The Dallas Art Fair, now in its eleventh year, has had new directors in place since last year, and so it’s natural that we might have expected some shifts to occur — first-time galleries making an appearance, a different distribution of “the better” booths, a slightly different vibe opening night, and so forth. But one shift in particular seems puzzling, if not unsettling, in terms of what it signals about the direction of the fair. Talley Dunn Gallery — one of Dallas’ most high-profile commercial spaces, and one that for the first ten years of the fair held steady in the same prime booth location — was notably absent this year.
It’s a strange disappearance, as least psychologically for Texas art people, because I think there was something reassuring and even validating about Dunn’s big, shiny presence at the fair, in that ultra-visible spot. Dunn’s gallery consistently showed great work, whether by artists from the region or blue-chip works by international artists, and its installations were always polished. The gallery’s heightened presence at the fair was one sure signal to local and visiting collectors and exhibitors that the commercial scene in Dallas indeed operates at a respectable level.
Dunn had no intention of skipping the fair this year. Late last summer, when her gallery received the invitation email from the fair’s organizers to participate in 2019, her gallery replied that it would participate, and requested its usual booth, which has always included the booth’s long outside wall that faces the fair’s central staircase. The wall is a prime showcase for art and greets anyone ascending the stairs. Over the years, Dunn has often programmed it ambitiously and expensively, on her own dime, for the benefit of her artists and with an intrinsic understanding of the Dallas Art Fair’s evolving demographic.
According to Dunn, and verified in emails reviewed by Glasstire, the fair organizers confirmed via email she could return to her booth. They also informed her of a price increase on the booth, and indicated that she would no longer have access to the booth’s outside showcase wall. The fair attached a contract for the booth to this email.
In November of 2018, Dunn had a meeting she describes as “uncomfortable” with the fair’s new director, Brandon Kennedy, about these new terms. Because the wall had always been associated with her space, she was concerned that if the wall was programmed by someone else, it could confuse fairgoers or even misrepresent her gallery. Kennedy told her the wall may or may not be available to her; he wasn’t sure yet because he was exploring ideas for alternate programming for the wall. She asked for time to think about the new terms, and he agreed to give her time. He indicated that he’d like an answer sometime in December, but didn’t give her a deadline.
By December 13, contract in hand, Dunn, via email, confirmed that the gallery would participate and agreed to the price increase on the booth, and also circled back to the subject of her gallery’s use of the outside wall. The day after she sent that email, Kennedy told her the booth had been given to another gallery. Prior to this date, he hadn’t indicated to her that her time was up, or warned her that the booth would be offered to anyone else. Presumably, two different galleries were holding a contract for the same booth at the same time.
Dunn immediately questioned the loss of her booth. She was told that she could have another booth at the fair — a proposal which she declined.
Dunn has always paid a lot for her booth at the Dallas Art Fair, and she has always been there. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that, over time, she’s been one of the biggest, if not the biggest, customers of the Dallas Art Fair. Dallas galleries often do well at the fair, sales-wise, and Dunn has regularly made sales in the six figures there. So given her consistent presence, I also don’t think that it’s a stretch to imagine that she’s also sold more art at the Dallas Art Fair than most, if not all, exhibitors over the years.
But new leadership brings change. Two years ago, the fair’s co-founder and director Chris Byrne stepped down after nine years at its helm. Byrne, a smart, smooth guy with an arguably spiky personality, had cultivated quite a good, intimate, boutique art fair in a quirky downtown building. It spoke to his networking strengths, which meant attracting national and international exhibitors while staying sensitive to local politics and a tight-knit Dallas art community. Local galleries have always had a presence at the fair, and Byrne’s unlikely mix of regional and international exhibitors, as the fair became more established, was growing more compelling by the year. It didn’t feel like every other destination fair — it felt warmer and more personal, even as the fair grew and Byrne could afford to be more discriminating about whom he invited.
In 2010, Byrne responded to an article in D Magazine about the fair (full disclosure: the article was written by my husband). Byrne argued in favor of including regional dealers, writing: “As for the inclusion of Texas galleries and dealers, their presence guarantees an important segment of the local and regional audience. (Again, why have a fair in Dallas that is indistinguishable from any other fair in the country?) The danger of trying to put together the ‘ideal’ art fair is that unless it becomes a meaningful experience for the attending audience, it is only a hollow and self-congratulatory exercise for the organizers.”
When Byrne departed in 2018, two locals, Kelly Cornell and Brandon Kennedy, were appointed to co-direct the fair. Cornell had been promoted over the years from within the fair’s ranks. Kennedy, a local fixture on the art scene, came in after several years of working for auction houses in Dallas. John Sughrue, the fair’s chairman and co-founder, stayed on after Byrne’s departure.
Sughrue had always deferred decision-making about exhibitors to Byrne, and this policy remained with Kennedy, whose title as the fair’s co-director is more precisely Exhibitor Relations. Dunn’s conversations were held almost exclusively with Kennedy as the situation with her gallery unfolded. Kennedy is the one who first visited Dunn’s gallery to discuss the increased price on the booth, and the uncertain availability of the outside wall. After Dunn agreed to participate at the increased price, via email, Kennedy returned to the gallery the next day to tell her in person that the booth had been given to another exhibitor.
As a new director, Kennedy should be expected to have his own ideas about what makes for a good art fair, and which exhibitors he’d like to bring in. Kennedy is certainly not allergic to Dallas galleries; there are ten local booths in the fair this year. There were ten last year, and ten the year before that, under Byrne — it’s not always the same ten, but it’s a steady number.
