Wednesday was a typical opening day for Washington International Art Fair promoter Elias Fellus: some of the largest galleries failed to deliver their exhibits on time, a prominent listing in the show catalogue was wrong, and one exhibitor was afraid the walls were about to come tumbling down.
"Eli, these walls are terrible," complained the gesticulating art dealer. "I've got some heavy graphics and I can't hang them on these walls."
Fellus sighed again, promised that the fabric-covered partitions dividing the D.C. Armory would not collapse, blamed the catalogue error on a missed deadline and prayed that the missing exhibitors would arrive.
It is not easy making a living in the art business in Washington. Politics is the local folk art, not painting; Republican elephants and Democratic donkeys are the icons of the District of Columbia. Millions flock to see the nation's masterpieces at the National Gallery, the East Wing and the Hirshhorn, but fewer trek to the out-of-the-way Armory to see unknown artists.
But for six consecutive years, Fellus has managed to lure more than 100 art dealers to Washington to sell their work to other dealers and the public.
Art fairs are common in Europe, but Fellus was the first to bring the idea to the United States when he put on his first fair here in 1975. "Up to that point, they dealers had to go to Europe and spend their money there," he said. "Now they can spend their money on inventory instead of air fare."
Although the Washington art fair is struggling for artistic acclaim, it has been successful enough commercially to spawn several imitators, which is one of its problems.
This year's show runs through Monday night at the Armory, adjacent to RFK Stadium. Promoted as Art 81 Washington, Fellus' fair is a cross between a trade show for art gallery owners and an open house at an artists' commune.
The dealers who shell out $725 and up for a booth expect to sell some original prints, reproductions, posters, paintings or art objects to the general public, but usually do the bulk of their business with other dealers.
Fellus said past fairs have drawn 2,000 to 4,000 dealers. The business done at the annual event can range "from $6 million to $60 million," he said, but "the big question is whether the dealers will come this year."
Wholesale transactions are handled at standard discounts (25 to 40 percent and up) from the retail prices posted at the fair. Some dealers also trade artwork from their inventory for works by artists handled by other dealers.
Like most merchants, art dealers are loathe to admit business is poor, but one artist offering his work at the Armory acknowledged anonymously that "these are terrible times for artists."
The economy is partly to blame, because artwork is easily cut from family and corporate budgets when times get tough.
Art sales also have been hurt by a recent change in federal tax law that prohibits investing Individual Retirement Account funds in artwork. Until recently, many art buyers had used loopholes in the tax law to get federal tax deductions for money spent on artwork. That was good for artists but bad for the Treasury, and is prohibited after Jan. 1.
Other Internal Revenue Service moves have made contributing works of art to charity less attractive, ending another backdoor subsidy of the arts.
Fellus also has been hurt by competitors who've skimmed the cream off the top of the market and drained the dregs from the bottom, trapping the Washington show in the middle.
The major New York art dealers would not deign to show their work at the D.C. Armory when the idea was first proposed, Fellus said. They contended a Washington art fair would attract few buyers who didn't already shop in New York and could not compete with the established European fairs.
Instead, the big Manhattan dealers now are showing their works in Chicago at a spring fair that has begun to draw major Washington galleries away from the local show. Local gallaries such as Middendorf-Lane, Lunn and Osuna are not in the Armory this year. Fellus could not attract enough galleries to fill the Armory, so he donated space to several local arts groups.
The D.C. art world is a small fraternity, and Washington art dealers are reluctant to publicly criticize Fellus' fair. Some who have dropped out claim they don't need a fair to reach Washington buyers, who can walk into their galleries any day of the year.
The bottom end of the art market -- the Miss Piggy Posters, Hallmark card-style prints and mass-produced paintings -- have been drained away by a New York show that Fellus admits "took a lot of the energy out of the Washington fair at the low and middle ends."
The March show in Chicago forced Fellus to shift the date of his fair from May to September. With the biggest dealers showing in Chicago, Fellus has had to give up trying to draw the first-tier galleries.
"I don't want my fair to go the way Chicago has gone," Fellus insists. "I want my show to reflect a national involvement for art, not what a couple of dozen galleries from some side street in New York are promoting."