By Ann Binlot
Volta, the fair was one of the pioneers of the solo booth, opens today in New York at Pier 90 for its 11th edition, which runs through March 11. Eighty-five galleries from four continents and 48 cities — including Lena & Roselli Gallery from Budapest, Richard Koh Fine Art from Kuala Lumpur and Galleria Bianconi from Milan — will exhibit work by artists — Aubrey Levinthal, Bruno Miguel, Cheryl Pope and more — from 32 countries. The fair tapped Mickalene Thomas and Racquel Chevremont to co-curate The Aesthetics of Matter, the Volta’s curated section. I quizzed Volta’s co-founder and artistic director Amanda Coulson on the fair’s target market, the collaboration with Thomas and Chevremont, and the difference between the New York and Basel editions.
Who is Volta’s target market collector-wise?
Volta is a fair for collectors who are looking to make discoveries. I do not believe that limits us to a particular age group or type, but rather to a type of person, who trusts in their gut and is prepared to take a risk on an artist who might not be on the front cover of Artforum … yet. The thing is: if you look at our track record, we have had a lot of very well-known artists at the fair long before they were household names.
How did the collaboration with Mickalene and Raquel come about?
I’m always looking for curators who will broaden the dialogue and diversify what we have on offer at the fair and also our audience. I live in the Caribbean and—coming back to the “first world” and being around the art scene—it’s always really striking to me how many people are still excluded. This doesn't always have to mean race, but gender and sexuality are also topics of discussion. As a result, fairs tend to be pretty “safe” places artistically because it’s tough selling edgy work, so I’m always hoping the curators will bring some strong positions. Mickalene, Racquel and I have known each other for a while socially and professionally, and I knew that through teaching and other efforts they had a great network. Mickalene, funnily enough, has a loyal collector who not only lives in my (very small) town but is also the mother-in-law of a longtime Volta exhibitor from Mexico (it's really a small world!). Mickalene also had a show with Kavi—one of Volta’s co-founders—several years ago and while I was in Chicago I got to know Racquel better. So we’ve all crossed paths a lot and liked each other, which is always the first step toward a collaboration! After Derrick Adams worked with us for the first Curated Section in 2016, he suggested we approach Mickalene and Racquel, so I did, but they were too busy for the following year but suggested a possibility for 2018. We met up in Basel this past summer to discuss it and it was looking very good and, finally, at Prospect New Orleans (over an extremely heavy breakfast) we gave it the green light.
What kinds of galleries show at Volta? How do you select them?
We like to work with what we term “mother galleries.” What does that mean? Well, as artists mature in their position and gain success through institutional shows and whatnot, they may need several galleries to grow this success, in different parts of the world. Some galleries have amazing rosters, but they actually were not the gallery who supported all those artists at the beginning of their careers… that was some other guy, i.e. the “mother gallery.” After you’ve done Volta (or NADA or Pulse) a few times, its quite likely another, larger gallery, will take notice, swoop in, and take one of your artists; that's fine and all part of the eco-system—and if you are lucky your artist stays loyal and you will benefit (though that does not always happen). I remember one year there was a massive solo project booth at a huge, very prestigious fair and the representing gallery had not even had a solo show with that artist yet. Meanwhile the artist’s “mother gallery”—the one who saw them through the early stages of their career and who had held three solo shows with them already and taken them to several fairs—did not get into that same main fair. Clearly a gallery like that is not being rejected for its program because their artist—the one they discovered—is in the main fair, but for a myriad of other reasons. Those may well make good sense for that main fair, for its brand, etc, but we feel it's important for those galleries to have a platform to represent the artists they have worked with and continue to do so.
You pioneered the solo booth at art fairs. Can you tell us about that and why it works?
