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Helen Toomer Takes Over Pulse Art Fair

An interview with the contemporary show's visionary new director

by David Graver
on 08 May 2014

Few events each year successfully gather and contextualize movements within the arts world. In its ninth edition, NYC's iteration of the Pulse Contemporary Art Fair manages to do exactly that. Fifty international exhibitors showcase the work of hundreds of artists in a highly connected, meticulously curated event. And, at the forefront of it all, stands Helen Toomer; the newly appointed director of the fair. With an eye for revitalization, connectivity and evolving the idea of group exhibitions, Toomer has applied her extensive experience in the art world and delivered a showcase of valuable emerging and established artists. Toomer once founded her own gallery in Manhattan, and would later direct the Collective Design Fair. As the director of Pulse, she's established changes that will differentiate it from the rest.


Toomer has found a way to apply her background in a way that directly impacts the infrastructure of Pulse. "I really empathize with the galleries. Being a gallerist was one of the best things I have ever done—and one of the hardest. So I understand what it is—the cost involved in being in an art fair, the strain of taking part in an art fair, what it's like to be sat in a booth for four days," she tells CH. "I want to make sure the exhibitors are taken care of. I'm aware of their needs. And then also, I need to make sure the collectors are taken care of, as well." With that in mind, Toomer pared down the number of artists and works each exhibitor could showcase. With quality over quantity, she alleviates stress from both those representing the art, and those traipsing through it.


The art fair world is an incredibly crowded space, perhaps especially contemporary art. Toomer developed two through-lines to differentiate Pulse from the rest. "The words I keep using are integration and community," she begins. "For example, I've integrated the booths—these really young galleries, the emerging galleries, are integrated between their peers, the established galleries, those who have been in the business longer. I want them to create dialogue." She cites her own admiration of established gallerists when she was starting out, and realizes the impact on the art ecosystem when gallery owners interact. Additionally, she has a vision for the overall environment. "You can tell by the mood here, it is upbeat and it's great, but I want to make it manageable. Sometimes art fairs are overwhelming, so we have these pause points—Pulse Pause and Pulse Play, where people can take a minute and then go back into the work. It allows attendees to really connect with it."


The overall value of attending an art fair—for collectors and culturally curious—lies in the depth and breadth of what's on display. As Toomer sees it, "There's always value in going directly to a gallery, but the additional value of going to an art fair is that you get to see so many works and artists and galleries that you wouldn't be able to see if you went individually." She admits that it's impossible to visit every gallery in New York alone, but at Pulse they've brought exhibitors from Slovakia, Italy and Spain and many more. "Hopefully," she says, "You'll see them and connect with them and forge relationships with those gallerists, then visit their galleries elsewhere or abroad and invest in their artists."


"It is sensory and experiential, and I was very conscious of this when I (I am hesitant to use the word because it is often overused) curate—when I curated this fair," she observes. With mesmerizing work (much of it brand new and previously unseen) and an impressive cast of artists and gallery owners offering insight and information, Pulse has cleverly navigated the art fair world—and, with Toomer at the helm, created a must-stop destination for art lovers. "There are so many things you want to touch, but you know you can't," Toomer concludes. She's right, but you sure can get pretty close.

The Pulse Art Fair opens today and runs through 11 May 2014. Tickets are available online, where a day pass is $20 and a MultiPass is $25.

Lead image courtesy of Pulse Contemporary Art Fair, photos of artworks seen at this year's Pulse New York by David Graver

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