Categorized | Interviews

A Conversation with artMRKT’s Max Fishko

Max Fishko and Jeffrey Wainhause, producers of artMRKT

In 2009, when a major art fair arrived in San Francisco after a nearly decade-long absence, skeptics wondered if the city was capable of supporting such an event. Today San Francisco has two high-profile fairs, artMRKT and ArtPadSF, both launched by producers from outside the area who found ways to channel the sometimes fractious energies of the Bay Area art scene into cohesive, quality events that have become rallying points, celebrations and barometers of the strength and diversity of the visual art community. One of the individuals responsible is Max Fishko, managing partner of Brooklyn-based artMRKT Productions, which operates fairs in Houston, Miami and Bridgehampton, N.Y.  From May 16 to 19, artMRKT celebrates its third anniversary in SF, this time at Fort Mason,

with 70 galleries from the Bay Area, the U.S. and abroad, plus a variety of special installations and lectures and panel discussions.  What follows are excerpts from a recent conversation between Fishko and myself.     –David M. Roth

artMRK’s ongoing vitality cuts to the core a very important issue. We have, on one hand, a remarkable community of artists, galleries, museums and universities.  Yet historically, San Francisco is not regarded as a good market.  How do you see it?
I see it as an opportunity.  What you have is precisely what you mentioned: hundreds of fabulous galleries and salons and a fairly robust consulting community and some of the best museums in the world and some of the best educational institutions churning out not only fantastic artists, but very progressive curators and critics and thinkers.  There may be a little less cohesion in the community than you would find in other places.  Maybe that has to do with history or the way San Francisco evolved.  That’s why we’re here — because we want to create a more unified identity for the marketplace, and we’ve tried to put that unified group to work supporting the arts in a way that makes sense; and I think to a certain degree we’ve been able to build up the market in SF, introduce new blood and create an impetus to look, research and buy. 
What makes for a successful art fair?  What are the ingredients?
The most important thing is the dealers.  You need to have not only support; you need to have communication. It’s very hard to take 70 independent operations — all of whom are going to have sometimes slightly and sometimes vastly different priorities — and build some kind of consensus them.  And what that takes is rock-solid communication with each and every one of the people you’re working with such that they feel that they can be straight with you about what they need and you can be straight with them about what they can expect.  That is the critical function of the art fair producer.  If you don’t have that you’re not going anywhere.
What are some of the other ingredients?
You have to have good partners: nonprofits, museums and media partners.  You have to have a lot of trust in those people and you have to have those people trusting you, because we’re going to spend a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources on an event that’s going happen in the future.  And when you have that conversation, whether it’s with the director of a museum or with the development department of a major nonprofit institution or the publisher of a magazine or online publication — we all have to know we mean what we say and say what we mean. That’s something I’ve been able to cultivate with a large number of people, and it would be really impossible to make this happen without them.
What have you learned about this community in the time you’ve been working here?
San Francisco is fiercely proud and independent.  That is what I have come to learn.  There is really a strong love for the community.  It’s loosely defined, but nevertheless present, and I think it comes through at almost every level of institution I worked with. 
What is artMRKT doing to bring out serious collectors and develop new collectors?
Serious collectors respond to serious work.  These are seasoned people who know a lot about what’s happening in the marketplace and who are attracted to nothing in the same way they’re attracted to wonderful art.  They have made it their business to find out where that is and seek it out.  So the best thing I can do to bring a seasoned collector into the fair is bring really established, great galleries into the fair, and I think we’ve done that.  If I can bring somebody like Gering & Lopez into the fair from New York or somebody like Greg Kucera into the fair from Seattle – these are galleries that have been in business for two decades or more and are members of the ADAA and are bringing something to the table that a real serious collector will recognize.  That is the first and foremost challenge in getting collectors activated.
