There will be no metaphorical free lunches at this year’s Superfine! NYC, Alex Mitow and his partner, photographer James Miille’s fun and highly approachable art fair, which opens May 2nd in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.
“After being involved with art fairs for about five years, I’m sick of the, ‘It’s going to bring a lot of people’ thing,” says the fast-talking, always colorfully dressed Mitow from inside his relatively new, art-filled, Dumbo apartment.“Exposure” can be a dirty word for burgeoning art fairs too, apparently. “Our first year in Miami (2015), we gave way too much control to diva artists who claimed they could up the hype. We want the story, but we really want people to qualify by their merit.”
Featured Photo: Coda, Alex Mitow and James Miille at home in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
Last year’s Superfine! NYC, which went off in the same space under the High Line, (459 West 14th Street), featured roughly 40 exhibitors. This year, it’s closer to 80. “I know we say it every time,” begins Mitow, who’s joined on his couch by Miille and their loyal Shiba Inu, Coda, “but this is the culmination of everything we’ve learned and our best fair yet.”
Therefore, don’t expect any celebrity artists (unwarranted press vacuums) doing uninspired paintings of birds or sharks on out of the tube, single-palette backgrounds or slightly name-brand musicians (money vacuums) feigning enthusiasm at this year’s sold-out fair. Instead you’ll discover, as Mitow puts it, “Diverse art by diverse living contemporary artists in a commercial setting without being outwardly commercial. We want people to feel like they can buy art.”
Mitow, a hard worker who cut his teeth in the restaurant industry in Miami and West Florida, is aware of his perceived outsider status. He’s also quite content coming into the art world as an entrepreneur, and though he’s a bit too fabulous to fully embrace the moniker of “businessman,” the man means business. “We provide a pricing spread to all our exhibitors based on the research we’ve done on what’s actually moving in the art market and what we sell at our fairs,” he says. “We’re trying to make art fairs more strategic-for us, for our exhibitors-where they can actually look at a wall and maximize their ability to sell.”
Based on clear art market trends, Superfine!, as a model, deserves a closer, more generous look, as opposed to the somewhat lazy lens often utilized to evaluate and critique a very self-aware enterprise that’s ultimately proud of its particular niche. “In the mid-level contemporary art market, generally speaking, the stuff that was selling three or four years ago at Scope that was $30-40,000 dollars by emerging artists-it just isn’t happening anymore,” claims Mitow with machine gun bluntness.
The price cap for all works at this year’s NYC fair is $10,000. Roughly 25% of the works on display will be priced under $1,000 (“grab and go”) and about 50% are under $6,000. For Mitow and Miille’s inaugural Washington, D.C. incarnation of Superfine!, set to open on Halloween 2018 in the capital city’s trendy, bustling Union Market, prices are capped at $15,000. The D.C. fair promises to feature roughly the same number of exhibitors (80) and hopes to split the gallery/artist ratio right down the middle.
Despite a dash of seemingly intentional dorkiness, there’s nothing pretentious about Mitow and Miille. They like to smile and laugh. They’re interested in making you feel good-feel welcome. You won’t find them clad in vampy black for instance, which in the New York art scene especially has become as clichéd and uninspired as the countless, snooty, soulless, alienating, cog-like gallery assistant drones who lend a pervasive, “smelt-it, dealt-it” funk to blue-chip fairs and galleries. You know who you are! Instead, the delightful pair is refreshingly lowering their guard to allow the average art fair spectator or Frieze tourist (me too) to buck up, ante-up and get in on the collecting game. Even their staff is getting in on the fun.
“Last year was really heartwarming because I saw a lot of our employees buying art,” says Mitow. “Our publicist bought three pieces. Our sound tech guy and his wife bought two pieces. The guy who managed our bar last year was staring at a piece all week and bought it for his fiancé.”
For New York, they crafted strategic tours that cater to collectors’ specific art desires. There’s “It Goes Above the Couch,” which is pretty self-explanatory. There’s “Modern Minimalist Masters” for people who want that affordable abstract piece that “looks like art” and might even stir up an interesting conversation that didn’t come with an analytical instruction manual. The last is “Queens of Contemporary Art,” which highlights the organic fact that 70% of the featured artists in Superfine! NYC are women.
“It’s something that’s always in the back of our mind,” says Miille, who is both an exhibiting artist as well as the fair’s Creative + Content Director. “We’re aiming to have a diverse group of exhibitors. Sometimes it’s more LGBT, but this time it’s a lot of women artists and women-led galleries.”
Highlights include BoxHeart Gallery from Pittsburgh. “We love them!” says Miille. “They’re actually curating a section in D.C. called “Heartlandia,” which focuses entirely on galleries from outside of NY, LA and Miami.” There’s also Hue Gallery of Contemporary Art from Wichita, Kansas. “I love who they’re bringing: Julius DC Bautista, a returning artist.”
There’s also New York’s Ceres Gallery and Viridian Artists, a female-centric artist collective in Chelsea. “I also like Clara Arts and Deep Space Gallery from Jersey City, another underserved market,” adds Miille.
Superfine! NYC, which provides exhibition space for both galleries and individual artists, has three easy-to-navigate categories. There’s “Establish” which provides larger 12’ booths for galleries. There’s “Elevate,” which provides equitable space for many returning NYC artists, and lastly, “Emerge,” which involves smaller 6’ booths for mostly first-time exhibitors, which Miille rightfully touts as “a low-cost opportunity for artists to take command of their own careers.”
