Q&A with Photofairs Founder Scott Gray

The inaugural edition of Photofairs New York held its preview day for VIPs at the Javits Center on Thursday. After months of planning, the contemporary art fair, dedicated to photo-based works, digital art, and new media, is finally taking place only steps away from The Armory Show.

The variety of works exhibited by 56 galleries from more than 20 cities around the world included narrative photography, historical printmaking, as well as interactive installations. In addition to being the founder of Photofairs New York, Scott Gray is also the founder and CEO of the World Photography Organisation, founder of Photofairs Shanghai as well as CEO of Angus Montgomery Arts. The exhibition consultancy firm also launched the art fairs ART SG in Singapore in January, and Tokyo Gendai in July.

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In a cavernous hall, people mingle. Large abstract paintings hang on the walls in the back.

Gray spoke to ARTnews about why it was important for him have a show devoted to photo-based works and digital art in New York, the growing appetite among collectors and institutions, as well as his favorite booths.

“It’s been in the long-term in the planning to come to New York,” Gray told ARTnews. “It’s such an important market for photography, for contemporary art, New York was obviously the sort of epicentre of that. And we really, really have always felt that it deserves this kind of fair.”

Gray said the reception on the first day from the local art community, patrons, institutions and collectors who came to attend was “absolutely breathtaking”. He acknowledged that Covid-19 was one of the challenges to bringing a Photofair to New York, as well as finding the right venue in an increasingly packed international art fair calendar.

“We felt that, you know, to be on this dateline, alongside The Armory, but also what’s happening in New York this week in September, was a really important sort of area to be in,” he said.

With Photofairs New York, Angus Montgomery Arts now has 11 art fairs in its portfolio. In the years since launching Photofairs Shanghai in 2014, Gray told ARTnews a big lesson was avoiding the inclination to try and replicate one market into another. “It’s a case of saying, How do I serve that market?,” he said. “It’s not about the cookie cutter approach. What works in Tokyo is not necessarily the thing that works in Shanghai or works in Delhi, or works in New York.”

The location of the Javits Center was a “massive factor” for Gray. “We need to show it in a proper way, you know, as a proper art fair in a proper venue, and to be really out there in in a in a large way, and not be sort of ghettoized in a corner somewhere as, as the medium in itself. To really showcase the artists that are there, that artists are working in this area, or using technologies or different sort of things within their work. To do that properly, I felt it needed to be in the main venue in New York, and that’s the Javits. It was about setting all that up to make sure we could be here at the right time in the right place.”

On the issues surrounding the use of artificial intelligence in digital art and digital manipulation of images, Gray reiterated the fair’s focus on contemporary art and contemporary artists. “Artists use different mediums, different styles, different technologies, and I don’t see a problem with that,” he said. “I think one should be open with what you’re using and be proud of what you’re using and be saying, ‘This is how I’ve done it. And this is how I’ve created it.’”

“From my point of view, ideally, it would have started from the human hand at the beginning. But how one has then created their works, that’s down to the artist. That’s what makes it such an incredible medium. I think when you walk around this fair and you see all the different artworks that are on offer, across all the different sort of styles of work, it really shows the versatility of it. For me, that’s the sort of core component.”

Sustainability has become a growing topic in the art industry, but art fairs have been criticized for the amount of carbon emissions generated from long-haul flights flights, transportation of artworks by air cargo, as well as the paint, furniture, and other materials used for booths. Gray had a more optimistic view. “When those art fairs are more localized, then visitors can travel less and see more,” he said, pointing to the other art fairs happening in New York at the same time as Photofairs and The Armory Show, with several hundred galleries participating across all of them. “What a wonderful opportunity to travel once and see you know, everything that’s available.” he said.

For fair organizers like Gray, sustainability includes consideration of what kinds of vinyls and build materials are used, working with venues and suppliers, as well as figuring out how many materials and items can be reused in the future. “I think there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that we continue to use sustainable materials, but also what can we keep, store and use for next year as opposed to just replenish, replenish, replenish,” he said.

The galleries Gray mentioned from “amazing places” include PIBI Gallery from Seoul, South Korea, HackleBury Fine Art from London, as well as bitforms and Robert Mann from New York. “Such versatility within all of it, and none of it’s the same.”

Oli Kellett’s Cross Road Blues (Hubbard St. Chicago), 2017. On display at HackleBury Fine Art, London at the inaugural Photofairs New York.

Gray emphasized that the artists on display at the fair were a wide range, many of whom combined photography with sculptural works and other mediums. The price points of works on display at Photofairs New York are also meant to be more accessible to buyers, from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A pigment print from Amanda Marchand and Leah Sobsey’s This Earthen Door, on display at Rick Wester Fine Art during Photofairs New York.

One exhibition Gray made special mention of was Amanda Marchand and Leah Sobsey’s This Earthen Door, on display at Rick Wester Fine Art. The three-year project is a photographic re-working of Emily Dickinson’s herbarium, started when the poet was only 14 years old. Marchand and Sobsey’s bright pigment prints of pressed plant specimens were made using an early plant-based photographic process known as an Anthotype. The artists were able to recreate Dickinson’s flower scrapbook, which is now too delicate for private or public viewing.

Gray said This Earthen Door was an “unbelievable beautiful” example of the scope of photography on display at the fair. “It’s absolutely mind blowing,” he said. “When you scratch the surface, and you understand how that was made and how it was produced and the thinking behind it, and the context behind it and the concept, these artists are incredible.”

The inaugural edition of PHOTOFAIRS New York will take place September 8-10, 2023.

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