In 2015, Ambre Kelly and Andrew Gori were still going through enough growing pains with their now well-established art fair, Spring/Break, that when Kelly’s dad told her he couldn’t make it to New York to help out with odd jobs around the fair, Kelly got desperate. Drowning in worries in the shower one day, she had a thought: Since the fair’s theme that year was “transaction,” what if she and Gori enticed her father into coming by getting married at its opening?
Fast forward a few weeks and, without telling anyone except their production manager 15 minutes beforehand so he could clear an aisle, Kelly and Gori tied the knot on the abandoned second floor of the James A. Farley Post Office above Penn Station, in front of a crowd of friends and reporters assembled at the fair’s press preview. The artist Dustin Yellin leapt forward to serve as witness, and Kelly completed the transaction, as it were, by handing a minister a check upon reaching the altar. (The couple actually had a “spiritual wedding” in Italy the summer before.)
It was an atypical ceremony worthy of the six editions to date of Spring/Break, which has been anything but the usual white-walled art fair with endless rows of fluorescent-lit booths since its inaugural iteration in St. Patrick’s Old School in Soho in 2012. Since then, Spring/Break has always stood out, and not just because it was first held in a complex of pink, yellow, and purple classrooms with slate chalkboards: Having worked with Design Miami and seen up close just how much what exhibitors showed was influenced by a need to make up for their overhead, Kelly worked with Gori to develop a model where they not only didn’t charge exhibitors, but turned to curators to come up with their own showings, rather than galleries.
“You know, we almost didn’t call it a fair,” Gori recalled one recent morning around the corner from their former haunt, which they first broke in with a series of art shows from 2009 to 2011 before commercializing their venture. “But we felt like actually labeling it an art fair created a new kind of content by allowing us to ask, What if the goals of an art fair that traffics 30 to 40,000 people weren’t just monetary and market-driven?”
The result is, in the words of one observer, more of a “pop-up biennial” than a fair—and one that put Kelly and Gori in the red for four years, at that. (“We kind of just think of it as a student loan,” Kelly quipped.) Last March, though, something clicked: For the first time, Kelly and Gori turned a profit and were able to take care of (most of) their credit cards. There are now more consistent success stories, like in 2013, when Jean-Baptiste Michel exhibited his first-ever piece of art and the Whitney Museum acquired it for its permanent collection. Then the late Bill Cunningham showed up to shoot street style at the fair in 2015; the critic Ken Johnson declared in _The_ New York Times in 2016 that "if you really want the best stuff coming out of the studios in New York, this is the place to start"; and New York magazine's critic Jerry Saltz named the booth Myla Dalbesio curated at Spring/Break one of the 10 best shows he saw all of last year.
Now that Spring/Break has become an established brand, its founders are ready to grow it. Over the weekend, they opened Bklyn Immersive; instead of a fair, it's an art exhibition, which will be sandwiched between a Target and an under-construction Trader Joe’s in the City Point mall in Downtown Brooklyn through May 14. Situated among fast-food restaurants and chain department stores, the unlikely venue marks the couple's first foray into exhibiting in a commercial space, and will also be entirely free and open to the public.
What isn’t new, however, is the “Black Mirror” theme carried over from the last Spring/Break just two months ago in Vanity Fair’s former offices in Times Square. That edition became an unabashedly political affair; after allowing curators, whose proposals were due a week before the Presidential election result in November, to change their ideas around, Kelly and Gori dove into “addressing what’s happening in our world and our political climate,” outfitting staffers in jackets covered in Donald Trump’s tweets, while the booths showcased unapologetically anti-Trump works, like a shredded “Make America Great Again” hat.
With Bklyn Immersive, though, the theme is less explicit; Kelly and Gori also took nods from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy cult 1973 film The Holy Mountain, whose production was partly financed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as Kelly told me over sips of a “yellow juice” containing jicama. She then explained she has taken up an anti-straw stance after seeing a video of a tortoise getting suffocated. As a pair, they come off a bit hippieish, but don’t get the wrong idea—there's a hardiness to their politics. Through installations made of mylar blankets typically given to refugees (by the artist Grace Villamil) to a recreation of an entire house in New Orleans that the artist Takashi Horisaki cast in latex after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, Bklyn Immersive ensures that Spring/Break will continue “always being called the political art show,” as Kelly said.
“Typically political art isn’t really found in that art fair environment,” she went on. “For us, political art is about pushing those boundaries and creating a discourse about what’s going on in the world, not necessarily what’s going to sell.”
Their willingness to depart from conventions has only endeared Kelly and Gori to artists. “They really take good care of the artists, and they take risks,” said Maripol, who’s shown in and curated in two Spring/Breaks. She recalled the ‘80s and ‘90s, when the founders of the now buttoned-up Armory Show were another part of the art crew milling around the East Village. “You know, the art world is now like a big closed circuit in a way,” she added. “But for me, [Kelly and Gori] are this new generation of that type of pioneer.”
After all, Kelly is an artist herself. So far, her works on display this year include a portrait of Gori and their cat Giatto at the Whitney Houston Biennial, plus a series of recreations of typo-filled articles published the day after Trump’s election, with 10 painfully painted portraits of the president’s face, at Spring/Break in March. Gori, for his part, sticks to film and has his own nascent production company. Sometimes the pair collaborates under the moniker BOYFRIENDGIRLFRIEND; other times they do so under their own names, like when they mounted a joint photo exhibition last year at New York's Equity Gallery.
In their expansive apartment in Crown Heights, Kelly's studio and Gori's office are found at opposite ends of the space; they meet in the middle, at the dining room table, to work on Spring/Break. With the fair’s growth in recent years, they’ve had to divide up some of the jobs—Gori has taken on most of the PR, whereas Kelly sticks mostly to sales and production—but the pair has stayed adamant about going through each and every one of the curator's proposals and artwork placements together, even if it means waking up at 4 a.m. every day in the month or two before the fair.
Spring/Break normally coincides with Armory Week, but Bklyn Immersive has made it so that this year, they’ve worked their way into Frieze Week, too, with the exhibition overlapping the fair on Randall's Island. By having a weeklong run—and a roster of a mere dozen artists, compared to the typical hundreds—the undertaking has been a bit less hectic than usual. Kelly and Gori have even been waking up at the luxurious hour of 7 a.m.
One recent evening, near the exhibition's closing time, children who’d wandered in from the mall with their parents still milled about, digging into the sand pile where the chairs and tables from Creative Time’s gala had stood just a few days before, a safe distance from the pool of water beneath Jason Peters's giant hanging neon sculpture. The day before, two kids had jumped right in—one decided to belly flop. "We still haven't worked out how we're going to get the water out of here yet," Kelly admitted. It was one of the hazards of open admission to an art show, but it also reminded me of something Gori had said was at the heart of why they started Spring/Break in the first place: "I think we deep down don’t want to feel like there’s any place where art can’t be.”
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