Artists of note from “Emerge” include the abstract painter Jessica Matier as well as John P. Dessereau, who was commissioned to do a 3D, urban skyline-themed pop-up installation for last year’s NY fair. Also, do not miss the gritty, oft fluorescent, almost Pop-Dada paintings by “the art world tag team champions,” Keith Pine and Rich Zitterman, long-time pals and SVA alums who go by HYSTM (Have You Seen These Men).
For “Elevate,” make sure to check out Juan Miguel Marin, who along with Noah Wall, helped design the cover of David Byrne’s fantastic collaboration album with St. Vincent, Love This Giant, which won a “Best Album Package” Grammy. Catch, in the same section, Joe Turek’s “violent paintings of douche bags” as well as paintings by Chinese artist Yanjun Cheng, who will be exhibiting in the States for the first time.
Mitow is also encouraging his guests to carefully tune into the camouflaged, performance-based painterly work of Trina Merry. “She does body painting, which I usually think is cheesy,” admits Mitow. “She’ll be performing opening night. She’s going to have a big Salvator Mundi and paint someone into it.”
A fascinating highlight from the “Establish” program is LeRoi C. Johnson. “He’s an artist from Buffalo and Rick James’ manager for a time,” Mitow explains with appropriate glee. “LeRoi was also an attorney who gave it up to paint. He did a painting of two planes crashing into two sky rise buildings before 9/11 happened, so he got some weird [Nostradamus] folk-hero press for that.”
You can tell that Mitow, who first planted an entrepreneurial flag in New York City with a small, neon and topping-heavy, gourmet hotdog restaurant, Los Perros Locos (LPL), is genuinely excited for his artists and exhibitors. A lot of this has to do with the fact that his partner, Miille, a photographer who uses post-production techniques to elevate his images beyond standard editorial portraiture, functions as an ongoing case study of sorts.
“When Alex and I started dating, I was just starting as a photographer. I was creating art, but everything seemed really inaccessible to me,” say Miille. “I didn’t really envision it turning into a career or anything. I was just having fun.”
Mitow, who lived in Miami between 2006-2011, as he puts it, “…kind of saw Art Basel grow up. I was very much a tourist in the art world at that point. I would go to the fairs, not really knowing what they were. I’d also walk through Wynwood before it was a thing, when people were still smoking crack in the corner. It was bad.”
The pair eventually met in Washington Square Park in June 2014 at the insistence of a friend. They “chatted for about three minutes” and exchanged numbers. Shortly after this intro, Miille went out to the West Coast for a couple months. During this remote period, they started to get to know each other via text. When Miille returned to NY, Mitow, who had been running his downtown hot dog shop for a year and a half, despite options to expand, was instead contemplating a career change-a new direction.
“I did not convince him to close the moment he started dating me,” Miille interjects with a slightly guilty chuckle and a super-sized smile.
Towards the end of LPL’s run, Mitow was brought in to handle a portion of the food and beverage operations at Scope Art Fair in 2014 and 2015 (Miille designed the café the second year). “I’m looking at this model,” Mitow begins, taking a breath. “In one hand I find it fascinating, this idea that you can see art from all over the world in one place at one time. That was cool to me. I get the overload with some fairs, but even with Scope, the whole thing felt so exclusive.”
Simultaneously, Mitow was watching Miille navigate the art market as an aspiring creative, which includes investigating gallery spaces and applying to art fairs that look a lot like Scope. Miille claims he went from selling a few $50 dollar prints on Shutterfly to creating “super high-quality silver rag fiber archival prints” while simultaneously becoming Superfine!’s most consistent, highest selling artist. “We keep putting James in the worst spots,” Mitow admits, “but someone always comes in at the last minute and buys a dozen of them.”
It’s obvious Mitow and Miille continue to fuel each other’s creative flame. It’s also clear that a shared interest in nurturing individual artist growth (Miille included) is directly tethered to the larger growth of their steadily expanding fair. On President’s Day, 2019, the boys will be taking Superfine! to Los Angeles-Hollywood to be exact (the same week as Frieze LA). They’re also in the midst of planning a similar fair in Downtown Brooklyn, set to launch in September 2019. Don’t expect them to return to Art Basel, South Beach anytime soon, however. “We’re done with Miami,” says Mitow rather definitively.
With a sold-out NY fair just around the corner, Mitow and Miille are now focused on their nuanced, data-driven, highly-personal collectors outreach program (“Most VIP programs are bullshit”), their 90-person Dim Sum dinner party and their reoccurring ice cream social. They’re also working with the very talented Heidi Latsky, a celebrated dance instructor and performance artist who specializes in working with dancers with physical disabilities or as her website puts it “performers with unique attributes.” They’ll be populating (and activating) the Superfine! exhibition floor on opening night.
“I’m excited that what we’ve built is becoming this viable thing for everybody,” says Mitow with real gusto. “I’m excited for D.C. too, where we’ll be the only game in town. We’re not just taking what we can get anymore; we’re being very choosy. I’ve said it before: It’s our best art yet.”
Kurt McVey began his journalism career as a prolific contributor to Interview Magazine where he covered emerging and established names in the art, music, fashion and entertainment worlds. He has since contributed to The New York Times, T Magazine, Vanity Fair, Paper Magazine, ArtNet News, Forbes, Whitehot Magazine, and many more. A Long Island native, McVey is also a successful artist, model, performer, entrepreneur, and screenwriter working out of NYC.