After trudging through inches of rainwater on the venue’s floors, some participants of the Hamptons Fine Art Fair (HFAF) are pointing fingers at the fair for what they view as poor planning for the intense downpour on Southampton, New York, last Sunday. On July 16, the ritzy shoreline town was pummeled with three to five inches of rain in a two-hour timeframe, flooding the art fair on its last and most frenzied day and forcing a fire marshal-ordered evacuation due to unsafe electrical conditions.
While fair organizer Rick Friedman called the weather incident “an act of God,” several fair participants allege that the venue’s construction and electrical components left their booths unprotected from the elements, with some describing a “nightmarish” experience.
Based in Washington, DC, Zenith Gallery founder Margery Goldberg told Hyperallergic that as a first-time participant at the fair, she paid approximately $20,000 for her 10-by-20-foot booth and was astounded to find that the entire fair was split across three to four tents on a gravel field on the Southampton Elks Lodge property.
Goldberg claimed that the tents were built over ground-level plywood rather than on above-ground risers, like one would see at other art fairs. Another gallerist who preferred to remain anonymous corroborated Goldberg’s assertions and alleged that the gallery walls weren’t flush with the floors either, calling the entire thing “a recipe for disaster.”
Friedman, who has been involved with the Hamptons art market for over a decade, refuted these claims, telling Hyperallergic that the pavilion floors were “built about five inches above the ground” and that the gallery walls were touching the floors, but the “once-in-a-decade downpour” yielded about six to seven inches of water on the field so the flood height was above that of the flooring at certain points. “When you have water outside higher than inside, it finds a way to enter,” Friedman stated.
Regarding damages, insurance, and liabilities, Friedman said the incident was a “force majeure” situation beyond anyone’s control, and that the exhibitor agreement “strongly recommends” that participants have their own property insurance policy. He added that the force majeure clause in the agreement outlines that while the fair makes efforts to protect the artworks, it “does not take final responsibility.”
On top of her flood-related dismay, Goldberg also shared that she notified the Southampton fire marshal of her concerns about potentially unsafe electrical lines throughout the space, describing “hundreds of lines for lights and air conditioning running along the floors” that were submerged in water when the flooding began, cutting the power off repeatedly.
According to an official notice to Friedman and other organizational staff shared with Hyperallergic, Fire Marshal John Rankin shut the event down entirely because there was “standing water on walking surfaces” and “water had immersed and impinged on electrical cords and connections,” determining that patrons and participants were at risk for “health and safety issues” and “potential electrical shock.”
In a phone conversation with Hyperallergic, Rankin underscored the significant rainfall and alleged that the electrical lines onsite were likely provided both by independent vendors and electrician services. Friedman added that all the electrical work performed by the modular power company Aggreko “was excellent under normal conditions” and that the installation was typical for a 70,000-square-foot venue like that of the fair.
When it came time to de-install the booths on Monday, July 17, after the fair had ended early and the storm subsided, Goldberg said that there was no light or air-conditioning. “It was so hot and horrible that I poured a bottle of water on my head,” she said. “How can you pack up millions of dollars of work in these conditions, without light?”
Emmanuel Fremin of Fremin Gallery also stated that “the smell of mold was everywhere in the fair” during the de-installation, adding that he believes it was an “extremely hazardous situation.”
“I do not think that the town will allow any fairs to take place at this location again,” Fremin continued, though he noted that he was able to make some sales even after the power had gone out.
Friedman told Hyperallergic that he was under strict instruction by Rankin and the Department of Fire Prevention not to turn the power back on under any circumstances. “Rankin made this decision in the best interest of safety,” Friedman said.
A Midwestern artist whose work was on view at one of the booths, who preferred to remain anonymous, was unconvinced by the whole affair and said that many others were as well.
“I’ve been doing shows like this for years and have never seen such a poor production, especially for the cost for doing these shows,” they told Hyperallergic. “I know many galleries were unhappy and have a right to be. The show in my opinion was poorly organized and produced on the cheap.”
Friedman had a rosier take on the aftermath of the storm, sharing that the venue was secured by armed guards after evacuation, nobody got hurt, the fair had record attendance, and that the antique gallery MS Rau, which had a booth at the fair, “sold its dramatic Picasso painting for $5.5 million over the phone to an attendee during the storm shutdown.”
But Goldberg and the unnamed gallerist feel that the fair administration “refuted any responsibility and wrongdoing” through their contract and simply instructed participants to “contact [their] insurance,” allegedly without an apology.
“If they had built it properly, this would not have happened,” Goldberg left off, saying that she would be contacting affected participants to see if they could pursue next steps together.