The girl hanging over the motel balcony is a picture of Northwest cool: jet-black bangs, piercings in her eyebrows and lips, and more ink on her shoulders and arms than you’d find in an alternative printing press. She’s calling to somebody downstairs, a guy who looks like a rock star-no, wait, he is a rock star, he’s just coming off rehearsal for tonight’s gig at the Doug Fir Lounge next door-and she’s yelling at him to come up, come up right now to her room, because the art is so cool. The art is so cool. The guy, he’s lost now in eddies of black-clad hipsters channeling through the courtyard, and the girl, she’s waving in his general direction, trying to find him, but now she’s caught up too in the soft migration from one end of the overlook to the other, amidst a woman wearing Bulgari and a man with an unrecognizable accent, and another man with very large eyeglasses who is shepherding a very large bag through the throng. It is September in Portland, Ore., and the art is so cool.
The scene just described transpired in September of last year, but it’s typical of the sort of tableaux that play out and etch themselves into the memory every year at the “Affair at the Jupiter Hotel,” for this is an unlikely sort of art fair where milieus commingle and multiple agendas-sales, positioning, networking, collaboration-tend to converge rather than compete.
This will be the fourth year for the “Affair” (running September 14 -16), which Portland curator Jeff Jahn describes as “not just a naked exercise in commerce, but an art fair with a soul.” Forty galleries will take part, including a baker’s dozen from the Northwest and the remainder hailing from locales as disparate as New York City, Toronto, Dallas, Boston, Oakland, San Francisco, Boise, Albuquerque, and Orlando. Each exhibitor sets up shop in a ground-floor or second-story room at the retro-hip Jupiter Hotel, a former motor court that has emerged from decades of seedy decline into the glow of minimalist chic, all white walls and blue neon, with an open courtyard prized among fair attendees for what Jahn terms its “ample oxygen and vistas on which to see and be seen.” Located on the funkily charming east side of the Willamette River, which divides Portland in half, the venue affords a glossy yet convivial atmosphere conducive to elbow-rubbing, cocktailing, and, lest one forget, selling art.
Affair at the Jupiter Hotel is the brainchild of Stuart Horodner, who founded it in 2004 and has served as co-organizer along with Portland gallery owner Laurel Gitlen since 2005. Currently exhibitions and education director at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Horodner hatched the idea for the Affair after he was laid off from his erstwhile curatorial position with the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, a layoff precipitated by funding woes common in a city blessed with a thriving artist culture but cursed with an anemic collector base. As Horodner tells it, these factors spurred him “to bring the mountain to Mohammed”-to import a varied cadre of galleries for a three-day fair in order to introduce Northwest artists to national collectors, and vice versa. “It was an attempt,” he says, “to say to colleagues around the country: ‘Come to Portland,’” and to create a conduit for dialogue between artists within and without the Northwest. In so doing, he aimed “to help the community raise itself by its bootstraps and get it to be more communicative with other cities.”
In 2004 as now, there was a calibrated mix of galleries from the Northwest and elsewhere, and an equally well-considered ratio of established galleries to up-and-comers. According to Horodner, attendance in 2004 was around 3,000, with the majority of sales scored by Portland galleries-“which was interesting, given that people could have gone to those galleries any day of the week.”
In 2005, conversely, when attendance increased modestly to 3,500, there were higher sales among out-of-towners, while in 2006, with another bump up to 4,000 fair-goers, the split was roughly even, a proportion Horodner hopes will hold.
“Art fairs are always about location,” says Elizabeth Leach, whose eponymous gallery ranks among Portland’s most prestigious. “It’s that old adage, ‘location, location, location,’ and the Affair’s location is in a city that is developing a market for art as opposed to a city that has already developed a market for art. So it’s perfect for creating opportunities for local audiences to see art they might not otherwise see-and it’s an instance of the arts fueling the economy: bringing people to Portland, they book hotel rooms, they eat in our restaurants, and so on.”
A continent and a world away from the sell-or-die hothouses of Art Basel Miami Beach and the Armory Show, the “Affair” is by all reports a mixed bag when it comes to sales. Seattle’s Greg Kucera Gallery is participating this year for the third year in a row, yet Kucera reports that “we have yet to sell something to a client at the Affair who we didn’t already know before the Affair… We remain ever hopeful of developing a larger client base.” His goal this year for the gallery “is to meet some new collectors and feel like we’ve plowed some new territory.” Because the price for an exhibition room is low ($1,500 to $2,500 for commercial galleries), some dealers view the weekend more as long-term investment than short-term revenue raiser. New York dealer Barry Neuman’s art consultantship, Modern Culture, participated in the Affair’s 2004 and 2006 outings and will be returning this year. He finds the Affair “a rare and welcome opportunity to be part of a developing and growing market,” and while he declined to disclose specific sales figures he confirms that Modern Culture fared better in 2006 than 2004. “The significance of the revenue that’s generated during an art fair isn’t always straightforward,” he adds, since the payoff often comes via “follow-up opportunities in the 6- to 24-month interval afterwards.” Neuman also points to hard-to-quantify opportunities such as the Roberta Bayley photography show to which he gave over his Jupiter space last year. During the course of the fair, Portland dealer Bob Kochs of Augen Gallery saw Bayley’s photos, took to them, and made arrangements to mount a show for the artist this September.
In another Affair tie-in, Kochs also began carrying work by Gen X minimalist Scott Ingram as a result of meeting Ingram and seeing his work in Solomon Projects’ room at the Jupiter. These casual convergences that lead to partnerships are far from the only points of added value above and beyond exhibitors’ bottom lines. Each year, organizers invite a handful of arts nonprofits to attend for free in order to add a non-commercial perspective to the meta-discourse among participants and attendees. In its second year, the Affair sponsored a benefit for the Portland Art Museum, proceeds of which allowed Northwest art curator Jennifer Gately to purchase two works for the Museum from two galleries exhibiting at the fair. In addition, Horodner and Gitlen have brought in noted figures to lecture and participate in panel discussions during the Affair’s run, among them Larry Rinder, Saul Ostrow, Hamza Walker, and, this year, curator Tina Kukielski from the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Affair’s leadership has commissioned multiples from conceptual artist Harrell Fletcher, photographer Marne Lucas, and video/installation artist Joe Sola. This year’s “bonus content” is twofold: a survey of fanciful figurative drawings by psy-folk rocker Devendra Banhart and a book to be titled Doing Business, which will include reminiscences and mementos from Affair participants about their experiences on the frontier of art and commerce.
The Affair’s complement of hustle and beneficence, carried out in a uniquely convivial setting, is one of its strongest suits and perhaps its most potent influence on other fairs. Its 2004 debut so impressed Seattle artists Jaq Chartier and Dirk Park that they undertook, with Horodner’s blessing, to use it as a model for a new fair they envisioned as a fresh satellite of Art Basel Miami Beach. The new fair came to fruition; it was called “Aqua;” and it was a hit, a big hit, among power-walking cognoscenti drawn to the cozy mise-en-scène: a dusting of Northwest bonhomie amidst the salsa beats and haute couture of South Beach. Back in Portland, the fair that helped make Aqua such a big splash remains resolutely intimate. Some dealers have called for the Affair to grow and accept more galleries, but Horodner insists: “We haven’t really wanted to expand it. My priority is to guarantee that the people who come do business. Only if the audience of collectors expands exponentially would I expand it, if I were to expand it at all.” For now, he says, he is happy with the Affair’s “almost familial scale: it’s like being at a great dinner party where a lot of the guests wind up doing business together after the party’s done.”