallas and to the Art Fair. We have a pretty amazing scene here that if you weren't immersed in it you might not necessarily know," Worley says. "The fair gives visitors the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised by the vibrant community here. It gives them a reason to be in Dallas looking at Dallas art."
Liliana Bloch shares a gallery space in Deep Ellum with another gallery and chose to program her space with a huge piece of public art during the fair, rather than participate in the fair.
"I spent a lot of time going back and forth before deciding not to participate," Bloch says. "I very much support the fair, but it was just too much of a risk for my young gallery. I decided instead to program a satellite event at the same time."
Wanda Dye, who started RE Gallery just last year, came to the opposite conclusion. She plans to exhibit pieces by each of the 11 artists she represents.
"It's a big investment and a lot of time and money. But having my artists next to a booth with blue-chip artists was important for both my gallery and my artists," Dye says. "If I'm going to do this seriously, I need to reach new demographics and and meet new gallerists to create a bigger dialogue."
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The dialogue of the fair began to expand in its first few years, as the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Dallas Museum of Art began timing programming with the Dallas Art Fair. Then last year, Mayor Mike Rawlings decreed Dallas Arts Week to fall every year on the same week. This city-wide initiative is meant to encourage citizens to get out and see more art, whether it be theater, dance, concerts, or visual art. In turn, this encouraged artists to open exhibitions during this week, program shows at theaters and throw parties in celebration of the arts.
"If we want Dallas to become a true art center, we really need to look at the artists in this city," Sughrue says. "By having a signature week that brings in a lot of artists from outside the city, it's enabled our local artists an opportunity to show their work to national and international gallerists and collectors. We have to start asking, who are the young David Bateses of today?"
For Sughrue and many of the participating artists and collectors, the Dallas Art Fair is about more than commerce. It's another necessary step towards creating the artistic city Dallas has the potential to become. Now that we have an art fair, what's next?
The Dallas Art Fair takes place Friday-Sunday at the Fashion Industry Gallery, 1807 Ross Ave. Day passes start at $25 and can be purchased at DallasArtFair.com.