Katelijne De Backer Named PULSE Director as Helen Toomer Steps Down

Helen Toomer is starting a new artist residency program in upstate New York.

Left, Helen Toomer, Courtesy of PULSE Contemporary Art Fair/photographer: Emily Johnston; Right, Katelijne De Backer. Courtesy of MG Vander Elst.

Helen Toomer is concluding her run as director of PULSE Contemporary Art Fair, stepping down after three and a half years to open her own artist residency program in upstate New York. Her successor will be former Armory Show head Katelijne De Backer, the director of Nick Korniloff’s Art New York and Aqua Art Miami since 2015.

“I’m obviously sad to be leaving PULSE, but I’m really really excited to be launching something new,” Toomer told artnet News, speaking of the residency that will be based in the Catskills. She cited her success moving PULSE to Miami Beach, saying “I’ve brought it to a great place to hand it over to Katelijne who has a wealth of experience.”

De Backer was at the helm of the Armory Show from 1999 to 2011, overseeing its transformation from a small trade show into the world-class fair that we know today. Before joining Art New York, she did a nearly year-long stint at SCOPE as director of exhibitor relations, and worked with New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery—a good experience that nevertheless allowed her to realize that “the art fair is where I belong, putting it all together.”

Helen Toomer at PULSE Miami Beach. Courtesy of BFA.

Helen Toomer at PULSE Miami Beach. Courtesy of BFA.

Grela Orihuela, who has worked with the Art Miami fairs since 2012 and directs Art Wynwood, will take over operations at Aqua. De Backer’s successor at Art Miami has not been announced.

“I always like new challenges, and when Helen approached me, she said ‘I really would like to leave PULSE in good hands,'” De Backer said. “I really like what she has done, and I’ve always liked PULSE. I think it is a very cool and edgy fair.”

While her exit from PULSE may seem sudden, Toomer told us that the idea of a residency program has been percolating for a while. “It’s always been a dream. I love working directly with artists, and it seems like a great time especially in the current climate where art funding is being cut.”

Prior to rejoining PULSE—she worked in various capacities for parent company Ramsay Fairs, which also runs the Affordable Art Fair, from 2004 from 2009—Toomer spent a year as director of New York’s Collective Design Fair, which she helped launch in 2013. In between, she ran Toomer Labzda gallery with Christopher Labzda on the Lower East Side for two and a half years.

Most recently, Toomer made the unusual decision to scale back PULSE to just one fair, eliminating the New York edition to focus on Miami Beach and a new year-round event series called PULSE360.

“When Helen cancelled New York and started this PULSE360, I really thought this was a very brave move. I really look at it as almost a year-round VIP program,” said De Backer, who doesn’t rule out an eventual return for PULSE New York. For the time being, she plans to focus on her first Miami edition, the fair’s 13th outing during Art Basel in Miami Beach.

Katelijne De Backer. Photo: MG Vander Elst.

Katelijne De Backer.
Photo: MG Vander Elst.

De Backer sees PULSE’s blend of established and emerging galleries as almost a mix of her last two fairs, Aqua and Art New York, saying “I think it fits right in between the big Art Basel and Art Miami and the little satellite fairs.” She will join the PULSE team in July, with Toomer becoming part of the PULSE advisory committee.

As for Toomer’s new project, it’s still in the development stages, but keep an ear to the ground. She plans to launch with the first artist in August. “It’s a bit of an unknown,” she admitted, “but I thought, if you don’t take the the risk and do something now, you’ll always regret it. I want to take that leap.”

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