Arts Spotlight: Frits Abell talks echo
Buffalo’s most valuable export has long been its talented young people. But often, if we’re lucky, they either move back, or visit often enough that their positive impact reverberates throughout the entire city. Such is the case with native son Frits Abell, who left Buffalo over twenty years ago to attend Skidmore College and start a successful career as an investment banker. Now based in New York City, Abell is managing director of Northside Advisors, but while part of his head may be focused on mergers and acquisitions, another part is continually thinking and scheming about his hometown and its potential for revitalization. Abell’s devotion to Buffalo has nothing to do with nostalgia or chicken wings. He firmly believes that the city has real assets that, if given a chance, can transform it forever. That’s why he started the Buffalo Expat Network (BEN, buffaloexpatnetwork.com), that’s why he co-founded the Facebook watchdog group Preservation-Ready Sites, and that’s why he is confident about the possibilities for Buffalo’s first contemporary art fair, echo, which he founded last year.
This year, echo Art Fair will be held July 7-8 at the Larkin Center of Commerce, 701 Seneca Street. At least fifty artists and galleries are expected to participate; they will be selling their work both days. There will also be site-specific artworks throughout the Larkin District, and two parties. Visit echoartfair.com for more information.
Spree caught up with Abell on one of his frequent visits to the city.
What gave you the idea to found echo?
I was in Spitalfields, an art market outside the city of London—predominately fine art and creative food—and I remember thinking that this is something I’d like to do. I’ve always been sort of on the outskirts of the art world. My parents are art collectors, my sister is an artist in New York, and I had always wanted to do something in that arena. Obviously, with the work I was doing with the Expat Network, we were constantly thinking about ways to engage people who had left Buffalo. So I thought, why not have a real, juried, high-end art event that people might come home for?
Also, I was talking to some artists who had been getting increasing recognition and they were frustrated by the lack of commercial opportunities here. It was a combination of all of those things.
To what extent is echo similar to other big art fairs that you’re familiar with, like Art Basel or The Armory Show?
What I like about those big fairs is that you can see a lot of work at one time. Art Basel has helped Miami become an art capitol. But what I don’t like about those fairs is that they’re all about the business and the unaffordable blue chip artists, as opposed to the creative form. Given the demographics of Buffalo, we would want something that doesn’t take itself so seriously. We’re not trying to be an Art Basel.
So what did you do first to get it going?
I had a discussion with Ed Cardoni [director of Hallwalls], Marcus Wise [owner, 464 Gallery], and some expats in the NYC art world to come up with a strategy. And it’s important to note that we did it all in three months last year. We went through the process so quickly that there wasn’t a lot of time for reflection. I do know that a fair number of artists did not apply because they didn’t know what it was. We were the new kid in town; they didn’t know anything about me, necessarily, or if I was legitimate. There were detractors, for sure. I was mostly concerned about getting people there. If we built it, would they come? And much to everybody’s surprise, they came.
What did you learn that will improve this year’s experience?
We learned that it should probably be two days, that though I love the Central Terminal [2011’s location], it should be more centrally located, that we needed to start earlier, and that I needed someone to run the day-to-day of it locally. Dean Brownrout is doing that this year, and he’s been tremendous. And we needed to be clearer about submission requirements. All that is there online now.
What were you happiest about last year?
The sense of camaraderie among the participating artist was brilliant. I really felt like it was all of us who put on the show, not just the organizers. There was a collaborative spirit and that’s really what I loved about it. I don’t ever want to take this too seriously where that is stripped out. Also, the quality of the work was very high, and most of the artists sold work. I wasn’t sure people would buy and I was pleased that they did.
What are you excited about this year?
We got about 175 submissions this year, and it’s important to note that these came from all over, from Toronto Brooklyn, Syracuse, Portland—we were blown away. How many we accept will be determined by how we can work with the Larkin space, but there will be at least fifty booths.
We’re also working on a big party on Saturday in a courtyard area of the Larkin District. Friday is when we’re having the VIP component—which is targeting big collectors and people from out of town. It will feature tours of local collections, a lunch at the Albright-Knox, and a party that night. There will also be a later dance party on Friday, the outdoor party on Saturday, and, of course, the fair all day Saturday and Sunday. We want to attract a wide audience.
Elizabeth Licata is editor of Buffalo Spree.