Portal Art Fair At Federal Hall, The New Kid On Th...

Portal Art Fair At Federal Hall, The New Kid On The Block

Portal, Governors Island Art Fair’s youngest sister is run by the non-for profit 4heads and promises to be characterized by a similar charm. By taking over the historical Federal Hall building the fair steps into its sister footsteps, seeking out New York’s historical buildings as new and out-of-the-ordinary settings to display art. During our conversation with one of the founders Antony Zito we discussed the organizers’ preference for historic sites and the challenges of opening a new art fair during one of New York’s largest art weeks.

Aaron Taylor Kuffner Gamelatron Cemerlang portal art fair governors island artreport

“Gamelatron Cemerlang,” Aaron Taylor Kuffner. Photo: Aaron Taylor Kuffner / 4heads

Art Report: I thought we could start off with you telling me a little bit about your own background. I know you’re a painter. What brought you to the fair? What inspired you to do this?

Anthony Zito: Well, we started the group, some other artists and myself, just to kind of give us a voice and a platform. We weren’t even sure what we wanted to do. It was about exhibiting. It was about putting our heads together, basically. It turned into this art fair because of the space we have in Governors Island. It just developed kind of naturally and a bit gradually actually. I know a lot more groups probably get their act together quicker, but ours was a slow burn. We’re just starting to kind of really get moving now.

AR: Do you feel like, as an artist, it gives you a different perspective on the whole idea of running an art fair?

AZ: I think it’s really important to work within communities. I’ve always been someone who likes to show with other people rather than try to brave the battle on my own. It always feels better when it’s a group and we’re all kind of helping each other out. That’s what it’s about.

AR: What made you decide on the space here? You said you had the space in Governors Island already?

AZ: No, we just looked into it as soon as we formed the group and they were incredibly receptive. That was 2008 and nothing was happening out there. Good timing. One of our members of the group in the beginning was like, “I read an article about Governors Island. We should go to this city meeting,” so we went to the city planning meeting and asked them if we could send in a proposal and they said sure. It just kind of fell into our hands that they let us use the space. We managed to re-up our contract with them every year.

David Samuel Stern Aaron R. White, Dancer portal art fair governors island artreport

“Aaron R. White, Dancer,” David Samuel Stern. Photo: David Samuel Stern / 4heads

How did the selection for this building come about?

AZ: For this one, we had worked with National Parks last year on Governors Island and done exhibits down underneath Fort Jay. Fort Jay is the big star-shaped fort in the center of Governors Island. It’s run by National Parks and then there’s two other sites on Governors Island that’s run by National Parks but everything else is just for Governors Island. It’s a city. Underground Fort Jay, there are these ground stone caverns that were used for storing ammunition. It’s this really ancient sort of military setting and it’s really creepy and dark and amazing. We put a bunch of art down in there last year, and after working with Parks, we said, “What else have you got in New York? Because we want to something off of Governors Island.” It’s kind of been a dream for a while.

To our surprise, they said, “Well, some people do exhibits in Federal Hall.” I was shocked. Like you, we’ve all lived in New York for however long and have never been inside here. It’s like an architectural masterpiece. It’s like Old Europe. For us, the idea of showing independent artists in a museum setting like this is really inspiring. To kind of just … We’re trying to take things out of the white box and kind of bring them into the community. This is almost like a whole leap in the other direction. Going all the way to sort of metropolitan style look and then bringing artists from … I don’t know. We’re just finding people who haven’t done the whole gallery circuit, or maybe they have a bit but they basically haven’t become exclusive with a gallery.

AR: How do you want the building to interact with the art? Like you said, it’s such a rich building already. It’s architecturally beautiful. How do you see the art really popping out?

AZ: I think it’s kind of a nice contrast between two different kinds of richness. You have this richness of antiquity and obviously these columns are, I think, $500,000 a piece? There’s this incredible wealth. We’re in that neighborhood, where the biggest money in the world kind of congregates. For us to kind of find just independent artists working in their studios and making things from their heart and to put the richness of that, which isn’t necessarily about money, into this sort of … And, it’s also more contemporary and immediate. It’s like the voice of our culture, basically, now. Or a voice of our culture now. To bring it into this sense of antiquity and wealth and sort of means is a nice twist.

AR: How do you select the artists? I saw that you have a jury that selects it. How is the process?

AZ: On Governors Island art fair, we put out an open call and we always select 100 artists from the open call. We’ve been doing that for eight years. We’re going into our ninth year. We have over 1,000 artists that we’ve worked with over the years, so we kind of combed through our old catalogs and list of exhibitors and picked out what we thought would be some real highlights. Rather than put out a call, this one is an invitation. Almost everyone who’s showing here has been someone that we showed on Governors Island.