When I spoke to Kennedy about Talley Dunn’s absence at this year’s fair, he emphasized not only the pressure the fair is under to meet the demands of exhibitors, but the evolution of the fair itself. He also said how much the fair values Dunn’s participation in the fair over the years, and that the fair would love to have her back. He indicated several times that the fair offered Dunn another booth, and in reviewing emails, Glasstire can confirm this is so.
But if you’re wondering if Dunn’s booth going to an international exhibitor (which it did) is a matter of high demand on tight fair real estate, consider that the exhibitor number this year declined. From its high count in 2016 of 96 exhibitors, the 2019 fair weighs in at 94 art exhibitors (as distinct from, say, a Taschen book booth, which is not included on an exhibitor list).* We know the fair can (and has) consistently accommodated 90-plus exhibitors, space-wise, since at least 2014. The building that hosts the fair, nicknamed the FIG building (which stands for Fashion Industry Gallery) is tight, and rumors of the fair moving to a larger space have circulated for years. It’s hard not to wonder if, last year, one reason Sughrue extended the fair’s lease on the FIG building is because the fair doesn’t need more space. As of now, it seems to have stopped growing.
Of course, galleries come and go from fairs, and their reasons vary — though we assume that if an exhibitor has done well at a fair, or started to make headway with regional collectors and institutions, they feel it’s worth it to return. In a media interview ahead of last year’s fair, Kennedy name-checked some galleries he seemed proud to have brought in for 2018: Lyles & King (NY), Richard Saltoun (London), Edward Ressle (NY), and Shulamit Nazarian (LA). None of these galleries returned for 2019. This would be the first year that non-returning galleries are making this decision with Kennedy at the helm. Exhibitor retention for the Dallas Art Fair has always been somewhat spotty, but certainly not terrible: notable galleries Marlborogh, KARMA, Perrotin, Night Gallery, CANADA and Simon Lee keep coming back. And some heavy hitters seem willing to give to give the Dallas Art Fair a go for the first time: Lisson, Blain|Southern, and Sadie Coles HQ are all here from London this year.
But if the fair displaces longstanding galleries with newcomers who don’t return after a year or two, what would lure back the loyal-but-spurned galleries? As one prominent gallerist said to me about the fair (concerning Dunn’s usual spot going to another gallery): “Dance with the one that brung ya.”
Last year, the fair hosted Luhring Augustine, Paul Kasmin, and Casey Kaplan — all big, non-local names, none of whom returned. For that matter, there were more doubled-up exhibitor booths this year than in prior years, where two galleries occupy one booth. In other words, there’s room at the fair. It seems that Dunn could have occupied her usual booth even while the fair accommodates newcomers. If Kennedy hoped or planned to give the prime booth normally occupied by Dunn to an international gallery, could he have not told her so from the beginning?
Of course, that brings up questions about booth location. Every fair has prime spots and bum spots. The booth Dunn has occupied for ten years, labeled A1, is arguably the best booth at the fair. When Kennedy offered Dunn another spot (not enthusiastically, according to her), it’s natural that she would hesitate to take him up on it.
Galleries get attached to their booths at fairs, including this fair, for good reason. From international galleries (Marlborough Contemporary of London/New York) to local ones (Cris Worley; Conduit; Valley House), galleries often stick with their booths, year after year, even when they’re in less visible areas of a fair’s layout (Dallas’ PDNB comes to mind), so that returning collectors know where to find them. And in a sea of art fair chaos and burnout, repeat booths are familiar landing spots for a gallery’s family of followers. Expecting Dunn to move after ten years in one spot — and to find her a different booth by bumping another gallery, which is what Sughrue offered Dunn in a late December email — is an ugly offer. No gallerist I know would argue with that.
But Kennedy, evidently, wanted a named international gallery in the booth Dunn has traditionally occupied. Because dealers generally don’t talk about how much they pay for their booths at art fairs, the typical rumors about the most glamorous international galleries paying the least to participate — especially if their presence boosts a smaller fair’s image — pervades this fair, heavily, and always has. I don’t know any gallerist who believes that Gagosian paid anything to exhibit at the Dallas Art Fair in 2017. (It did not return. The Dallas Art Fair has confirmed that Gagosian paid for the booth.)
Kennedy and the Dallas Art Fair may well want to change the profile of the fair by increasing the fair’s number of non-local galleries, but it seems they could be more straightforward about this with Dallas galleries they disinvite or displace. Ro2 Art, an eclectic Dallas gallery that enjoyed a run of several years at the fair with an unconventional booth, under Byrne, has disappointingly not been invited back to the fair since his departure. According to Ro2’s Jordon Roth, last year he was told his gallery could participate in 2019, and yet earlier this year that offer was rescinded.
On Thursday, the day the fair opened to the press and VIPs, Dunn opened three new shows at her own uptown space, and it felt more like an all-day event than a standard opening. In an interesting move, Dunn invited the Houston-based veteran conceptual artist Bill Davenport, known for his wry, scrappy work, to mount a big outdoor project in her gallery’s courtyard. He built a big firework stand from which to sell his “junk” (his art). Indoors she opened a solo show by LA-based Analia Saban (who has a different body of work currently on view at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), and a big group show of editioned works by the likes of Carroll Dunham, John Baldessari, Louise Nevelson, Vija Celmins, Fred Wilson, and Richard Serra.
Texas, as a discrete section of the “art world,” isn’t so discrete anymore. The presence and reputations of Texas artists are growing by the year in this plugged-in, well-traveled era. Among Dunn’s represented artists are names who are in demand not only at home, but increasingly, further afield: Margarita Cabrera, Francesca Fuchs, Natasha Bowdoin… . The local isn’t so local anymore. In weighing the risk of alienating a longtime exhibitor in favor of an international one, the Dallas Art Fair may have put its thumb on the wrong side of the scale.
*Corrected from an earlier version of this story, which stated 84 exhibitors for 2019.