Superfine! NYC: Interview with founders Alex Mitow & James Miille

James Miille (left) and Alex Mitow (right) at home in their Dumbo loft.

If you know me at all, you’re aware that I’m a Superfine! super-fan. I’ve been sharing my advance all over social media , and ending sentences with: “sorry I have to finish my Superfine! article.” You can imagine my excitement when I arrived at Alex Mitow and James Miille’s loft in Dumbo to interview the art fair founders and real-life partners.

I received the grand tour of their colorful abode while sipping on a matcha-almond-milk-latte. Mitow and Miille practice what they preach; their space is filled with work by contemporary artists—many of whom have shown at Superfine! in the past. I fell in love with a pair of seats from an old movie theatre, and a collection of ceramic dishes from Turkey. I was not surprised by the diversity and harmony of the space—what else could I expect from the founders of the most tangible, aesthetic art fair in the market today?

After the tour, we sat down and got to the matter at hand: the latest edition of Superfine! NYC, opening Thursday, May 3rd in the Meatpacking District. Over the next hour we sipped our lattes and discussed the history of Superfine!, the state of the art market, and why this fair is the best Superfine! yet.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and my readers’ mental stamina. We talked for a long time.

* * *

Chloe: Tell me how you got involved in starting your own art fair!

Alex: I lived in Miami during the time that Wynwood was becoming Wynwood and Art Basel had only been in Miami a few years. What we saw was the bullshit factor. Like, “Let’s put a really high price on this to intimidate people so people buy it.” [The art world] is the only business where excluding a market is part of the marketing of the business. So, we decided to do Superfine! and build a fair around collectors, redefining what a collector is.

Chloe: How does Superfine! redefine that role?

Alex: We want people to look in the mirror and see themselves as a collector. You can spend $100 and be an art collector. You can spend $100,000 and be an art collector. The amount you spend doesn’t define whether you are or not.

Chloe: That’s one of my favorite things about Superfine!

Alex: We started Superfine! with that ideal. We went down to Miami in 2015 to do the first one. It was very rough, very raw. We really honed the concept and enacted some of the things we haven’t changed since then, like the spread of prices, transparency in pricing, and the curatorial tilt of it.

The facade of Superfine! Miami, December 2017

Chloe: I’m very interested in ‘the curatorial tilt of it.’ At Superfine! Miami in December there were thematic similarities between the artworks, but it was also the aesthetic space that tied everything together. I haven’t even seen the work in the space yet and I’m already feeling like every single work is feeding into another—they’re strengthening each other. Do you choose the individual artworks, motivating this?

James: It’s not like curating an art show where we just choose a beautiful piece. We are choosing people—friendly, professional, outgoing. Which is something you’ll see at every Superfine!

Alex: You can’t just have incredible work– you have to know how to talk to people about it. It just so happens that people who are really professional about their art tend to have better art too.

James: I think that this archetype of the Basquiat drug-addict-pulled-off-the-street-artist is passé. Artists are working—they’re managing their careers. By the time we are actually getting curatorial plans, everyone has had this idea drilled into their heads about how the fair should look. We know exactly what everyone’s layout is going to be. It takes us two weeks to process these, we critique them, and they send back revised versions.

Alex: So, long answer to a short question: the curatorial process starts early. Because we work so closely with the artists and galleries, we get such a good product out of them. We also get more applications than we accept. We decline those that don’t fit aesthetically.

Chloe: Well everything feels very cohesive. You get really used to seeing white walls and a standard display [at art fairs]. It just doesn’t feel like a narrative. I feel like I’m being taken on a narrative journey here [the loft] and at the fair.

“Jolene,” by Dolly Faibyshev. Imagine this on a bright yellow wall…

James: That’s the goal. To make it all flow cohesively.

Alex: We’re trying to encourage more and more exhibitors to customize their layouts. We have a lot of exhibitors this year with different colored walls.

James: Actually a couple artists that you mentioned…Shamona is doing a lavender wall. Dolly is doing yellow. Someone else is doing jade green.

Chloe: That’s beautiful!

Alex: You’ll notice that a lot of our exhibitors are doing the fair two, three times. The problem with the big box fair model is that they’re charging $15,000 or $30,000 for a booth. So for every gallery that enters, their only goal is to make a ton of money. Our exhibitors are paying between $1,000 and &7,000 so they can try the fair out, adapt, change things, and come back. A lot of people who do the fair do a lot better the second time.

Chloe: Do you think there’s a difference in your approach, and in the artists who submit, in each of your locations?

Alex: Every market is different.

James: How old are the people? How much money do they have? How long have they had that money? What house do they live in? Everyone thinks, “I want to do an art fair in Palm beach or Boca Raton,” right? But those are New Yorkers who moved somewhere and got a smaller place, and already had their walls filled with art. They could buy out entire booths at a fair but they aren’t spending because they literally don’t have room for anything

Alex: Something that we might accept in DC we might not want to accept in New York or Miami or Los Angeles. In DC we have a lot of abstract.

James: DC is a bit old school. More traditional, less weird art.

Chloe: I can’t put my finger on why that makes sense but it really does.

BoxHeart Gallery, located in Pittsburg PA

James: We give them the big, bold—still Superfine! Art—but something that is easily digestible. We have a section there called “Heartlandia.” BoxHeart Gallery is showing artists who are all from the heartland of North America, outside of New York, Miami and LA. Pittsburg, New Orleans—a lot of New Orleans actually. It’s cool, unusual art, but still in the vein of that folk-contemporary/home-spun surrealism.

Chloe: And how would you describe your aesthetic overall?

