Fair  April 16, 2019  Jeremy Howell

Art Talk: Superfine! Director Alex Mitow on the Fair's 2019 NYC Edition

Superfine!

String Theory, Jon Barwick, Acrylic on Canvas, 54"x36". 

Superfine! is one of the most unique art fairs in America. With a belief that art fairs can be curated and still offer affordable works, Superfine! connects art enthusiasts and collectors to emerging independent artists. Art & Object recently chatted with Superfine!'s Co-Founder and Director, Alex Mitow. We spoke to him about the fair's 2019 NY edition, the merit of affordable art, and what the future holds for Superfine! fairs. You can find ticketing information here.

Jeremy Howell: Your journey to becoming the Director of an art fair was unconventional. What were the key moments along the way that lead you to this work?

Alex Mitow: I would say the key moment for me was when my partner, James Miille, began seriously showing his own artwork. Coming from what I guess you could call a more conventional business background, I was puzzled by the wheeler-dealer workings of the "art world." You had all these people who never bought art showing face and acting like arbiters of what was good and wasn't, while the folks who actually might collect were metaphorically (and often literally!) waiting at the gates. Fairs like Affordable helped pave the way for a more accessible market, but no one had really taken the approach we did - at the intersection of affordable/accessible and hyper-curated. After doing a few pop-up shows, we realized that the only way to really effect our brand of change in the art market was through a fair so that's how I became the director and CEO of Superfine! Art Fair.

JH: Art is an industry that is often exclusionary, how has your outsider status worked for and against you?

AM: For the first couple of years, I played into the art world insider nonsense and was always a step or two behind, a museum party away from the next great connection. At some moment, it just hit me that all of that was silly and that it was no way to live either as a professional or just as a person. I'm a quirky, unique, art-loving individual, but I can't do the fake-smile, fake-hug art groupie thing - it's not me. I believe in a sustainable art market, in the power of artists and those that support them, and in building transparency in the market not just for vanity's sake, but because that's the only way the emerging art market can ever be a serious force and serve its constituents. Being an outsider has allowed me to see all of this more clearly and really double down on my bets without worrying about what "insiders" might think of me, or of my company's role in the art market.

    Luke Fontana

    Superfine! Co-Founders James Miille (Left) and Alex Mitow (Right)

    JH: Something interesting about your fairs is that you feature emerging artists that are unrepresented by galleries. Can you talk a bit about the show's curation process? What factors go into allowing an artist to exhibit or not?

    AM: There's really no reason that artists shouldn't have the ability or desire to represent themselves if they so choose, and there's a different "perfect scenario" for every artist out there. Some do best with full-time gallery representation, some do well representing themselves with a few non-exclusive gallery shows per year, and others choose to go it alone. We provide space for any of them. We like when artists treat their careers as a professional endeavor and recognize the commercial aspect of art, but don't fall into boring and tired tropes with their work. Originality is huge, and personality is a close second. Being good at talking about your work and relating to people doesn't mean you have to be a full-on extrovert, but you have to practice and maintain a public persona that's natural and "goes" with your work. As a collector, I do like to meet the artist which is why Superfine! is such a unique opportunity. There are other artist-focused fairs, but they tend to focus on what I would call more amateur/Sunday painter style work. At Superfine! this is real, cutting-edge contemporary art, and you're talking directly to the artist.

    JH: Working with undiscovered artists allows you to be at the forefront of trends. What have you seen lately that people are responding well to or that you particularly like?

    AM: Good question! I really think that the new collector is in a lot of ways more savvy on technique than previous generations. The first time someone put minimalistic, "white square on the wall," contemporary art up in a gallery it was ground-breaking. Earth-shattering. You wanted a piece of that action, and that's what collectors were interested in - the concept. Now, I feel it's almost cyclical and back to where people want to buy artists who've really mastered their craft and technique. It's all about authenticity. I feel like hyper-realism had its day and when the concept is interesting, I'm still into it, but I'm mainly into really well executed, really topical expressionist painting. Also, textiles have been huge for the past few years, and I think that's also a return to tradition and this "tie that binds us" so to speak. 

    Superfine!

    Queen, Molly Goldfarb, 2018, Acrylics on Canvas, 18.5"x30". 

    JH: For your 2019 NYC edition, you are moving from the Meatpacking district to Soho. What else is special about this year's NYC edition?

