D.C.’s Fair Share: a Q&A with the organizers of (e)merge

The (e)merge art fair (September 22 - 25, 2011) -- founded and organized by Conner Contemporary Art co-directors Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith, as well as by Helen Allen, founder and former director of Pulse -- officially opens its doors tonight at the Morris Lapidus-designed Capitol Skyline Hotel in Washington, D.C.. The focus of the fair is on emerging artists, but not just those arriving via their dealers and gallerists. Nearly half of the approximately 80 exhibitors will be unrepresented artists vetted by a selection committee that included White Columns director Matthew Higgs, megacollector Mera Rubell of the Rubell Family Collection, among other art professionals. Which practically guarantees that (e)merge won’t be another big-box art fair. Earlier this week I caught up with the organizers of (e)merge, no doubt very busy with last minute preparations, to talk about the concept behind their project. Our conversation after the jump. - Matthew Smith, DC Contributor

The Capital Skyline Hotel, site of the (e)merge art fair. Image courtesy of (e)merge.

Matthew Smith: How did (e)merge come about?

(e)merge: The (e)merge art fair grew organically out of the DC art scene. Since 2001, Leigh Conner and Jamie Smith have presented an annual MFA/BFA exhibition called “Academy” at their gallery, Conner Contemporary Art. Smith and Conner met Helen Allen in 2005, when she founded the Pulse art fair. The three discovered that they share an interest in new ways to encourage emerging art. A few years ago, Helen initiated the Pulse Presents prize, which awards exhibition space to Academy artists each year at Pulse Miami. Last year, for the 10th Academy show, Conner Contemporary Art launched a panel discussion series on emerging art called “(e)merge.” The panels immediately generated excitement in D.C. When Smith and Conner talked to Allen about this dynamic, and how it corresponds to what’s going on with emerging art internationally, the idea came together for the (e)merge art fair.

MS: What makes it different from other fairs that feature emerging artists?

E: (e)merge is the only art fair to provide free exhibition space to vetted projects by unrepresented artists. Other fairs either do not allow artists to exhibit without a gallery representing them, or charge artists exhibition fees. Unlike pop-up artist exhibitions, our artist projects were reviewed and selected by a team of experts including artist Nico Vascellari, collector Mera Rubell and curators Kristen Hileman and Matthew Higgs. The artists will exhibit along with galleries and nonprofits at the fair, in a relaxed hotel setting. Our goal is to make a place in D.C. for experimentation and discovery, where new connections can form among professionals engaged with emerging art here and around the world.

(e)merge is also the first art fair in the U.S. to feature a virtual art fair originating from a physical fair, connecting global art lovers with the latest developments in emerging art.

MS: Why is it important for you to give a venue like this to unrepresented artists?

E: We’ve been dedicated to helping unrepresented artists, through the (e)merge panel discussions we’ve presented for over a year now. We know that in order to have a strong art community in D.C., and for emerging art to have a future anywhere, unrepresented artists need support and exhibition opportunities. It can be difficult for an artist to find gallery representation at the outset of a career. For some artists, gallery representation may not be a good fit. Unrepresented artists have a lot to contribute to the art world and many are making powerful work, which we are excited about demonstrating at the (e)merge art fair.

MS: Are there particular challenges or opportunities that result from working in the Capitol Skyline Hotel?

E: A hotel isn’t a white box gallery space, but, once you get past that, it’s all good. The 1960's style architecture of the Capitol Skyline Hotel gives the fair a unique, off the beaten track ambiance. A great team of professionals run the hotel and it’s a pleasure to work with them. The Capitol Skyline is really the perfect home for a hotel art fair. Morris Lapidus, the architect, conceived of the hotel as a social space. The pool deck, the restaurant and the lounge, make it a fun place to hang out and enjoy looking at and talking about art.

MS: How will you know if (e)merge was a success?

E: We feel that (e)merge is already successful in terms of the quality of the works that will be presented by its exhibitors. What we need now is for people come to the fair, enjoy themselves, and support the exhibitors by acquiring art that they love.

MS: Are you already thinking of next year? Will you do anything differently?

E: Absolutely, we’re already in the planning stages for 2012. D.C. is ready to be recognized as a contemporary art center. The amount of support for (e)merge and the volume of interest the art fair is generating bodes very well for the future. Next year, we’ll make whatever improvements we can from our experience and feedback the first year.

Co-founders of (emerge): Leigh Conner, Jamie Smith, and Helen Allen. Image Courtesy of (e)merge.

We will be at (e)merge all weekend and will have blog posts on noteworthy works and artists at the fair. In the meantime, you can browse through all of the (e)merge exhibitors here, via the virtual version of the fair, hosted by Open Art Collection

Matthew Smith is an artist and writer in Washington, DC and a frequent contributor to DCist.