Will an Art Fair Help Jersey City’s Artists Sell Their Wares?

If you ask a local artist why he or she participates in the annual Jersey City Artists Studio Tour, “to sell art” probably won’t be a phrase you hear very often.

“The mood is electric around Studio Tour time; everyone’s coming out and getting ready,” Jersey City-based light artist Norm Francoeur says. “But I haven’t really participated in the last few years because I need to sell my work. Showing here just doesn’t do it.”

Painter Stephanie Riggi-Sciara agrees. “I sell more at festivals than [at] the Studio Tour,” she says.

For many artists, the task of finding a place to show, preparing their studio for visitors, and spending an entire weekend gallery-sitting is a heavy burden, especially knowing that most people stopping by won’t be buying art.

“I think total, I had some twenty-odd people come to my space over the weekend, in two big groups,” says John Fathom of Rock Soup Studios, whose 5,000 square-foot loft on Grand Street was on this year’s Studio Tour bus route. “This is the third Studio Tour I’ve participated in where no one came.”

This year’s tour was especially difficult because artists were scattered all over the city in private residences, artist studios and vacant spaces, making it hard for any one venue to get a significant percentage of the foot traffic that can ultimately lead to sales. Last year an unfinished section of Canco Lofts served as the anchor point of the tour, hosting five large group shows as well as the opening reception, but this year, neither ProArts nor Jersey City’s Cultural Affairs division had any luck procuring a communal hub.

Enter the Art Fair

While the tour does provide a great opportunity for artists to show their work and engage with the community, it ultimately is not a moneymaker for many struggling to support their craft. This year Victory Arts Projects, Cultural Affairs, the Jersey City Museum and the Beacon Condominiums tried to rectify that by launching an art fair; a place for buyers to come and purchase works created by established and emerging artists.

“The specific idea for this fair came about really quickly, but a lot of people had been thinking about the need for an art fair for a long time,” explains Jim Pustorino, executive director of Victory Arts Projects and one of the event’s curators. “It grew from the community.”

Originally the Beacon had approached Cultural Affairs offering a large loft space for the tour, but when it became apparent construction wouldn’t be finished in time for the big weekend, the organizers had to switch gears.

“I said, ‘What about an art fair?'” Michelle Loughlin, the Jersey City Museum’s director of education, recalls. “The Beacon was thrilled.”

And so were the other organizers. They divided up the artwork into conceptual themes, each corresponding to one of four different condominiums at the Beacon, to best use the smaller spaces. About forty artists participated and several museum docents volunteered to mind the rooms and answer questions in the first installment of what the fair organizers hope will become an annual event. During the preview reception, artists, museum staff, and Beacon residents mingled and chatted over appetizers before heading for the elevators to see the shows.

There are many different art fairs that take place around the world, ranging from small events run by artists and municipalities to huge, internationally recognized shows that have become like art-world holidays (think of the Armory and ArtBasel). Each one has a slightly different niche or focus, but all operate under the same basic principles: sell dealers or artists a space (often like a cubicle) to show their work for the duration of the fair, make it easy for people to purchase and publicize the event to attract critics and buyers.

“It’s an event that has great potential,” Loughlin says. “I’ve lived here since 1996 and I’ve seen galleries come and go. We haven’t been able to sustain a commercial gallery so there really is need for an art fair.”

The opportunity to build community and galvanize talented artists who are based in — but often not showing in — Jersey City isn’t lost on the organizers. Neither is the potential to reunite a fractured arts scene still trying to find its footing without the support of a community arts forum.

“We want to get more people on board next year,” Loughlin explains. “We just have to keep reinventing ourselves. People still crave 111 [First St.] and the artist community is splintering … We can’t do that again, but we can do something different.”

As for sales resulting from the first Art Fair in Jersey City, the verdict is still out. No one was brokering sales between artists and buyers, so those interested in purchasing a work left their name on a sheet with the docent of the room they were in. Some of the artists say they followed up with potential buyers that night, but it will be some time before any real sales data trickles down.

Victory Arts’ Pustorino says that he was impressed by the number of real connections the show was able to make between artist and buyer.

“I think we were able to connect a little less than a quarter of the artists with someone interested in their work,” he says. “I’m very happy.”

Plans for the second Jersey City Art Fair are already starting to take shape, and the organizers are looking to other established fairs (like Affordable Art in New York City and Frieze Art in London) as potential models for the future. They are optimistic that the quality of work being produced in Jersey City will be enough to draw regional and perhaps even national buyers to the area, though it will take a lot of work and community support to get the endeavor off the ground.

“We’re not begging to be seen, we’re already here,” Loughlin says. “It takes the community, storefronts, businesses, hotels to get involved, and that’s what needs to happen. If everyone acted like the Beacon, we’d be in great shape.”

More photos from the Art Fair:

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Irene Borngraeber

an artist, art historian, and writer. She has worked in museums in the U.S. and abroad, covered the New York art scene for ArtVoices magazine and is currently the Executive Director for the Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City.