As for bringing new people into the show, the question is: how do you find somebody who maybe has the resources to engage with art in the way we want them to, but simply doesn’t know much about the enterprise?  It’s difficult to get in front of that person.  So to that end, we form lots of corporate partnerships and lots of partnerships with nonprofit institutions that may not be focused on visual art, and we try and make sure to access their demographic in a way that is going to be pleasing and friendly and nonthreatening.  The other thing we do is set up a structure so that when those people come into the fair, there’s an opportunity for them to learn. Some of ways we do that is through our public programming – talks and panel discussions. We also do tours.  People can sign up for a tour with any number of individuals that will going through the fair. Doing those educational outreach activities is how you get new collectors turned on and engaged. 
One of the things you state on your website is that you’re a different kind of art fair.  Can you explain? 
The gallery business is dominated by owner operators.  All but the biggest of the big are run, day-to-day, by one of the owners.  By contrast, many fairs create elaborate structures in order to make themselves appear inaccessible and monolithic.  They’ll advance functionaries, essentially, to act as a buffer between the customer and the owner of the fair.  We don’t have any sales people.  We don’t have some hired gun director that comes in and does this.  We don’t have some outsourced production person that comes in and does the logistics.  We do everything in-house.
On the ground, when you go to various fairs, do you have a large crew?
We have six people that work for full-time for the company.  Then we have a crew foreman who I’ve been working with us for four years who we bring with us; we fly him in wherever we go.  Then we have a partner company that does a lot of the physical production called Dynamic Events, Denver.  We’ve been working with those guys for years.   At any given moment the people who work for artMRKT Productions on the floor of an art fair could be 12 or 15 people, but the people who are full-time for the company are just the six of us.
When you started this venture three years ago, did you have a role model or a template for how to do it?
A lot of it was built on experiences that I had had, both positive and negative, working with other organizers in the past.  I’d worked for quite a few; some of them were extremely useful cautionary tales in what not to do. There were also a few people who taught me a lot.  Sanford L. Smith is one of the longest running art fair producers in the country and still one of the best, and I had an internship with Sandy when I was 17 years old.  And I picked up bits and pieces of how these organizations operated, and I knew there were certain things I wanted to do and certain things I didn’t want to do. 
When we decided we wanted to get started on our own, Jeff [Wainhause] and I were very clear with each other about what were hoping to accomplish, and that was to create a company that ameliorated some of the problems we saw happening with art fairs across the board: They were too big, too stressful on the exhibitors; they were too expensive; they did not make a concerted effort to work with the dealers, and we wanted to fix that.  And so lot of what we did had to do with the notion of doing these multiple projects a year.  Doing a lot of the logistics in house, keeping a lot of stats.  If you’re doing more than one thing you can keep the scope of each fair correct.  I don’t need to have a 110 dealers; I can have 70 exhibitors and still have the show be stable and do what it needs to do for the company.  I can go into a marketplace like Miami and do a 65-dealer fair and feel good about it and have the physical resources to make it easy on my customers.
Who determines what galleries exhibit and what are the criteria?
There are some dealers that will come to me who are either people I know or already work where I understand who there are and where they fit into the marketplace and I’m able to make the determination right off the bat: this person’s an asset. Then there are people who I don’t know and who I’m not as familiar with.  And those people I run by a committee of gallerists who I’ve selected because they have deep experience and have a sensibility that matches up with mine and they understand the nuts and bolts of my enterprise — they get what an art fair is and how it needs to work.
I noticed you’ve been previewing on your Facebook page some of the art works that will be exhibited.  If you could put on your curator’s hat, is there anything you’re particularly excited about?
