A Fair to Remember

In the midst of what promises to be the most oversaturated Frieze week to date, Matthew Eck and Brian Whiteley would like to stage an intervention. After exhibiting for two consecutive years in The Hotel Catalina for Art Basel Miami, the young aesthetes are taking their Select Fair out of the hotel scene and into The Altman Building, a historic 20,000-square-foot event space in Chelsea with vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors, and elegant French doors.

The Select Fair, opening today, is an unofficial satellite to the Frieze institution, staking its claim right next door to the decidedly safer Pulse Contemporary Art Fair at The Metropolitan Pavilion. Eck and Whiteley’s art-child has made a name for itself among the more self-assured art commentators as a progressive, high-concept, meticulously curated affair with a healthy dose of playful irreverence. If buyers and critics are expecting something on par with Frieze New York, they should do themselves a favor and simply take a trip across the river to Randall’s Island. In contrast to Frieze’s admittedly impressive Gagosian-level roster, Select promises to feature a diverse cross-section of 41 galleries around the world, as well as an installation of 24 wax sculptures that resemble ancient stalactites created by Boston based artist Chelsea Maida. These sinuous, petrified wax drippings should succeed in luring curious guests down the main stairwell and into an immersive underground “cave” installation by Meow Wolf, a Santa Fe, New Mexico based art collective.

“We want to showcase places that might be overlooked but are doing really fantastic things, like Burnet Gallery in Minnesota or One Mile Gallery from Kingston, NY,” says Whiteley. “We invest in them, and they invest in our brand.”

After meeting at grad school orientation at SVA (Eck admits to admiring Whiteley’s impeccable faux-hawk from afar), the ambitious duo quickly got down to business. A moment could be taken here to note that the relationship remains strictly professional (Whiteley has a year-and-a-half-old son, Bruno, with his lovely wife, architect Maria Granados). Less than a month into the semester, Matthew and Brian formed “The Exhibitionists,” an art club that held its first MFA group show at The Invisible Dog in Brooklyn. Not long after that particular show came down, Whiteley accepted a position at George Billis Gallery. He was quickly and somewhat unexpectedly handed the reigns to The Art Now Fair (a spin-off of The Red Dot Fair), slated to premiere at The Catalina in Basel Miami, 2011. The project was in a precarious position, to say the least, so Whiteley instinctually reached out to Eck for support.

“Leading up to the Art Now Fair, we were crammed in a back office for 18 hours a day with George, who was getting fed up with our particular way of doing things. We were drinking coffee, chain-smoking cigarettes, and making thousands of phone calls with mixed results,” recalls Eck, a protégé of Tommy Lanigan Schmidt.

Somehow, they were able to secure 30 galleries and the fair went off as a moderate success. Some of the vendors, such as Sue Ohme from Ohme Graphics, the good people at Projects NYC, and James Tratt from Center Street Studio, chose to stick around after Eck and Whiteley decided to go out on their own.

Fast forward to Select Fair’s first Art Basel Miami in 2012. The boys made a name for themselves as hands-on, enthusiastic art mongers with a penchant for building close relationships with emerging artists. They also know how to throw a party. For Eck and Whiteley, the after-hours accoutrements are as carefully curated as the art on the walls. VIP previews, opening receptions, and rooftop soirees are fitted with high-end food and beverage sponsors, and A-list musical acts.  

The press was kind to the young curatorial team after Select’s first successful outing in Miami, but as expectations grew, so did the egos, the budget, and the overall headache. Eck still recalls how The Catalina Hotel wouldn’t let them use their ladder to hang last-minute appendages to a massive Swoon piece. “I already have a mother. I don’t need to be spanked by a hotel,” says Eck. For Basel 2014, Select Fair is moving into a 40,000-square-foot tent on the water in Wynwood and will elicit the curatorial expertise of Tim Goossens of MoMA PS1 and Envoy Enterprises notoriety. For the time being however, the salivating New York City art world is ready to sink its teeth into Select Fair. Ready or not, its showrunners are up for the challenge.

“On the day of the install, we get a million phone calls, packages are showing up, everyone’s angry, but the work goes up, the doors open, and once everyone has a cocktail, it’s smooth sailing,” says Whiteley. “Every day is a new puzzle that requires solving. If we knew everything, part of the excitement would be gone.”