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Art&Seek Q&A: Dallas Art Fair Founders John Sughrue and Chris Byrne

by Stephen Becker 29 Jan 2009 8:09 AM

Dallas Art Fair founders John Sughrue (left) and Chris Byrne. On the surface, it seems like such a no-brainer: of course Dallas should have an art fair. Most big cities have them. And the area is rich with collectors who travel across the country to look at art and add to their collections. Starting next […]


Dallas Art Fair founders John Sughrue (left) and Chris Byrne.

On the surface, it seems like such a no-brainer: of course Dallas should have an art fair. Most big cities have them. And the area is rich with collectors who travel across the country to look at art and add to their collections.

Starting next weekend, the art is finally coming to us.

The inaugural Dallas Art Fair will be held Feb. 6-8 at Fashion Industry Gallery adjacent to the Dallas Museum of Art. The venue (F.I.G. for short) was conceived by John Sughrue’s Brooks Partners real estate company as a wholesale space for fashion designers to sell their products. But with the designers in town for only a few weeks a year, Sughrue and his business partner, Chris Byrne, saw an opportunity with the space and began putting together the Dallas Art Fair three years ago.

The event will feature 30 dealers from across the country with tickets ranging from $20-$40. Even if you are not looking to buy, there are symposiums on Saturday and Sunday and chances to meet some of the artists serving as docents.

Still, the question remains: With other art fairs struggling, how will the Dallas Art Fair succeed? And how does the fair fit into the overall revitalization of downtown and the Arts District? The fair’s founders answered these and other questions inside their downtown Dallas office as part of the Art&Seek Q&A:

Art&Seek: How did the idea for the Dallas Art Fair first come about?
John Sughrue: I wanted to go to an art fair – like all these other big cities that have art fairs. Why not Dallas? With everything that’s going on with arts and culture in this town and the transformation of the Arts District – really, the transformation of Dallas as a cultural destination – it’s like, let’s have an arts fair! And we’ve got this great space next to the museum that we developed for the fashion industry. They’re here this week, but the fashion industry is only here five weeks a year – so 47 weeks a year we have this beautiful space, that’s exhibition space that nothing is happening in. So like the Armory on Park Avenue, where there’s something going on every weekend – there may be a rare books show or an antiques show – we like to think of ourselves as the Armory of downtown Dallas.
Chris Byrne: The Art District really has made it possible. It’s like the Gertrude Stein expression: “There’s a there there.” Ten years ago, where could you have had it?

A&S: John – you’ve done a lot of work on the revitalization of downtown – how does the Art Fair fit into that work?
J.S.: I think something like the art fair is every bit as important as a building that we could design and build. You’re really talking about city building. And cities are about great spaces, great people – great cities have the opportunity to inspire people. And cities are where fun and interesting and great things happen. So in many respects, if you wanted to step back and start to analyze it as a business, you’re really talking about programming. What happens in a city? Why is it different than staying in Plano or something like that? For me, it’s because you can see more of man’s best creations in a city. There’s a sense of randomness and chaos and excitement and electricity and animation.
C.B.: For the record, people from Plano are welcome to come to the fair.
J.S.: Absolutely! I grew up in a town like Plano, so that’s why it resonates with me very clearly the sense of arrival when you come to the big city. Art fairs are just part of the rhythm of life of the big city.
C.B.: It really has grown out of what’s been happening downtown and the relationships with the exhibitors that we’ve invited. I think the one thing that’s funny in terms of just addressing art fairs in general is: the last two years they’ve been these mega, hyper-retail experiences, and in the past, you would go and there was more interaction and you’d get to see a lot of work and it was a little slower pace. And I think the thing that’s nice here with Dallas is that the bar has been set high in terms of being patrons. It’s not just go buy a bunch of stuff and put it in your house. There have been terrific gifts to the museums. … This isn’t something that we’re inventing. We’re saying this is a nice context to operate in. We don’t want to just have a mall of art. We want people to be engaged and know the exhibitors.

A&S: With other art fairs struggling of late because of the economy, why do you think this fair will be a success?
C.B.: The fairs at this point that get the most attention are the one’s that have grown beyond where you can go and see everything. I was in Miami [in 2007] and I had dinner with some collectors, and I had gone through Art Basel and they had gone through, and we couldn’t compare notes because there was so much stuff. So in that sense, regardless of the economy, when John and I started with this idea we wanted it to be manageable — we wanted it to be grafted onto the community and grow with the community. Not just say, “Hey, let’s just get a bunch of stuff in here, see what happens, and if it doesn’t work, move it to another city.”
J.S.: Fairs aren’t just a fashion trend or entertainment opportunity that’s here today, gone tomorrow. The art business has changed, and it looks more like the fashion business. Five weeks a year the fashion business is in town here in Dallas. There are five fashion cities: New York, Atlanta, Chicago, L.A. and Dallas. And these designers can’t just sit in their showrooms – they’ve got to go meet their customer. The same thing’s happening in the art world – they can’t just sit in their galleries in New York, Chicago, wherever they might be. They have to go meet their customers and nurture new clients. … If it’s a softer economy, you’d better be sure that you’ve got a compelling reason for executing your business enterprise, and I think Dallas’ time is now with the incredible momentum of what’s going on in the Arts District. It’s not just a reflection of building buildings; it’s a reflection of the interest in the arts that the community shares. And for that reason, we are very optimistic about the success of the fair.

A&S: Is that partly also because the economic downturn has not had as great an effect on Dallas as it has on the coasts?
J.S.: It’s a reflection on our economy, while soft, it’s still better than the other economies around the country. We’ve been working on this fair for about three years, when we were still a very strong economy – when some of the coastal cities weren’t doing well. The oil and gas wealth – oil and gas may not be $140 a barrel any longer, but they’ve had a great run for three years. The strength of the economy down here, as soft as we might think it is right now, it’s still very appealing for these gallerists to come down and try to nurture a new clientele that’s here.

A&S: How did you go about selecting which galleries would participate?
C.B.: We knew that a lot of prominent galleries had worked and been interested in this area by working with institutions and advising people … They hadn’t technically set up shop down here, but they have long-term relationships with people here. We wanted people who weren’t just coming in for four days, but who were interested in developing this area and the collectors long term.

A&S: We’ve sort of talked all around this idea, but can you tell me what your goal for the fair is?
J.S.: I think the fair will be successful if it’s well attended and the gallerists are successful in selling the art they bring to the city. This is about selling art. We know that we can throw a great party – Dallas is known for its hospitality. But if we’re going to stay on that art calendar and be a national fair, it’s about selling art.

The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.