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In honor of the tenth anniversary of Independent, I sat down with founding curatorial advisor Matthew Higgs to speak about how the fair has continually set itself apart as an experience. As the contemporary art world has expanded and contracted over the past decade, Independent has proven to be a buoy. In a world where bigger is better, they have maintained the original spirit of the fair by committing to a scale and curatorial standard that prioritizes the health of both viewers and makers of art. Never sedentary, nor predictable, the fair has been a game changer, managing to be both the insider’s fair and an inclusive, inviting space, as well as a platform for an evolving conversation about ideas and objects. The result, as could be seen with each previous edition of the fair, feels special.
Higgs discusses how Independent has created a new model for the sustainable and surprising art fair by fostering new connections across diverse areas of visual culture both past and present—and gives us a preview of the upcoming New York edition in March.

— Paige Bradley

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Installation view of Artists Space’s booth with Duncan Campbell at the debut edition of Independent New York at the former Dia Foundation building in March 2010. Photography: Tom Powell imaging.

Installation view of sculpture by Michel François at Bortolami Gallery’s booth at the second edition of Independent New York in 2011. Photography: Tom Powell imaging.

Work of Oliver Payne and Uri Aran at Gavin Brown’s enterprise’s booth at the fourth edition of Independent New York in 2012. Photography: Tom Powell imaging.

Site-specific installation by Thomas Baryle presented by Gavin Brown's enterprise at the fourth edition of Independent New York in 2013. Photography: Tom Powell imaging.

McCaffrey Fine Art’s presentation of Richard Nonas’s sculptures from the 1980s at the fifth edition of Independent New York in 2014. Photography: Thomas Powell imaging.

Nicolas Party’s site-specific project for the The Modern Institute’s booth for the sixth edition of Independent New York in 2015. Photographer: Etienne Frossard.

CANADA’s group presentation at the seventh edition of Independent New York in 2016. Photographer: Etienne Frossard.

David Shrigley solo presentation and interactive installation with Anton Kern Gallery at the eighth edition of Independent New York in 2017. Photographer: Etienne Frossard.

Harald Ancart’s solo exhibition with C L E A R I N G at the ninth edition of Independent New York in 2018. Photographer: Etienne Frossard.

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With the latest edition of Independent in New York right around the corner, and given that it’s the tenth anniversary of the founding of the fair in 2009, can you take us back to when you started? What were your goals, and what did you see as lacking in other fairs that you wanted to address?
The Independent was founded by Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook and I was brought on from the beginning as a curatorial advisor. I had previously worked with Elizabeth on the X Initiative, which was in the same building, the former Dia Center for the Arts at 548 West 22nd Street, that Independent began in. When she told me that she was starting this fair, ten years ago, I think it’s worth noting that this was after the 2008 financial crisis, so it was a kind of interesting time economically. I think what people were thinking about was trying to create a context for art and for artists and for galleries that was closer to our experience of seeing work in exhibitions. Artists are very reluctant to see their work in the context of an art fair because it’s rarely shown on its own terms or in ideal circumstances, and with Independent I think what we wanted to do was try and create an environment for art and artists that was close to their intentions and ambitions. I think we were very fortunate at the beginning to start out in the Dia building, as it had this legacy and history of the art that had been shown there, but I also think it gave us a model for thinking about how to make an art fair that behaved differently. An art fair that didn’t feel like a convention or a trade show, and that tried to move away from rows of booths and corridors to create something that was much more open. I think one of the most important things still about Independent is its scale—from the beginning there were only around fifty or sixty exhibitors.

The relationship between the scale of what we’re doing and the architecture of where the fair takes place was really critical in the beginning and allowed Independent really to stand out from the get-go. Beyond that, I think my role as a curatorial advisor to the fair for the past ten years has been about the mix of galleries that we’ve presented, and in turn the work that those galleries have brought to Independent. From the beginning, inclusion in Independent has been by invitation only, which I think is a necessary strategy because of the scale of the fair, but at the same time I think it’s also allowed myself and the team to build really interesting narratives over the years. Over three hundred galleries have participated, and each year we try to rotate ten or twenty percent, or more, of the galleries out, so that the fair constantly rejuvenates and reanimates itself.

One of the things that I was interested in as a curator, and as someone who goes to see a lot of shows, was to try and break down some of the traditional hierarchies that you encounter at other fairs, where the very blue chip galleries have the most prominent positions and larger booths are more expensive, etc. What we really wanted to do was try and create a balance between all kinds of galleries with very different programs so that a visitor would have these very interesting and unexpected encounters. One of the things that I hope I brought to the Independent is the presence of what I would call maverick art dealers. I think there are a lot of amazing people running spaces with these extraordinary programs and they mostly they don’t have the economy of the larger galleries, but for ten, twenty-odd years they’ve just been bringing a kind of very maverick sensibility to how they run a gallery and to the kind of work they’ve shown. I think a lot of those spaces have been very engaged with and interested in showing the work of folk artists and outsider artists for instance. Over the last ten years this kind of conversation has become much more commonplace in the contemporary art world, but I think when we began it was very much in its infancy. We wanted to create a fair that reflected the complexity of contemporary visual culture, and also reflected how we as individuals went about looking at art. We didn’t go to just one particular kind of place; we went to galleries that were just emerging, some more established, and some that were large blue chip galleries. What we wanted to do was have all of those positions together, and one of the really successful aspects of the fair was creating this dialogue and suggesting that all of these things are part of a shared conversation.

