Last July, about 3,000 visitors made their way across the pockmarked streetscape of the East Side and into the sunlit grand lobby of the Central Terminal to attend Buffalo's first-ever major art fair.
They circulated through the makeshift booths, handsomely adorned with work by an impressive roster of local artists, stopping occasionally to squint their eyes at this or that painting and strike the classic hand-to-chin pose of discerning art collectors everywhere. (The one that says: "I am a serious person, seriously looking at this serious art.")
But those visitors bought, if they bought anything all, very cautiously.
The juried, for-profit event, conceived only three months prior by Buffalo booster and art world jet-setter E. Frits Abell, was designed to confront a central and pressing supply-and-demand issue in Western New York's dizzying visual arts culture: Artists churn out untold amounts of high-quality artworks to buy, but not nearly enough collectors are interested in buying them.
Abell and many participants hailed the first version of Echo Art Fair as a marked success, even if some artists and galleries The Buffalo News spoke with were less than enthralled with the financial results. But it went well enough that Abell, along with his new organizing partner Dean Brownrout and a slate of active figures from across the Western New York art world, decided to have another go.
And this time around, Echo is a whole different animal.
On Saturday and Sunday, the newly revitalized Larkin District will become a hive of activity surrounding the fair's amped-up second edition. The fair will be held on the ground floor of the Larkin Center of Commerce, a raw, warehouse-like space with a resolutely Rust Belt vibe. It will feature 28 booths for individual artists and 15 booths for galleries.
There are several marked differences in this year's version of the fair. Perhaps most notably, Echo is hosting six Toronto-based galleries, as well as artists and galleries from Portland, Ore. and Austin, Texas in addition to its array of local artists and art spaces.
In the Larkin Center and outside the fair in a space that's being temporary renamed Larkin Art Square for the weekend, several site-specific sculptures and installations organized by Echo will dot the Larkin-scape. These include major sculptures by Scott Bye; an etching of the Great Lakes on the soon-to-be-renovated Swan Lounge by Canadian art collective TH&B and Niagara Falls artist Partick Robideau's wood models of industrial buildings and a mixed-media sculpture.
Like larger art fairs in larger cities, Echo has also spawned a separate and unaffiliated satellite art fair featuring work by artists who are not included in the main fair -- and some of whom have been vocally critical of its evolving mission. This satellite art market -- featuring work by well-known local artists like Amanda Besl, Ani Hoover, A.J. Fries and Lesley Horowitz -- will run from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday in Larkin Square and will also include performances by several Buffalo-based bands.
Also, from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, the Dnipro Ukranian Cultural Center (562 Genesee St.) will host "d'echodance," a sprawling dance party that has been much hyped in recent weeks which only adds to Echo's growing, carefully curated cool-factor.
For Abell, who launched Echo a little over a year ago after his success as the founder of the active Buffalo Expat Network, the fair is meant in part to encourage Western New Yorkers to become more involved in collecting the art made in their own backyard. It was also designed to draw those who have moved away from the city back home for the weekend to see how far the city has come in their absence.
"We have a long history of collecting in the arts. The creative class is moving in increasing numbers to Buffalo so this is a way for [artists] to market and commercialize their work," he said. "There are so many talented people based here that I think it would be unfortunate not to carry on the tradition that Buffalo's always had as being supporters of the arts and support those who are living here."
But it isn't just about buying and selling art, an activity that has been unfairly "stigmatized as an elitist sport," Abell added. The surrounding culture, the calculated hipness of the event and its location in a newly revitalized neighborhood plays into his desire to position echo as an event that helps to boost the image of the city as a whole.
"I don't want this just to be a commercial venture. I want it to be a commercial venture with an underlying social purpose, which it has," he said. "The underlying social mission is to help the local as well as non-local art market evolve to where people can sell their work and to where people who might have an appreciation for art can learn to have a better appreciation."
But art fairs, wherever they are held, almost always stir up controversy in their own communities and beyond. The same applies to Echo, which has been the subject of several heated debates in recent months over its inclusion of galleries and artists from outside Western New York and for rejecting many artists who participated in last year's fair.
Bruce Adams, a 2011 Echo participant who was not accepted to this year's fair, made some subtle critiques of the Abell's decision to include outside galleries and artists, but stressed that the fair is a young project that has yet to grow into its potential.
"I'm not sure Echo has settled on its identity yet," Adams said. "It's widely accepted that Buffalo is a great area for producing art, but not such a great area for selling it or for marketing. I think the initial impetus was to have an art fair in town that would bring buyers in from other cities. I think it's almost ironic that to some degree, it's flip-flopped, where it's bringing galleries in from other areas to attempt to reach our market, which is pretty slim. So I don't know how that's going to work out."
Abell, for his part, said he regrets that this year's fair -- which was originally planned to be much larger and include more artists -- wound up being smaller than expected because of space constraints. But he also stressed that Echo was never meant to be limited to Western New York artists, galleries or collectors.
"My intention is to base it here and to help get exposure for the artists working here, but that certainly does not mean that I'm relegating it to here," he said. "I want out-of-town artists coming here and galleries coming here and seeing how great Buffalo is."
One positive outgrowth of last year's fair, Abell said, was the decision of out-of-town Echo participant and Hallwalls co-founder Charlie Clough to return to Buffalo part-time to paint. Other artist expats, he said, are now spending more time in the city as well.
Outgoing Albright-Knox Art Gallery Director Louis Grachos, an Echo juror who used his major art-world clout to help draw four Toronto galleries to the fair, sees Echo as a potential tool for local artists to connect to buyers in other cities.
"I think it really creates a new energy, but it also is a great opportunity for Buffalo artists to showcase [their work] and connect" to Toronto's vast art market, Grachos said. "I'd like to see as this thing grows that it would happen with other cities and other galleries from other parts of the country. It really is a very important part of why the fair is, in my mind, a really good step."
Susan Hobbs, who runs her eponymous gallery on Tecumseth Street in Toronto, said she is looking forward to introducing her gallery's roster of artists to the American art market.
"I find that Americans -- this is a generalization -- are much more open to looking at new work, to looking at new ideas and to discovery, and that Canadians are much more conservative in that respect," she said. "[Abell and Grachos] said that there was a small but dedicated group of people collecting contemporary work and that they were very open-minded and interested in new things. To me, that's worth a trip an hour-and-a-half down the road."
Among many far larger and sexier cities in the money-driven upper echelons of the international art world, Buffalo hardly rates. But as Echo finds its footing, Abell, Grachos and the event's other backers are hoping to change that.
"It's not on the radar. It's not Dubai, it's not London, it's not Hong Kong," Abell said. But Echo is, he added, "a great opportunity for us to hover below the radar and take some market share."