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Fair for the People: an Interview with Leanne Stella

Jack Howard-Potter, "Belvedere Torso" (2010), chrome plated steel, Marcus Garvey Park installation through August 1, 2016 (Photo Credit: Jason Wallace)

By HEATHER ZISES, JUNE 2016

This year, for its second edition, FLUX Art Fair presented over 40 large-scale installations, performances and subtle artist interventions throughout the month of May in Upper Manhattan, including 22-acre Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem Art Park, an urban farm and two boulevards. FLUX Founder and long-time advocate of the arts in Harlem, Leanne Stella discusses this year’s curatorial theme “Changing Landscapes” and how FLUX has transformed the art fair model by presenting “Art Outside the Box.” FLUX – as its name suggests- is constantly evolving and changing to respond to the cultural climate. This groundbreaking event was launched as an inclusive and diverse platform for artists to present their work and for enthusiasts to engage with the work. This year 50 percent of the artists presented- who were selected by a jury without indication of gender during the jury process- are women. This is a significant number in an industry that sorely lacks diversity.

Heather Zises: FLUX Art Fair is in its second edition. Compared with last year, what would you say the biggest program differences are this year?

Leanne Stella: FLUX is continually changing and evolving — as our name suggests. In our first year the fair was indoors and followed more of a “traditional” fair model with booths. This year we have removed the walls and have taken the installations and performances to Harlem’s parks and boulevards. What has remained the same: FLUX continues to be a fair driven by curators and artists, which allows for a degree of freedom from the market driven model and puts the focus on the intention of the artist. While we will always occur in May to coincide with the opening of Frieze New York, FLUX will adapt and evolve to respond to available spaces, community needs and artistic trends.

Tiffany Smith, "Outdoor/Indoor," adhesive vinyl, live and artificial plants, overall dimension 42’w x 8’h D, Marcus Garvey Park Installation through August 1, 2016 (Photo Credit: Peter Cooper)

HZ: How has the context of having an art fair in Harlem — not quite a typical area for a contemporary art fair — informed (or not informed) FLUX’s curatorial agenda?

LS: The curatorial theme for the 2015 fair was “The 21st Century Artist is a Nomad” and for 2016 the artists responded to “Changing Landscapes.” Harlem is an international community with a global reach. Being in Harlem definitely informs our curatorial agenda and pushes us to examine topics with two lenses simultaneously: local and global.

HZ: Over 50 percent of the artists represented in FLUX Public Art Projects this year are women. Interestingly, about half of the fair’s Advisory Board are also women. Was this an intentional grouping or did it happen organically?

LS: This happened somewhat organically but we are paying attention to this aspect and are building on it. The Advisory Board is comprised of women I look up to, and men who support what I — as a woman — am trying to build. As a result, the Board – who helps with outreach and curatorial selections — was able to look at the work first. Gender did not influence selections. The strength of the works presented by women show that they are skilled artists with knowledge of engineering and construction required to produce dynamic large-scale works.

Bob Clyatt, "(E)scape – New Faces" (2014), cast aluminum, steel base, Marcus Garvey Park Installation through August 1, 2016 (Photo Credit: Jason Wallace)

HZ: Are there any artworks in the fair this year that focus on women’s issues or have feminist narratives?

LS: Mira Gandy’s piece “Up, Up, Up You Mighty Race,” reflects on the Pan African women hair braiders on 125th Street that have empowered themselves by creating a viable income source through the hair businesses. What I find to be equally important is that there is little to no gender identification associated with the majority of the works. By simply looking at a work in FLUX it is virtually impossible to decipher whether a man or a woman produced it. In fact, many of the larger pieces requiring construction/engineering knowledge are in fact produced by women, such as “Seedpod” by Alice Momm, “Bed of Flowers” by Leah Poller, “Urban Transformation” by Linda Cunningham, “Surge” by Lucy Hodgson, “Big Head (Harlem Rose)” by Montserrat Daubon and “DNA Totem” by Suprina.

HZ: Before FLUX Art Fair in 2015 there was Art In FLUX, a pop up exhibition and event series for local (Harlem-based) artists. Were you involved with the Art In FLUX initiatives when they began in 2012, or were you recruited later on?

LS: I launched Art In FLUX in 2012 for two reasons: 1) To create opportunity for artists living and working uptown and 2) To create exhibitions in underutilized spaces to encourage the community to engage with art on an ongoing basis. After a couple of years of producing the pop-up galleries, I looked back on my experience producing antique and art fairs in NYC and realized we could have a bigger impact on getting the broader public to recognize Harlem as a strong arts community by producing an art fair during an international art week in New York. We chose May for several reasons. Geographically, FLUX is positioned as the closest fair to the anchor fair of the month (Frieze New York), and as FLUX evolves every year and takes place in raw buildings and/or outdoors, we need it to happen in a warmer weather month.

Erin Treacy & Kara Schmidt Curated by Antecedent Projects: "Lines of Site" (2016), acrylic/oil paint on paper, urethane, copolymer and vinyl ink, Harlem Art Park Installatino through May 31, 2016 (Photo credit: Kareem Gonsalves)

HZ: Unlike most other established art fairs, this one is free, open to the public, and on view for roughly a month. With that in mind, how has FLUX worked to engage Harlem and the surrounding communities compared to conventional art fairs?

LS: FLUX is an integral part of the community. From its inception FLUX (including Art In FLUX and FLUX Fair) has been engaged in collaborating and working with Harlem artists, organizations and businesses. This year’s public art concept strongly reinforced the FLUX initiative that began in vacant retail spaces to engage a community with art. WM

Heather Zises

Heather Zises is a Brooklyn-based curator, writer, and founder of (READ)art, an independent platform for contemporary art and culture. Alongside an extensive background at Pace Gallery and Phillips, her essays, reviews, and interviews have been published in books, magazines and online, including Fjords Review and The Excellent People.

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