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“We wanted to create a fair that reflected the complexity of contemporary visual culture, and also reflected how we as individuals went about looking at art.” 
–Matthew Higgs

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How do you think your years with White Columns as director and chief curator prepared you to work on a fair?
White Columns has a very specific mission, which is to support the work of artists before they really have had any kind of support. If one of the things the art world does is create consensus, I think one of the things White Columns is interested in are artists before consensus forms around them. Certainly one of the things that I’ve been doing there is working with a lot of artists who have less conventional training and less conventional backgrounds, including having disabilities or being self-taught. My interest in that area has definitely been reflected in a number of the invitations we’ve made at Independent over the years but I think really the only reason that I’m interested in that part of the field is because artists have always been interested in that part of the field. Andy Warhol was keenly interested in American folk art, for example. Artists like Jasper Johns and Richard Tuttle are big supporters of American folk and outsider art, and that’s something that in turn interests me. In that spirit we’ve made invitations to galleries like Cologne’s Delmes & Zander, Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York, and more recently Ricco/Maresca and a great gallery from Philadelphia called Fleisher/Ollman, who are really leaders in their field but who I don’t think were so well known in the contemporary art world until recently. We’re interested in Independent’s ability to facilitate and amplify a conversation between such worlds.

There’s some negative feeling around the proliferation of art fairs these days, and even since Independent was founded there have been fairs like Frieze coming to New York. Is there a certain corrective that you hope to provide?
I think what we wanted to do was to create an experience for the participants and the audience that was kind of manageable. One of the problems with the larger fairs is that they are simply overwhelming. It’s not really possible to look at two hundred-plus booths and really take away any meaningful sort of thought about that. What’s been interesting to see for me at least is that Frieze Los Angeles, which will open in February, is really a boutique fair with sixty participants. And the fair that everyone really enjoys is always the ADAA fair at the Park Avenue Armory, because not only is it focused, but it also just brings together really extraordinary diverse material both contemporary and modern. An experience like that of the ADAA was certainly influential on my thinking about Independent, and I can see that that model has become more compelling because much bigger fairs have probably reached a sort of critical mass in terms of their size, scope, and saturation. I think people are looking for experiences with art that are more engaging, and maintaining our focused scale rather than expanding is a really significant part of why people enjoy it so much. New York has become much more expensive, the cost of participating in fairs is much more expensive, and also I think much more complicated for galleries now. It’s important that we try and retain the original ethos and spirit of independent, which is very much about art dealers working together and alongside each other. In that respect, I think it borrows something from the Gramercy Art Fair, which was started by a group of art dealers and then became the Armory Show. Or the smaller satellite fairs in Europe in the 1990s, which really laid the foundation of today’s contemporary art world.

What can you tell us about the upcoming edition of the fair in New York this March, of any particular highlights or new additions?
A great example of a maverick program is Anglim Gilbert Gallery from San Francisco, which was originally Gallery Paule Anglim. She was really one of the most legendary art dealers I’ve ever met and spent time with when I lived in San Francisco. They’re bringing the work of a quite brilliant Bay Area artist called Colter Jacobsen, who I actually showed at White Columns ten years ago, so I’m excited to see Colter’s work in the context of Independent with this amazing gallery participating for the first time. There’s also an extremely interesting younger gallery from London called Emalin, and they’ll be showing a younger American artist called Megan Plunkett. And then we'll have galleries who have really been committed to the idea of Independent from the beginning, such as Maureen Paley from London and David Kordansky from Los Angeles, who tends to use this event in a really amazing way where he makes very singular presentation of artists from his program that perhaps we’re not so familiar with in New York.

Matthew Higgs lives and works in New York, where for the past 10 years he has been the director and chief curator of the non-profit art space, White Columns. New York’s oldest alternative art space, White Columns provides support to artists who have yet to benefit from wider critical, curatorial or commercial attention. Over the past forty-six years, hundreds of artists have benefited from early exposure and support at White Columns, including Gordon Matta-Clark, Barry Le Va, Kiki Smith, William Wegman, Sonic Youth, Jack Goldstein, David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Cady Noland, ACT-UP, and Glenn Ligon, among many others. Since 2005 alone, White Columns has presented the work of more than 500 artists—of all generations—in more than 100 individual exhibitions and projects.