The Legacy of the Fountain

Words Christina Faaborg

Fountain Art Fair Director, Elizabeth Tully
Fountain Art Fair Director, Elizabeth Tully

What is art? The question has been asked over and over again, because who decides what is art and what is not? And what is good art and what is not? Once art was known as pretty paintings and sculptures almost always depicting something recognisable from the real world. Elizabeth Tully is the director of a different and burgeoning art fair named Fountain Art Fair, which breaks with traditional thoughts on art and on how to exhibit it.

In 1917, in a daring push against the boundaries of acceptability, the French artist Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym R. Mutt, submitted a urinal to an exhibition by the American Society of Independent Artists in New York and called it a piece of art. The urinal, which was called the Fountain, was at first rejected, then displayed behind a curtain as a compromise. The ensuing debate over what identifies as ‘good art’ and what can and cannot be labeled as art continues on some level to this day.

One hundred years on, Elizabeth Tully, Director of Fountain Art Fair, is all about the modern-day Duchamp. After all, Fountain Art Fair takes it name from his infamous piece of art. “In today’s market, it’s all subjective. One man’s urinal is another woman’s Fountain,” she says as the director of a fair that recognizes new and progressive art. Where Duchamp sparked opinions across the world on what art can be, Tully and Fountain Art Fair are poised to change the view on what an art fair can be. Elizabeth Tully, earned a Bachelor’s in Art History from Hunter College, started out in the art world at the intimate Leo Kesting Gallery, but Tully was hooked on art far before all of that. As a child, her hero was Bob Ross, who hosted a television show on PBS called the Joy of Painting – he was her first ‘window to art’. “As a kid, he was 100% my artistic hero. And when I visited the Museum of Modern Art, my 12-year-old self was outraged to find that his art was not covering the walls! On that same trip, however, I came across a Felix Gonzales-Torres piece that blew my mind, and Art – capital ‘A’ – took a whole new meaning.”

Tully is not a typical art fair director with lots of
 years volunteering at different remarkable galleries. Besides studying, she worked as a waitress and a nanny until she got an internship with
 Fountain co-founders David Kesting and Johnny 
Leo at their Manhattan gallery in the Meatpacking District.

Tully has always held her own view on art. The fact that she had not been deeply involved in the elite art world and the larger more established galleries before catching her first whiff of Fountain Art Fair, has probably contributed to the fact that her view on art has been a bit more liberated than that of many of her colleagues. The essence of Fountain, and its director, is a spirit for the underground, the undiscovered, and creative curiosity and fearlessness. All pretension must be checked at the door.

The aura that emanates from the walls of Fountain is what instantly enveloped Beth during her first encounter with the fair. At the time, she had just landed an internship at Leo Kesting Gallery, one of the original galleries that helped birth Fountain Art Fair.

Fountain Art Fair Director, Elizabeth Tully
Fountain Art Fair Director, Elizabeth Tully

Her first experience with Fountain Art Fair was therefore not as a visitor, but as part of the fair, collecting money at the door. She had no idea she would later become the director of this fair, but her hunger to become a part of the movement was undeniable. “It was insane. The home of Fountain then was a floating barge on Pier 66 in the Hudson River. I had never seen such a kinetic frenzy of art and performances and people, I was hooked. Soon after my internship ended, I began selling art at the gallery and collaborating with my then-partner Rachel Esterday. We kept at [Fountain co-founders] Johnny and David, asking for work and taking on different projects. We basically nagged our way into the team.” Johnny and David saw something in the rookie, and welcomed her invigoration for mission of Fountain.

This attitude embodies what the fair is all about; showing and finding new art and artists, and giving them an affordable scene on which to express themselves. This is not to say that the fair shows those who are unknown and will never be known in the upper echelon of the art world. In a different kind of way, they find the ones who have not been found yet, and provide them with a platform on which to grow. The up-and-comers and the unconventional are welcomed, especially those who make the kind of art that sometimes can be questioned whether it is art or not. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that while Fountain Art Fair and the more traditional fairs are players in the same market, the experience of exhibiting at and attending Fountain as opposed to other fairs is completely unique.

Fountain Miami 2011
Fountain Miami 2011

Fountain Art Fair is all about being passionate, to make room for all kinds of art and the new different artists. Yet there’s another crucial element to its constitution – a desire to make an art space where selling is not the only purpose, but matched with a wish to create atmosphere and community. Tully wants that. “Nurturing an environment where exhibitors are free to push boundaries and engage with visitors is what comes naturally to Fountain, and we attract applicants who are drawn to that. The best way we can support the community that sustains us is to create an environment where they cannot only connect, but sell art as well.”

The vibe at Fountain is both friendly and laid-back, and visitors and artists alike note the incredible energy that develops at the fair as an unfailing characteristic. It’s as if the art awakens the souls of each person, and everyone is genuinely excited to celebrate and share their creative perspectives. “People are getting involved on so many levels. Artists connecting with visitors, galleries connecting with artists, visitors sharing experiences. You can feel it when you walk through the door. It is something you need to see to believe.” (…)

Read more in Tomorrow’s Journal | Issue 8

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