Armory Show Director Nicole Berry on Hiring Women Curators to ‘Challenge the Canon,’ and What’s in Store for the Fair Now That It’s Owned by Frieze

Berry has helmed the fair through numerous crises since 2017.

Armory Show Executive Director Nicole Berry. Photo credit: Teddy Wolff. Courtesy of The Armory Show.

The unexpected news that the international art fair conglomerate Frieze would acquire the Armory Show and Expo Chicago in July set the art world wondering what changes might be afoot for the upcoming New York fair, which has been an art world mainstay since its founding in 1994.

“It will be business as usual,” fair director Nicole Berry told Artnet News, noting that when the sale went through, “everything was already well in place” for the fair’s 2023 edition, which opens this week at the Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side.

But joining the Frieze empire—which held its first fair in London 20 years ago and has since launched annual events in New York, Los Angeles, and Seoul—does create new possibilities for the Armory, which had been owned by Merchandise Mart since 2007. Hollywood entertainment company Endeavor purchased Frieze in 2016, making its growing family of art fairs part of a larger sports, fashion, events, and media business.

“The whole thing is exciting. Having a new owner that has resources and understands the art world, joining a respected brand—it’s going to be a real benefit for the fair,” Berry said. “As of right now, the sky’s the limit.”

Tamar Ettun, <em>The Wave Caves</em> (2022–2023). Photo courtesy of Dreamsong, Minneapolis.

Tamar Ettun, The Wave Caves (2022–2023). Photo courtesy of Dreamsong, Minneapolis.

Visitors to this year’s fair can expect a strong roster of more than 225 international art dealers, roughly 40 of which are making their first appearance at the event.

But more than the typical maze of gallery booths, the Armory Show also stages an ambitious Armory Off-Site program with work (and at least one performance) at Flatiron Plaza, Bella Abzug Park in Hells Kitchen, and in Times Square, as well as three monumental sculptures at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. And at the convention center, the fair will also have a packed calendar of Armory Live talks and events.

The fair has also tapped three high-profile female curators for 2023—Eva Respini, Candice Hopkins, and Adrienne Edwards—who all considered overarching theme of rewriting established historical narratives.

Drake Carr, <em>Angelo and Ryan</em> (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artists Space, New York.

Drake Carr, Angelo and Ryan (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Artists Space, New York.

“We tried to select curators who are interested in this issue, in bringing artists to the forefront who maybe haven’t had a voice,” Berry said. “And we are challenging the selection committee to look at presentations that are doing just that—not just what we see at every other fair.”

Respini is overseeing the large-scale installations and site-specific works in the Platform sector, where audiences can expect to see work by the likes of Hank Willis Thomas, Yinka Shonibare, Jean Shin, and Agnes Denes.

“Her section is going to center on artists who expand and challenge the canon of art history and culture,” Berry said.

Jean Shin, <em>Huddled Masses</em> (2020). Photo courtesy of the artist and Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

Jean Shin, Huddled Masses (2020). Photo courtesy of the artist and Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.

That will dovetail with Focus, where Hopkins, of New York’s Forge Project, which focuses on contemporary Indigenous art, will bring voices from outside the mainstream to the fore in solo- and dual-artist presentations.

“It’s going to include artists who’ve been trailblazers, as well as artists who are just starting very early in their careers, but making amazing work,” Berry added. “I think there’ll be a lot of artists there who are not known to people.” (Participants include Brazilian artist Vera Chaves Barcellos, Indigenous Peruvian painter Brus Rubio, Native American painter G. Peter Jemison, and Iranian sculptor Ghazaleh Avarzamani.)

Berry hopes that dealers see the Armory as a place where they can take risks, and where audiences will respond positively to a broad range of artistic material. “One thing I think the Armory Show does so well is that the artwork on view is representative of everything that out there—not just what sells.”

Brus Rubio, <em>Danza de les carabajo por el clan pellejo (Beetle Dance by the Sloth Clan)</em>, 2023. Courtesy of Sapar Contemporary, the artist, Shipibo Conibo Center, New York.

Brus Rubio, Danza de les carabajo por el clan pellejo (Beetle Dance by the Sloth Clan), 2023. Courtesy of Sapar Contemporary, the artist, Shipibo Conibo Center, New York.

Edwards, the curator and director of curatorial affairs at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, rounds out the curatorial trio as chair of the fair’s sixth-annual Curatorial Leadership Summit, which invites some 75 curators to a closed-door session geared toward networking and professional development.

It all takes place, of course, under the seasoned leadership of Berry, a former elementary school teacher who went back to school to study art history at the University of California, Davis to kick start a career in the art world.

After interning at Sotheby’s London and holding stints at a couple of galleries, Berry spent five years as deputy director of Expo Chicago before joining the Armory in the same role in 2016. She was thrust into the top post a year later, after former director Benjamin Genocchio was accused of sexual harassment. In the years since, she has weathered a succession of unforeseen crises, from a structural emergency at the piers that forced a last-minute relocation in 2019, to the COVID-19 pandemic that loomed large over both the 2020 and 2021 fairs.

“There are always going to be small things that happen, but we look forward to a future without those sort of larger unforeseen events—it would be nice if those would would not rear their ugly heads again!” Berry said.

Despite it all, the fair has settled in nicely after moving, in 2021, from a March to September date, and from the piers to Javits Center, with a streamlined floor plan developed by architecture firm Frederick Fisher and Partners.

“We had more applications than I’ve ever had in all my years at the fair. It was extremely competitive,” Berry said. “I think word is out that the Javits is a great venue and September is a great time of year—there’s so much happening.” (That also includes Frieze Seoul, which runs September 6–9, but the hope is to rejigger the calendar to eliminate that conflict in future years.)

The Armory Show at the Javits Center. Photo courtesy of the Armory Show.

The Armory Show at the Javits Center. Photo courtesy of the Armory Show.

The back-to-school, post-Labor Day moment may be the busiest time of year for Berry, who has to finalize everything in the final weeks of summer, while many in the art world are on vacation. But there is never a dull time of year for the fair director, who spends much of her time traveling to biennials, other fairs, and especially galleries.

“Part of my job is to build those relationships and familiarize myself with the galleries’ programs,” she said. “When I travel, it’s always three things that are top of mind, which are the galleries, the collectors, and the institutions. The percentage that I have to put toward each of those shifts at various times of the year.”

So, right after the fair ends, the planning cycle kicks off pretty much right away for the next year. That’s especially true for 2024, which will involve prepping its 30th anniversary programming.

“We are a very different fair than Frieze New York, which is smaller and more of a boutique fair,” Berry said. “People tell us that all the time that the Armory Show has a special place in the art world because of its history, but also its sense of discovery, where people are introduced to artists who they are not familiar with.”

The Armory Show will take place at the Javits Center, 429 11th Avenue, New York, New York, September 7–10, 2023.

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