Helen Toomer on breathing new life into Miami’s PULSE Contemporary Art Fair

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Helen Toomer is the new director of PULSE Contemporary Art Fair, now approaching its 10th anniversary at Miami Beach. She was a part of PULSE near the beginning, but left in 2009 to found her own gallery (since closed), which focused on emerging artists. As she rejoins PULSE—part of an all-female leadership team that she describes as “super A-type”—she’s continuing her commitment to support new artists. Toomer took time away from “breathing a little bit of new life” into the fair to talk about fair fatigue, helping new galleries get noticed, and the most important things to keep in mind while navigating an art fair.

dot429: What makes the PULSE Contemporary Art Fair unique?

Helen Toomer: The spirit of the fair. This will be our 10th anniversary, and we’ve been breathing a little bit of a new life into it, with my coming onboard and some new programming and more focused curatorial and conceptual booths. I’ve also made it a smaller, more intimate fair this year. Everyone’s got fair fatigue, it seems, over the past couple of years, so I wanted to create a more calm, enjoyable oasis in the middle of the Miami madness, as it were.

dot429: Are you making any specific changes since the last fair in New York?

HT: No, we’re continuing with the changes in terms of integration, which was one of the things we introduced in New York. There always used to be an Impulse section, which was for younger galleries, and I wanted to integrate the booths. I think that it’s important to have the connectivity and the dialogue, not only between the galleries and the artists, [but also]visually. 

And obviously, we’re carrying on with the Perspectives programming, which was a new thing in New York, which is a series of intimate roundtable conversations, with the umbrella theme of value. So that’s going to produce some energetic discussions. 

And really, the big change in Miami is moving to the beach, because since 2005 we’ve been in Wynwood [arts neighborhood of Miami]. There are a lot of changes and redevelopment there, so I’m excited to be part of that change and part of the community.

dot429: Something you said that interested me was that you want to continue with a layout that encourages interconnectivity. Can you describe a specific time in New York when you saw that in action?

HT: For example, there was a young gallery in Williamsburg called Transfer Gallery. And this was the first time they showed their work and the work of Daniel Temkin, who’s a digital-based artist. And what was really great was that we had their work and their gallery opposite a more established Chelsea gallery. And they were also very close to where we held the Perspectives conversations. So it was really an interesting environment to see how the gallerists connected with each other. Kelani from Transfer Gallery—she’s the owner there—sold a piece and told me that that made the difference to their whole program.

The collector has been coming to PULSE for years, but one of the things that we try to push is that element of discovery. So you’ll be able to come and see the gallery and the artists you love, but there’ll also be these great, new, wonderful artists that you may not have traveled to Williamsburg or Bushwick to see. We’re in a huge art market, and art is sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sometimes you can take it for granted that it’s a sustainable industry, but there are a lot of young galleries out there who are trying to survive month to month. 

dot429: What should people who are going to this event be excited to see?

HT: I always love for people to make their own decisions. One of the things that I like to do, whether at an art fair or at a gallery, is to go in and do a loop and take it all in, then go back and revisit works and gallerists that I want to talk to. But we’re excited about the PULSE Prize this year. It’s a cash grant that we give to an artist whose work is in a solo booth presentation at the fair.

dot429: What tips do you have for people navigating the art fair? 

HT: We’ve been thinking a lot about the fair as a journey. We think about the visitor experience from beginning to end—the minute they step out of the car, off the shuttle bus, or from the beach—all the way through the fair, from the art to the layout of the booths to the programming, projects, food, and decks overlooking the sea.  It’s important to take your time, with breaks in between to reset and enjoy the journey of this fair.

The PULSE Contemporary Art Fair runs December 4-7 at Indian Park Beach in Miami Beach. 

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