The Price of a Picture

Danielle and Ron Varrichio walked out of the Metropolitan Pavilion near Chelsea protective of the parcel in their possession.  Poster board-like in size and as thick as a notebook, it was protected with tape and a layer or two of paper to shield it from the mist outside as the couple headed home to Brooklyn.

The Varrichios weren’t alone.  Several other people left the pavilion last weekend carrying similar packages.

But the operation here is far from sinister.  Men and women, students and professionals, rich and not-so-wealthy, all attended the Affordable Art Fair the weekend of March 29.  In many cases, like the Varrichio’s, they didn’t leave empty-handed.

With price points beginning at around $100 and end in the low thousands, organizers embrace this simple mission statement: “Lying at the heart of each of our fairs is the desire to make contemporary art accessible to everyone.” 

Special pink and white stickers distinguish pieces at more attainable price points.

While the affordability of the $20 entrance fee could be debated, the show is a bit of a refreshing contrast in a city where some galleries display and sell works for more than one million dollars.

Still, this is a far cry from the crochet craft fair you’d find at a hotel convention center conference room.  

The Affordable Art Fair concept first debuted in London in 1999 and has now swept the world.  Similar shows are held annually in global centers including Hong Kong, Melbourne, Brussels, Milan, Amsterdam and Singapore.  In addition to the recent spring show, another exhibition will take place in New York this fall.

“The crowds and sheer volume of options help people feel less intimated than they would in a white-walled gallery in Chelsea,” said Sarah Miller, a gallery owner from Charleston, South Carolina.  “There is a buzz at art fairs that you don’t get in a traditional gallery setting.”

If you walk through the pavilion, you will see creations as eclectic as the people in attendance. Hanging placards revealed more than 50 galleries participated, from as near as New York City and as far away as Seoul and Oslo.

The exhibit spaces are intimate.  You can talk face-to-face with gallery owners and their staff. Like a higher-end art show, there are brochures you can take with you to remember your favorite finds.  Though there are many casual observers, I’m certain I passed some serious collectors and dealers as we all squished through the sometimes narrow corridors.

There is a bar and snack cart but, unlike a high-end gallery, these provisions are not free.  There is also a delivery service for those not brave enough to take their art on the subway. 

Since the show has a contemporary focus, you’ll see a lot of cutting-edge creations. 

Among my favorites: bright and oversized popsicles made of resin, glitter and ink by artist Betsy Enzensberger.  With pieces ranging in price from $200-$2,850, it’s not exactly the quarter you’d pay for an edible popsicle at the corner market but it’s a sure conversation piece for your living room.

There are sculptures made from neon, including one shaped in the form of pink lips.  Another neon sign spells out the phrase “sugar free.”  

On the upper level, I discovered what amounted to be a giant bowl with rings of ceramic glaze – a bowl so large, it could hold boxes of cereal.

There are portraits, landscapes and collages as well, and that’s what captured the attention of the Varrichios.

Their purchase: an $1800 painting by Xavi Carbonell. The artist used oil paint, a sharpie, and maybe even a crayon to create his design.

In simple terms, it looks like a giant dance party of figures with oversized eyeball splashed with hues of red, blue, pink, orange and green.  Danielle Varrichio, who hung the painting in her living room, described her decision to purchase it as “pretty impulsive.”

“I saw it from across another gallery and loved it.  I love the colors and the playfulness of it.  It made me smile, and I kept thinking about it as we wound our way through the rest of the show,” Varrichio said.

As New York public school teachers, the pricing played a factor in their decision to spend.

“$1800 was definitely at the top of my budget, and if the decision had been Ron’s alone, he never would have bought it.  He loves it now that it’s hanging on our wall and the question of money has been removed, but the price tag had a big impact on how he felt about it pre-purchase,” Danielle said.

That leads to the question of affordability.

Miller may have summed it up best: “affordable is relative.”  

Miller, who had an exhibition space on the upper floor, sold more than 30 pieces. Most ranged in price between $150 and $1,500.

The fluctuations of the economy seem to be tempering some customers.

“People are seemingly more selective with their large purchases at this time, which I believe is a reflection of a less-than-predictable economy,” Miller said.

Among Miller’s customers was a first-time buyer, described as a woman her in 20s, living in a small apartment.

Even though organizers promote this event as art within reach, accessibility may be one of the biggest draws.

Organizers boast more than 485,000 works have been sold at their fairs.

“I don’t know that I consider it an investment.  I am not interested in selling it, and won’t keep an eye on its value,” Varrichio said.

While the issue of what’s truly a reasonable price may up for debate, the happiness and joy from these purchases may be priceless.

“If it is an investment, it’s an investment in my emotional well-being.  I bought it because looking at it makes me happy and reminds me to find joy in my life.”