How do you think your years with White Columns as director and chief curator prepared you to work on a fair?
White Columns has a very specific mission, which is to support the work of artists before they really have had any kind of support. If one of the things the art world does is create consensus, I think one of the things White Columns is interested in are artists before consensus forms around them. Certainly one of the things that I’ve been doing there is working with a lot of artists who have less conventional training and less conventional backgrounds, including having disabilities or being self-taught. My interest in that area has definitely been reflected in a number of the invitations we’ve made at Independent over the years but I think really the only reason that I’m interested in that part of the field is because artists have always been interested in that part of the field. Andy Warhol was keenly interested in American folk art, for example. Artists like Jasper Johns and Richard Tuttle are big supporters of American folk and outsider art, and that’s something that in turn interests me. In that spirit we’ve made invitations to galleries like Cologne’s Delmes & Zander, Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York, and more recently Ricco/Maresca and a great gallery from Philadelphia called Fleisher/Ollman, who are really leaders in their field but who I don’t think were so well known in the contemporary art world until recently. We’re interested in Independent’s ability to facilitate and amplify a conversation between such worlds.
There’s some negative feeling around the proliferation of art fairs these days, and even since Independent was founded there have been fairs like Frieze coming to New York. Is there a certain corrective that you hope to provide?
I think what we wanted to do was to create an experience for the participants and the audience that was kind of manageable. One of the problems with the larger fairs is that they are simply overwhelming. It’s not really possible to look at two hundred-plus booths and really take away any meaningful sort of thought about that. What’s been interesting to see for me at least is that Frieze Los Angeles, which will open in February, is really a boutique fair with sixty participants. And the fair that everyone really enjoys is always the ADAA fair at the Park Avenue Armory, because not only is it focused, but it also just brings together really extraordinary diverse material both contemporary and modern. An experience like that of the ADAA was certainly influential on my thinking about Independent, and I can see that that model has become more compelling because much bigger fairs have probably reached a sort of critical mass in terms of their size, scope, and saturation. I think people are looking for experiences with art that are more engaging, and maintaining our focused scale rather than expanding is a really significant part of why people enjoy it so much. New York has become much more expensive, the cost of participating in fairs is much more expensive, and also I think much more complicated for galleries now. It’s important that we try and retain the original ethos and spirit of independent, which is very much about art dealers working together and alongside each other. In that respect, I think it borrows something from the Gramercy Art Fair, which was started by a group of art dealers and then became the Armory Show. Or the smaller satellite fairs in Europe in the 1990s, which really laid the foundation of today’s contemporary art world.
What can you tell us about the upcoming edition of the fair in New York this March, of any particular highlights or new additions?
A great example of a maverick program is Anglim Gilbert Gallery from San Francisco, which was originally Gallery Paule Anglim. She was really one of the most legendary art dealers I’ve ever met and spent time with when I lived in San Francisco. They’re bringing the work of a quite brilliant Bay Area artist called Colter Jacobsen, who I actually showed at White Columns ten years ago, so I’m excited to see Colter’s work in the context of Independent with this amazing gallery participating for the first time. There’s also an extremely interesting younger gallery from London called Emalin, and they’ll be showing a younger American artist called Megan Plunkett. And then we'll have galleries who have really been committed to the idea of Independent from the beginning, such as Maureen Paley from London and David Kordansky from Los Angeles, who tends to use this event in a really amazing way where he makes very singular presentation of artists from his program that perhaps we’re not so familiar with in New York.
Matthew Higgs lives and works in New York, where for the past 10 years he has been the director and chief curator of the non-profit art space, White Columns. New York’s oldest alternative art space, White Columns provides support to artists who have yet to benefit from wider critical, curatorial or commercial attention. Over the past forty-six years, hundreds of artists have benefited from early exposure and support at White Columns, including Gordon Matta-Clark, Barry Le Va, Kiki Smith, William Wegman, Sonic Youth, Jack Goldstein, David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cady Noland, ACT-UP, and Glenn Ligon, among many others. Since 2005 alone, White Columns has presented the work of more than 500 artists—of all generations—in more than 100 individual exhibitions and projects.