When we brought Volta to New York in 2008, there were far fewer fairs on the calendar but our goal for differentiating ourselves from the crowd was vital all the same. As a partner fair to The Armory, I tried to really think about what we could do that would be complementary, that would add something, and not just be another 500 artists to consume. With a practically a dozen satellite art fairs taking place now during these major Art Week events, alongside strong regional fairs every several weeks, the threat of “fair-tigue” is very real. Hence the importance of disavowing overhung, “everything and the kitchen sink” booths in favor of streamlined, thoughtful, focused, dare I say “curated and exhibition-like” booths. To be honest, it's always a hard sell to the dealer, considering the risk involved with showing just one artist versus a dozen, but it works. The audience loves it because it's actually a pleasant experience rather than a daunting one.
How does Volta stand out in a calendar full of fairs?
Considering how crowded the art fair calendar is now, a fair of solo projects — whether by, say, an established artist with vast institutional history, like Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian (Volta NY 2015 w/ Haines Gallery, San Francisco) or Véra Molnar (presented by Oniris, Rennes, at our upcoming edition), or any number of talented emerging artists we show — is simply easier to take in, contemplate, digest, and discourse upon. So I think that makes us stand out, definitely, from the pack.
How is the Basel edition differ from the New York edition?
Basel is simply a different animal from New York. Beyond the season difference (though our proximity to the Alps has caused some unpredictable weather patterns in the past — Basel’s “dramatic” skies are truly a sight to be seen), the rhythm and flow of the fairs and that fair week is very different. Basel has always been smaller (except for one pre-renovated Markthalle year, nearly a decade ago!) and extremely DIY. It is nonunion so such activities as my team hanging directional signage off a scissor-lift or painting over scuffed up walls while I collect discarded rubbish and schlep furniture from points A to B have all occurred at past Volta Basel fairs. Within the fairs themselves are some broad-strokes respective identities: New York is solo-format and tends to be extremely international, though with a healthy contingent of American galleries. As a city, there is a large critical mass of curators, journalists and people who can't necessarily travel, so it is not as “market oriented.” Basel is a small high-net worth Swiss city so it attracts a high number of serious and committed collectors. We allow ore than one artists per booth there but are very serious about the “curated, thematic” booth, even though more and more galleries opt for solo and two-artist presentations (usually half to two-thirds of Volta Basel booths). The Basel lineup skews a bit more European (specifically due to conflicting dates of certain fairs and major evens, Volta Basel tends to have more Spanish galleries than Volta NY) but remains quite international.
What’s in store for the 2018 edition of Volta New York?
Of course the 85 international galleries within the main section and their solo artist projects — the “guts” of the fair — and also the aforementioned Curated Section, The Aesthetics of Matter. In addition to these major draws, we will unveil the third iteration of the Video Wall programming, a daily series of artist videos screened on a 30-foot wall within the front lounge of the fair. Plus I am very excited about a new activation by my team, #FREE4FAM, a morning of family programming at the fair, featuring partnered institutions Children’s Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, and Cooper-Hewitt. This will further activate our social outreach and continues our mission in challenging the standard and being the best thing an art fair can be.
Why should collectors make an effort to visit Volta?
Fist of all because it's actually a reasonably enjoyable experience, as fairs go. Let’s face it, endless corridors of art can be tiring just to think about, but if you have a reduced number of galleries (most major fairs have more than 85 galleries!) and all showing one artist, you know going in that its going to be a slower pace, a more reasonable expectation of engagement. The dealers are focusing on one artist so you’ll be able to have a really in-depth conversation about their artist’s practise and—in many cases—because it’s a solo presentation—the artist is actually there, in the booth, happy to engage as well. So it can be like a mini studio visit and I think that makes it special.
What are Volta’s biggest milestones since you founded it?
One of the first was when our now-parent organization MMPI, decided to buy us along with Art Chicago and The Armory Show. To be included in such company—when we were only 3 years old—was a very big deal for us. Aside from the acknowledgment of what we were doing, it also relieved our personal financial situation since, up to that point, Volta was all underwritten personally. Seeing the first Volta gallery being accepted into Art Basel—and then others to Frieze, etc.—was also a major moment for us. Then hitting the 10 year mark in Basel and our own decade edition in New York last year, I'd say those were all golden moments.