Independent Art Fair Hires Ashley Harris, Formerly of Sotheby’s, for Its Newly Created Role of Executive Director

The move comes at a time of reckoning for art fairs around the globe.

Ashley Harris is the new executive director of Independent. Image courtesy of Independent

Independent, the 10-year-old art fair that arguably looks and feels the least like a commercial art fair of its peers, has made a high-profile hire: Ashley Harris, the former marketing director of Sotheby’s. She has been named executive director, a newly created position, beginning in January; founder Elizabeth Dee will assume the role of CEO.

In describing the appeal of Independent, Harris used a word rarely associated with fairs (or, indeed, the art business in general): responsible. “I think Independent is really responsible in a lot of different ways,” Harris told Artnet News. “They keep the art and artists at the top of the narrative. That is something I think is critical in terms of the next generation and how the fair model will evolve. They don’t necessarily equate growth with success… we want to deliver better ways to serve the galleries and the artists.”

Cary Leibowitz at Invisible-Exports at the Independent Art Fair 2018. Photo by Etienne Frossard, courtesy Independent Art Fair.

Cary Leibowitz at Invisible-Exports at the Independent Art Fair 2018. Photo by Etienne Frossard, courtesy Independent Art Fair.

Harris brings what she describes as an “untraditional background” to the art fair, which may serve her well at a moment when the art world is beginning to wrestle with what has become known as “fair-tigue,” causing some dealers, and fairs themselves, to pull back from the events. For its part, Independent announced in June that it would close its Brussels fair to focus on its New York edition.

Harris started her career at behemoth advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather and then went to a smaller boutique firm that specialized in guerrilla and digital marketing. That’s where, she says, she was “bitten by the content bug.” She created content for businesses like Time Warner Cable and RR Donnelley before being lured away by the Daily Beast, where she created sponsored content for brands like Land Rover and National Geographic.

Harris says she joined Sotheby’s at the right time, in 2016, since both then-CEO Tad Smith and then-CMO David Goodman also came from a media background. “It was a really good time for me since they were so focused on innovation and audience growth,” she said. (She is also likely leaving at the right time: the auction house has been roiled by layoffs since it was purchased by media tycoon Patrick Drahi.)

Dee said Harris stood out “due to a combination of her vision and the depth of her expertise in marketing and branding.” She fit the bill for “a talented leader to help me develop the future of Independent while overseeing our organization,” which has recently added staff in VIP services, communications, gallery and museum relations, and production. “This requires broad spectrum leadership to maximize success,” Dee said.

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