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All is Fair

A site-specific instillation at the downtown library.

The fourth annual echo Art Fair comes to the downtown library

A funny thing happened during the preparation for this year’s echo Art Fair. In order to hoist up the walls of a few dozen specially made booths to the second floor of the Buffalo Public Library, organizers required a crane. But, between the constructions at the medical campus, the renovations at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the construction at Harborcenter, and several other locations, there was no crane to be found. I guess you could say it was a pretty novel predicament for Buffalo.

“We were pulling our hair out for a week trying to figure out how to deal with this,” says Frits Abell, founder and producer of the echo Art Fair.

Abell and his organizers ultimately found a free crane in Niagara Falls, after wondering if they’d have to truck one up from the depths of Pennsylvania.

“As long as the artists and dealers have booths and the electricity is working and the doors are open, everything else is icing on the cake” Abell says.

To Abell, the echo Art Fair, a juried fine art exposition, is a needed addition to Buffalo’s art scene. Inspired by Art Basel, an international arts fair that is held in Basel Switzerland, Miami, and Hong Kong, echo is focused on fine art: sculpture, painting, photography, and mixed media primarily. The fair, which launched four years ago, is different than Art Basel in many ways, though. For one, local artists are side by side with art dealers and galleries; a situation that enables the art fair to exist but has also lead to some antagonism.

Echo has not stopped growing, though with more artists and galleries coming from outside the area than ever before. This year will be the largest to date, with over 100 artists participating in the two day fair, 10am to 6pm this Saturday and Sunday. The festivities kick off on Friday with a full day of VIP tours, a VIP preview party and the Coup d’état Dance Party, hosted by design collective Only Comrades at 10pm. There will be workshops, panel discussions, and tours of site-specific installations throughout the fair as well. For more information visit

This week we talked to Abell about how echo successfully mixes independent local artists and the big galleries at one of Buffalo’s cultural hubs, the Downtown Public Library.

Artvoice: Who is your audience for this art fair?

Frits Abell: We’re trying to reach everyone from people who know nothing about art to people who like art but don’t own any art, all the way up to people who have major collections. We’re really interested to help expand the dialogue around fine art in Buffalo and beyond.

AV: You’ve lived in New York City for 20 years. Did you stay pretty familiar with the Buffalo art scene throughout that time?

FA: No. I left here in 1990, and I had absolutely no designs to come back. I would visit Buffalo maybe once a summer, twice a summer. Maybe go to an art show. I would follow to a certain degree what the Albright Knox and the Burchfield were doing, but I was really ensconced in New York. When I started to really come back four years ago, it was really eye opening. There was so much I didn’t know was here. I was blown away by how pervasive art was and is throughout Buffalo. It’s always been in the fabric of Buffalo but I feel like it’s ubiquitous now.

AV: What trends do you see emerging in the Buffalo arts scene?

FA: The second year [of the echo Art Fair], when we had an increased participation and an acceptance of out-of-town galleries, we got some pushback. People felt like it should just be an art fair for Western New York artists. Since then I would say people have become much more receptive to outsiders, and not feeling as threatened or territorial. I think that’s really healthy. I think it adds perspective, I think it brings freshness, I think it helps the artists in echo, and not in echo, to grow. That’s one trend. The second trend is I see artists like Shasti O’Leary-Soudant. Last year she sold out her entire booth, she had two or three commissions on top of that and she got into a major show in Toronto. I see artists who have gotten visibility through echo and gotten gallery representation. Artists are starting to see echo as a launching pad. Accordingly, I see artists who are taking themselves and their work much more seriously and seeing that it can be a viable option as a career. That was my intent in launching echo: to help local artists and non-local artists in a commercial way.

AV: What is the process like for a first time artist to get involved in echo?

FA: Well first of all, echo is one of the only art fairs that actually admits independent artists. Most art fairs only admit dealers, and they’re selected. Like Basel, you don’t get to apply to Basel and it’s mostly blue chip galleries. So we’re one of the only fairs that actually allow independent artists to submit. First, it’s assembling the materials needed to apply. Second, it’s paying attention that they’re putting their best foot forward. We encourage artists to show things that haven’t been seen in the market. We encourage them to put forth bodies of work that are cohesive. Also, be prepared to be rejected, but apply next year because there is a different jury each year. Assuming an artist gets in the fair, it’s really about honing their presentation, because they want to create an experience for people who visit their booth. Think about pricing. Know what your art is worth.

AV: What does it mean to the collectors and artists involved for this fair to include dealers and independent artists?

FA: Well that’s a good question. We got a lot of pushback from the Toronto galleries who participated after the second fair. They didn’t like that they were positioned near independent artists. In their mind, being a gallery is of a certain level. They also see artists who are having direct sales there, and inherently their role as a dealer is threatened. A lot of them have not come back to participate and I think that has a lot to do with it. Galleries in this area: they’re ok with it; they get it. I think it’s a really interesting question because you have someone like Nina Freudenheim. She’s not in the fair this year but Nina has been a venerable dealer in this area for 40 years. She’s very well respected in New York City too. So when you walk into Nina’s space, you have a certain level of understanding of the quality of artists that she’s working with and that they’re at a certain stature in their career; whereas you also have a place like 464 Gallery on Amherst that is working with much more emerging artists who are fresh off the ground. It’s an interesting relationship and in Buffalo they seem to co-exist and they can co-exist at echo. I can say in other markets that would not happen. In New York City it would only be dealers.

AV: How important was it to include the independent artists?

FA: It was vital. We don’t have enough galleries in Buffalo that are representing artists. Part of what I love about Buffalo is that its art is so accessible and it’s very DIY. But then there is also room for it grow, so that there is more representation. I am candid but I’m not concealed about the fact that I’m also a business partner at BT&C Gallery, Anna Kaplan’s new gallery, which is over on Niagara. I’m just her business partner on it, she’s really doing the curating and all of that, but where we had a meeting of the minds is there needs to be more of the Nina Freudenheim-style of representation. Anna is working with five artists and it is going to be a multi-year engagement with them where she’s working on not only building their audience and collector base here, but in other markets. That continuous, consistent representation is needed.

AV: At the same time, it must be easier to exist as an independent artist now than in any other time in the past.

FA: Absolutely. The Internet has obviously facilitated that, especially sites like Etsy. While it has made it more democratic, that might also be reason why people might be more interested in galleries, because it means that there has been some vetting. With that added democracy is more noise. A lot of people buy art for investment reasons. It’s like buying a stock. If you bought Jacob Kassay in Buffalo seven years ago for $600, his paintings are selling for $400,000 in New York and you can’t even buy them, it’s only museums. He’s a Buff State graduate. The art market is a $50 billion dollar a year market. Some people think I’m just this big capitalist and I’m turning Buffalo’s scene into a commercial capital thing, but I don’t want that. What I’d like to see is Buffalo to be a player in the market and for people to think of Buffalo’s market seriously, and part of that is going to demand a certain level of professionalism.

AV: What do you see for the future of this event?

FA: I’d like to take it to other cities and to make the anchor event here deeper, richer, and more extensive.

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