One thing I’m really pumped to see is Leo Villareal who will have a sculptural installation [an edition of the Bay Lights Project] at the Gering & Lopez booth that will be incredible.  (He’s going to be there opening night, too.)  I’m really excited about the Gordon Parks booth.  Karen Jenkins Johnson is doing a solo installation.  I’m a huge Gordon Parks fan.  Some of his Muhammad Ali images are among my favorite photographs ever.  It’s Parks’ 100th anniversary and there’s going to be talk Sunday May 19th at 1 p.m. with Karen Jenkins Johnson and Julian Cox, curator of photography for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  We also have a major installation from Taro Hatori coming from Swarm Gallery; it’s basically a huge crashed model airplane that’s suspended from the ceiling and dropped in front of the fair which I’m excited to see and install.  There’s an installation called Datagrove from Future Cities Lab, which came to us through the ZERO1 Biennial.  It’s an interactive multimedia piece that responds to both the physical presence of people within the fair and social media feeds that will be attached to the fair at any given moment. I’m expecting Paul Kopeikin to show photographer Andy Freeberg.  He made a series of images of major dealers at major international art fairs and it’s fantastic – hysterical and self-referential.  [Editor’s note: Kopeikin will feature Berkeley artist Tabitha Soren, but will also have two Freeberg images on view.] Greg Kucera will be doing a solo booth for David Byrd who’s basically unknown.  This is somebody he’s unearthing and bringing to the marketplace and whose work I love.  It’s very modernist, very reminiscent of Social Realism.  
Not everyone knows this, but you have deep roots in the art community  — not just in the Bay Area, but all across the country.  You come from a family of art dealers.  Can you tell us about that? 
My grandmother started an art gallery in the early ‘60s in New York City that’s still operating today.  My parents run it; it’s called Forum.  (They’re actually exhibiting at the fair.) I grew up in that environment.  My father was going to ADAA meetings; he was very active in helping get that fair [The Art Show] together.  He was a big proponent of art fairs as a method of marketing his artists.  I would get carted around to these art fairs when all of my friends were going on vacation. A lot of my parents’ friends were dealers, and I got to know those people and their galleries.  As I grew up that was my community.  Some of these individuals have literally watched me grow up, and to be able to able to work with them the way that I am working with them now is very meaningful for me, because it seems like just yesterday I was 16-year-old kid running around an art fair with a ladder and a little bucket of paint to do touch up on their booths.
What gives you the greatest personal satisfaction?
There’s a satisfaction that I get because I believe what I’m doing is helpful.   I believe that art fairs are good.  They create new collectors.  They create a forum for exposure for artists that I believe is sustainable.  Exposing new people to more work is categorically good.  The fact that I have an opportunity to do that — I take that seriously and it is very satisfying.  And on a personal level, getting to work with people I have admired my whole life, and having those people look at me as a colleague and trust my judgment feels great. Corresponding, what’s rough about it is that if things don’t go great I feel terrible; I get really upset. 
How many visitors attended last year how many do you expect this year? 
Last year we had somewhere between 16,000 and 18,000 people. The only way we can be predictive is based on visits to the website and redeemed tickets — this year versus last year.  Traffic to the website is up about 15 to 20 percent and ticket sales are up dramatically, almost 50 percent.  We expect somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 people.
What are the most challenging aspects of running this show?
There’s a lot of stuff that’s out of your control.  And if you have get pretty Zen about that whole thing in order to do this kind of work. From the moment I land in San Francisco and head to Fort Mason to begin constructing the show — somewhere from that moment till the moment we open the doors — something pretty major is going to go wrong.  When it happens it’s gonna suck and you’re going to get really stressed out.  But you’re just gonna have to learn to say, ‘Ok we knew something bad was going to happen at least now we now know what it is’ and then get to work fixing it. 
I’m guessing you’ll be exhausted when the fair is over.  Any plan for what you’ll do to unwind? 
I’m going to Maine shortly after the fair with my wife and my family.  We rented a couple houses next to each other, and there’s a particular area called Mosquito Harbor where nobody’s cell phone works. 
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artMRKT @ Festival Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, May 16-19, 2013.
Next: an interview with ArtPadSF founding director, Maria Jenson. 

One Response to “A Conversation with artMRKT’s Max Fishko”

  1. Aubrey says:

    Very informative article! Looking forward to ArtPadSF this weekend:


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