    AM: I love being in Soho which is in many ways the birthplace of contemporary art in New York, and it's such a meeting place for all of the downtown neighborhoods. Trains mean a lot in New York and being adjacent to so many train lines is a huge boon for us, traffic-wise. I'm really excited about the curation of this fair. We commissioned Brooklyn artist Adam Chuck to create a series of micro-portraits based on the Call Me By Your Name book and movie. The project is called Call Me By Your Preferred Pronoun, and it explores the narrative of the story but through other queer identities. I think everyone loved Call Me By Your Name for what it was, but this is an extension of that that reflects more peoples' experiences. There are also some first-timers in the fair I'm really excited about: On Center Gallery in Provincetown is one, they show a really excellent mixture of work by contemporary artists with emphasis on LGBTQ+ themes, and also Andy Blank, who's presenting some really fun accessible work.

    JH: Superfine! takes special effort to showcase female and LGBTQ+ artists. Why is this so important to you?

    AM: Even in 2019, female and LGBTQ+ artists are sorely underrepresented. The typical art world has often played safe bets, which tend to be cisgendered male heterosexual artists. That's not a rule obviously, but statistics and personal experience do show that to be the case. And even when LGBTQ+ and female artists do make it big, it's like feast or famine - either they become super rich and famous, or they're stuck in the starving artist paradigm. We really want to fix that, and make the playing field more equal for all. Plus, having a rich body of experiences reflected in the artwork makes the fair all the better, so I don't feel it would be complete without the diversity.

    Superfine!

    The Little Death, Denise Adler, 2018, Mixed Media, 20"x16".

    JH: Your fair is somewhat unique in that you also offer an e-fair. How does your strategy differ between the physical fair and the e-fair? What are the strengths and weaknesses with both fair models? Were there any unexpected challenges with the e-fair that you had to overcome?

    AM: The biggest challenge with the E-Fair is teaching all of the artists and galleries how to properly submit high quality imagery and artwork data. There are some who just get it off the bat, but there's a learning curve with most. However, once they do get it and start seeing the results in the form of sales leads, they're able to repeat that over and over again. We also require all exhibitors to submit curatorial plans, and we fabricate all of the artwork tags too, so they have to submit information for that. The results of all three - e-fair, curatorial plan, and tags - are increased sales, so again once the result is seen it makes it a lot easier for everyone to get their mind around it.

    Luke Fontana

    Superfine! Director Alex Mitow

    JH: Superfine! bills itself as an affordable art fair. How do you combat the idea that good art is always expensive art? Or that affordable art is merely for decoration and not meant to be taken seriously?

    AM: I've been talking a lot about Superfine! as a fair for the market of the times, and really the market of the future. I mentioned earlier that I think artists should make at least $100,000 per year, as a benchmark. Of course, $100,000 in New York and $100,000 in Omaha are two different numbers, but you get the general idea. What Superfine! and I are trying to do is not make art cheap, but bring value and expectation to an equilibrium point.

    We really feel that artists' work should be valued and shouldn't be sold out of proportion to their own effort in either direction. The contemporary art market has operated too long without viewing its output as an actual product and surveying its audience to find out how it buys. The fact is, the market is huge. When you think of the contemporary art market as a few very rich people who are "in-the-know" it's small, but when you view it like I do, anyone can be a collector. If they're willing to buy and and just need a few things tweaked - like the art buying atmosphere, transparency factor, and the attitude of the people selling to them - then the price is what they're willing to pay. That's why the majority of transactions right now are under $5,000, it's what the larger audience is spending. And I really do believe artists can make a sustainable living selling work from the hundreds to the mid thousands. So how do we combat it? We don't really have to. Our audience is different, and what we're showing them is in line with their budgets, and the artists are happy because they're building lifelong collectors and making sales. As an artist progresses, of course they could and in many cases should be raising prices, and at that point they've built a market and their market will understand this.

    Superfine!

    Staring Venus, Bobby 40, 2018, Photograph and Acrylics, 8"x12".

    JH: What is your longterm vision for Superfine! art fairs?

    AM: I believe we're really the art fair of the future. We haven't reinvented the wheel. It's not the Museum of Ice Cream, or 29 Rooms - a selfie-moment for post-millenials. Superfine! is an art fair, a place of magic and discovery where you can find a new artist you love, build a relationship, and take their work home. Right now we're in DC, NYC, and LA. In 2020 we'll add Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco. I really feel there are no limits to the scaleability of Superfine! as a brand, and I believe we'll add 2-3 new markets each year for the next five years. Eastward expansion is on our minds too, and we're eyeing Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Australia as possibilities as well. I want people to celebrate opportunities to collect art and build a home collection that reflects their own individuality and to what extent we can spark that through Superfine!, I'm excited to do so.

    *All works of art featured in this interview are by artists exhibiting at Superfine! NY 2019 and all cost less than $3,000.

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    About the Author

    Jeremy Howell

    Jeremy Howell is the Co-Founder and Editor of Art & Object. 

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