James: We have a lot of great abstract art, but generally, we tip a little more towards figurative.

Alex: I definitely feel like there’s an authentic component. Some of the pop surrealism that you see is just so manufactured-looking.

James: We try to avoid stuff that feels perfect, immaculate. Yet it’s still really refined art. You’re not getting something that feels experimental. The experiments have been done. The art is done.

Chloe: The immaculate, manufactured trend reminds me of God-awful emoji art.

James: Aesthetically we try and differentiate ourselves as much as possible from that.

Alex: There’s minimal pills and guns at Superfine. If they ever did crop up it would be in an interesting way that made us think.

“Neo Olympus,” by Kenneth Burris. No guns or pills to see here.

Chloe: You’re transcending this moment where these particular motifs are vogue.

James: It’s not even the motifs that are the problem. It’s more like, “let me take advantage of this thing without saying anything unique about it.” That feels really inauthentic.

Alex: We’re timeless and authentic, but still contemporary. You should feel like this is from here and now, but you could have it for 50 years.

James: That’s why we’re such sticklers on not having plain white walls. We want the work to feel like you could see it in your home. A gallery presentation is hard to envision in your own home because it’s so sterile.

Chloe: What is something that has surprised you about running an art fair the last few years?

James: The number of people that do end up collecting is incredible. Last year in New York, everyone who worked on the fair in any capacity bought a piece for the first time.

Alex: Our audio tech bought something. The bartender bought something! The woman who coordinated the builds and lights…

James: She bought a piece of art from our fair! And she’s produced hundreds of art fairs and never bought anything because she couldn’t. It’s been really cool and surprising to see people evolve into collectors.

Recent Artnet Headline

Alex: The one negative surprise is how hard it can be for people to accept a new approach, even when the old one isn’t working. Every day I open art net and see another article: “Another mid-size gallery closed, here’s the perspective of the owner on how awful things are, and how terrible the market is.” It runs so contrary to our experience, it’s shocking.

Recent Artnet Headline

James: The problem is when you have blue chip galleries that do business a certain way based on their clients buying art for investment, and mid-career galleries are patterning their business methods off of them. It’s not the same! They’re totally different companies!

“Untitled” by James Heraclitus Wall, Hall-Barnett Gallery.

Chloe: I find that going to an art fair like yours is an introduction to a lot of these artists and galleries. My family is actually going to New Orleans this weekend, and I said “You have to go to Hall-Barnett Gallery.” (Hall-Barnett Gallery exhibited at Superfine! Miami.)

(Update:: My family visited Hall-Barnett Gallery and purchased a work of art. Alex and James are right—this model really does work.)

Alex: Exactly. A lot of galleries have difficulty understanding what you just said. It’s not just walking away with a big check. It’s four months, you telling someone to go somewhere, them going there, and maybe making a purchase.

Chloe: Let’s talk about your programming. The dim sum dinner, the ice-cream social. Are these programs you put on to make the fair more accessible to new collectors?

Alex: Those are designed to target a specific demographic of people, like the ice cream social for young collectors. We also have Girls Night Out. We’ve noticed that a big percentage of those who buy at Superfine! are influential women. And we also have a lot of female exhibitors, and the Lower Eastside Girls Club participating. It’s a night to acknowledge women involved in Superfine! in all capacities. We try to break down barriers with events that don’t just devolve into a party. We’ve all been to those.

James: We go to so many events where it’s sponsored by…. Redbull! And everyone is in a circle talking to each other not facing the art. That’s pointless. It’s cool letting there be a space where people feel comfortable without it becoming, “Woo-hoo, art party!” All of our programming is art-focused.

Chloe: So, for my last question, I want to know if you have any thoughts about the specific artists I’m writing about. (I have since published my advance featuring eleven Superfine! NYC artists. Check it out here).

“Product of Environment” by Ross Bonfanti, Spence Gallery

Alex: We wanted to start adding sculpture so Ross Bonfanti was really exciting. His stuff is so fun, so playful. And our entire staff is fawning over Shamona Stokes.

James: We had this whole office wide conversation when she sent us her updated list of work. “I want this one, I want this one.”

C: One of the reasons I’m obsessed with her is because I’ve read a lot of Carl Jung’s work on the collective subconscious. And her whole thing is Jungian! In her email to me she’s going on about the collective subconscious in her art and I’m just sitting at my computer, fangirling.

Alex: That’s good art. It has one dimension that it works very well on. Like cuteness and aestheticism, but then there’s so much research behind it.

James: This is Kenneth [Burris’] third fair with us. We have a work of his! He’s gotten a lot of great responses.

Alex: It’s Steve Zolin’s second year with us. He’s got this great carnival, Great Gatsby-esque thing going…

Chloe: I actually got a strong German Expressionist vibe. And he said that Meidner’s Apocalyptic Paintings were a key influence!

“Birth Electric,” by Steve Zolin

James: If we’re talking about timeless, Steve Zolin feels modern, not contemporary.

Alex: We’re pushing him for DC because I could see a 65-year-old collector buying his stuff or a 20-year-old collector.

Chloe: I can’t believe there are over a hundred more artists showing at Superfine! NYC. I’m so obsessed with the eleven I’m working with—I’m going to lose my mind at the opening.

Alex: We always say this and it seems so trite, but this is the best fair yet!

James: It always is.

* * *

Superfine! NYC opens to the public Thursday, May 3rd at noon. You can also purchase tickets to the Twilight Vernissage Wednesday May 2nd—and drink cotton-candy-clad-Champagne with us. For a full schedule of hours and special programming, visit Superfine.world.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe <3

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