Ronald Hall Restoration portal art fair governors island artreport

“Restoration,” Ronald Hall. Photo: Ronald Hall / 4heads

AR: What made you decide to run it parallel to Frieze and the other art fairs?

AZ: It just seemed to make sense. We do Governors Island art fair on an off-season. September is not art fair time. We just wanted to do our own thing and we weren’t trying to play along. This time we said, “Well, why don’t we make our second effort something that’s trying to be in the club for a minute, see how that works.”

AR: Do you have any other buildings that you’re looking at for future events?

AZ: Always. Always. We don’t know if we’re going to do this here next year. We might want to keep it moving. That just opens up so many more possibilities and more adventures.

AR: Do you have personal favorites in the selection of the artists that you think might do particularly well?

AZ: We all do. This main rotunda space of course is not going to have any of this clutter in it. It’ll be wide open. All these easels and chairs and podiums, everyone’s going to be gone. In the center here is going to be Will Kurtz, and he’s this guy who makes figures out of sort of papier mache and masking tape and newspaper and wood and they’re pretty representational, but they’re covered with collage. He’s going to bring us a whole slice of New York City. We’re going to have a couple cops standing around a garbage can and some rats and pigeons and a lady pushing a walker. A guy playing with a dog. It’s all this sort of scruffy everyday characters. There’s a big lamppost, like a street lamp, in the center. It’s just going to be scattered around and it’s meant to open the space up and let people integrate with the artwork. If you saw a photo of it at some point, you might not even realize there was any sculpture there, which is kind of fun. You might see someone’s face is all yellow or blue or something. That’s really great stuff, and he’s just recently did something with the MTA. He’s showing a lot. It’s really fun stuff.

One of my favorites is up on that balcony behind that eagle over there is going to hang these floor paper paintings by this woman from Paris called Alice [inaudible 00:09:00]. She paints these women as sort of clowns, so their faces are painted with clown make up and their bodies are sort of a wash of colors and it’s dripping and it’s … I don’t know. It has this sort of … They’re like powerful ladies but at the same time, they’re commenting on this idea of identity mask and the role of woman in art and fashion as kind of painted figure.

AR: There’s going to be art on both floors?

AZ: All three floors. There’s a downstairs as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the freedom to do everything we really wanted to do. We learned that Parks has some very strict content restrictions. Content-wise, we’re forced into a sort of quiet space, which was a little disappointing for us. At times, we had discussions with them. What we find we’re getting out of this is a more sort of aesthetic fair than a subversive fair in any way. We, kind of by being here, is almost like a subversive move, but playing with the government is different than just setting up an art show in a family building.

Will Kurtz Nettie portal art fair governors island artreport

“Nettie,” Will Kurtz. Photo: Will Kurtz / 4heads

AR: Would you say that was the biggest difficulty?

AZ: Yeah. It was really hard because we had to let several of our artists go. People that we really stand behind, because content is important to us. It’s not all just about colors and pretty shapes. What’s being said in this fair is more between the lines. Nothing overt.

AR: Do you have a significant amount of expectations for sales that are included in the overall planning of the fair budget?

AZ: We came across a few bumps with these folks with that too. Being that it’s Natural Parks land, we first heard that we could selling artwork here and then we found out that we would have to do it off-site. It kind of triggered a new idea for us to not take a commission on sales and truly act as an independent concierge between the artists and the buyer and say, “Here you go. Play nice. See you later.” If the artist wants to donate to us some sort of a commission, of course we’ll accept it because we’re non-profit, but it actually serves our mission more to kind of step off the sales and just be the liaison.

AR: It’s very interesting because it’s a very strong contrast to obviously what’s going on at the other fairs.

AZ: Yeah. We just want to showcase some people whose work we feel really strongly about in a museum setting that no one thought of. To us that’s the magic of it, is to say, “Hey, New York, have you ever been here?” New York has seen everything and done everything and this is right in their backyard. It’s really fun.

Michael Davis Orange Cat portal art fair governors island artreport

“Orange Cat,” Michael Davis. Photo: Michael Davis / 4heads

Becky Brown Detail - Stuy Town Classic Kitchen portal art fair governors island artreport

“Detail – Stuy Town Classic Kitchen,” Becky Brown. Photo: Becky Brown / 4heads

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“Color Field II,” Chin-Lung Chuang. Photo: Chin-Lung Chuang / 4heads

Marie Koo Here hare not here portal art fair governors island artreport

“Here Hare Not Here,” Marie Koo. Photo: Marie Koo / 4heads

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Adriana Pauly is a curator and art writer with a MFA in Contemporary Art, based in New York. She specializes in artwork by emerging female artists as well as Latin American art. She has been published by Missy Magazine, Autre Magazine and is currently the Content Coordinator of Art Report.