In November 2017, after a year serving as the deputy director of New York’s Armory Show, Nicole Berry was promoted to the role of executive director. The reason for her quick advancement is now well-known — the fair’s previous director, Benjamin Genocchio, resigned after just two years on the job, when allegations of sexual harassment surfaced. But this is a story she’d rather not dwell on, as her vision for the show is forward-looking and outward-reaching.
Before joining the Armory Show, the San Francisco-native spent five years as Expo Chicago’s deputy director, a position she came to by way of the Contemporary art department at Sotheby’s in London and stints at Nathan A. Bernstein Gallery, Vivian Horan Fine Art, and James Goodman Gallery. Through these experiences, Berry garnered a curatorial muscle that she is flexing with the introduction of a day-long Curatorial Summit helmed by the Museum of Art Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith. In an e-mail interview, Modern Painters asked Berry about her vision for the fair, her intention to encourage repeat visitors and young galleries to participate, and what she is most looking forward to in this year’s edition, which opens on March 8.
When you first joined the Armory Show, you were working to expand Focus and Platform, the curated sections of the fair. Could you speak about your vision for these sections?
Since its establishment in 2010, the Focus section remains one of the most anticipated and celebrated highlights of the Armory Show. In 2017, we successfully launched a new direction for Focus, evolving from a geographically-based section towards a thoughtfully curated presentation that reflects the global nature of the art world. The Focus curator is now charged with developing an intellectually stimulating theme that, in their view, showcases today’s most relevant and compelling artists. As we look towards the future, Focus will continue to be a pillar of the fair, and a place where we can engage new curatorial voices and push forward a critical conversation with artists and galleries. Platform debuted in 2017 as an opportunity for the fair to engage artists more directly by utilizing the fair’s vast space and showcasing works too large for booths. This has been a well-received addition to the Armory Show and allows us to commission site-specific works by some of the world’s most important artists.
In 2018, Platform will present 15 works that surprise and engage visitors. Moving forward, the vision for Platform will always be guided by veteran curators who have strong relationships with galleries and artists, as well as experience placing large-scale artwork.
You’ve invited the curators Naomi Beckwith, Jen Mergel, and Gabriel Ritter to helm these programs. What does each bring to the table, and in what ways does the combination of their voices reflect this cultural moment?
The inaugural edition of the Curatorial Leadership Summit will address cultural appropriation, censorship and representation, how curators can navigate these new challenges, and what it means for their institutions. Naomi was an obvious choice for the Summit, as she is incredibly engaged in the curatorial community, creates exhibitions that challenge viewers to be critical thinkers, and can intelligently speak to the issues at hand. When I established the Curatorial Leadership Summit, I envisioned it as a platform where relevant issues can be addressed among colleagues in a closed-door setting to allow for open and safe dialogue. Naomi is the perfect person to lead these conversations because she is not afraid to tackle these important, but often difficult issues. As the former senior curator for Contemporary Art at the MFA Boston, Jen has extensive experience developing notable site-responsive commissions and performances with artists including Sarah Braman, Liliana Porter and Shinique Smith.
With this year’s Platform, she has weaved together a dialogue between 15 artists, across generations, mediums and geographies — not an easy task. Focus allows us to expand our perspectives and engage with galleries that might not otherwise exhibit at the fair. Gabe has been an invaluable asset here — drawing artists from 18 countries, including the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Iran. Gabe’s experience within Asia has brought many new exhibitors to the fair, and we’re excited to welcome galleries like Yamamoto Gendai from Tokyo, The Drawing Room from Makati City and Empty Gallery from Hong Kong.
How do you imagine the balance between the commercial activity of the fair and its more discursive and educational programs? What does a fair context do for such programs and conversations, and in what ways do they benefit the fair?
The Armory Show is a powerful commercial environment and a place for serious collecting, and this remains a crucial part of our identity in a crowded fair market. No other fair in New York captures the volume of international and American collectors as the Armory Show, and our galleries benefit from collectors who return twice, sometimes three times to make purchases. We also have a strong relationship with American cultural institutions that attend the fair each year to make purchases for their collections.
At the same time, I understand and value that the Armory Show is more than just a place for transactions. We are, and we must remain committed to creating an environment that fosters and supports dialogue, education and exchange. To have these discussions on a deeper level makes it a richer experience for everyone and reminds us why we are here. This is crucial to remaining a relevant cultural space and to developing new collectors.
This year, you are introducing what you’ve called a “town square” area. Could you tell us about this addition? Is it responding to something you’ve felt was missing in previous editions of the fair?
This is the second edition of the Town Square area on Pier 94, however we are introducing a Town Square on Pier 92 for 2018. These spaces, which are occupied by large-scale artist projects each year, create room for pause in what can be an overwhelming experience. On Pier 92, the new Town Square will divide Focus and Insights. We created this new open space on Pier 92 in order to mirror the layout on Pier 94, thus emphasizing the notion of one unified fair for Modern and Contemporary art, instead of two separate entities.
Could you speak about the ways in which the Armory Show differently supports emerging, mid-level and established galleries? How do you seek to encourage young galleries to participate?
This is an issue that everyone in the art world is focused on — and for good reason. It is important to us, as a major international art fair, to address this issue directly, and to set the course for a fair that supports the entire gallery ecosystem. To address these challenges, we have lowered the price of participation by 30 percent for the Presents section, dedicated to galleries less than 10 years old.
We also introduced our first $10,000 Presents Booth Prize, supported by our lead partner Athena Art Finance, and awarded by an international jury of curators and collectors. Additionally, we have expanded the footprint for Focus, a more affordable area of the fair, nearly doubling the size of this section, and in turn creating many more opportunities for mid-level galleries. Lastly, Platform provides another point of entry for galleries who want to capitalize on the Armory Show’s visibility without having a booth. In these conversations, it’s crucial to remember that the function of art fairs is to introduce our galleries to new markets and new clients, to serve as an entry point and a place of connection.
Are there any Armory Show projects you are particularly excited about this year?
I am very excited that this year, for the first time, the Armory Show will present a largescale project on the fair’s front exterior. JR, known for his politically provocative works that engage industrial spaces, will present a newly commissioned work that is both relevant to the current cultural and political climate, and an example of an artist directly engaging our location in the heart of Manhattan. The fact that people will see it, driving along the West Side Highway and wonder what is going on, in addition to people who are entering the fair, that to me is a powerful point of dialogue.
This goes beyond the commercial aspect, it is about how art can impact the community. With a city like New York which has so much public art, this is our way of contributing, even if only for a five-day period. I am also excited about having Gagosian return to the fair this year with a solo presentation by Nam June Paik, an artist who is both incredibly relevant today, but also perhaps less commonly found in the art fair context. In addition, I am excited to see Tara Donovan’s work specifically created for the Pier 94 Town Square, which I think will be a focal point with its meditative and luminous qualities. Sir Richard Long’s 80-foot painting offers a contemplative and reflective space counterbalancing the excitement of the fair. At this year’s Armory Show, there is truly something for everyone.
— This interview appears in the March 2018 edition of Modern Painters.