Elizabeth Dee. (Courtesy Independent Art Fair)
Elizabeth Dee. (Courtesy Independent Art Fair)

Elizabeth Dee on Rethinking the Canon of 20th-Century Art

The co-founder and CEO of the Independent Art Fair shares her wide-ranging media diet—one that’s reflective of how she looks at art, art history, and the world.
By Meaghan McGovern
September 6, 2022
7 minute read

Since 1997, when she founded her eponymous (now shuttered) gallery, Elizabeth Dee has been a fixture of the New York art scene, a doer and seer known for having her finger on the pulse. A multi-hyphenate collector, curator, and writer, her robust resumé includes authoring monographs about artists such as Josephine Meckseper, Ryan Trecartin, and Meredyth Sparks; a stint as director of the John Giorno Foundation, a position from which she’s stepping down this month; and her most high-profile role, as co-founder and CEO of New York’s Independent Art Fair. An elegant, tightly curated event that remains an outlier in its efforts to elevate overlooked, underrepresented, and unsung galleries or artists, and an Independent champions discovery. True to its name, the fair, which Dee created with Matthew Higgs in 2009, stands out from the global art-circuit pack for its intimacy, intricacy, and consistent high quality.

This month sees the first-ever Independent 20th Century, an edition of the fair that primarily focuses on lesser-known or under-celebrated artists who worked between the years 1900 and 2000. A re-canonizing effort, it seeks, in its own humble way, to offer an alternative history of 20th-century art. Running from Sept. 8 to 11 and taking place at the swanky Cipriani South Street, the presentation will feature more than 70 artists, including works by the Brazilian Indigenous painter Chico da Silva and the Polish textile artist Barbara Levittoux-Świderska as well as pieces by more recognizable names such as Yayoi Kusama. Beyond shifting certain public discourse, with both Independent 20th Century and Independent’s New York flagship fair, Dee hopes to crack open stories and break down certain impenetrable roadblocks. Commissioning writers year-round is part of this process. For Dee, Independent is an ongoing conversation, not just a platform for annual week-long fairs. “Many artists around the world have not had access to opportunity due to race, class, gender, geopolitics, and language barriers,” she says. “There is also an access-to-the-story barrier. That’s one of the beautiful things about the shift to digital: We’re now able to commission writing in English, some of which is general reading and some of that is scholarship. We feel this is a big part of our contribution.”

We recently sat down with Dee to discuss her mind-expanding, book-or-two-a-week media diet. “When I was in my twenties and thirties,” she says, “I couldn’t read a book—I felt like I didn’t have the time. Now, in my forties, I can actually read again. It’s like I’m making up for lost time.”

How do you start your mornings?

I’m an early riser. I get up at 5 a.m. The first thing I do is check all of our campaigns and see how they are performing with the arts outlets. During fair-production season—which now is six months of my year, since we have two fairs, one in May and one in September—we usually have one or more media campaigns going at the same time.

Any favorite newsletters?

Our newsletter, which we send out every week. We have a very loyal and savvy audience that wants to hear from us about things they don’t yet know about. We’ve hired Hannah McGivern, the former [museums and heritage] editor of The Art Newspaper, and have commissioned, for this fall, sixteen art historians and writers to write about the artists being presented at Independent 20th Century.

Favorite podcasts?

Voices on Art. Daniela Steinfeld is a gallerist and one of the best talk-show hosts in the art world, ever. She’s based in Dusseldorf and has done phenomenal, considerate, and intimate portraits of members of the art world, from great artists, to curators, to museum leaders, to gallerists. I never miss her episodes.

Favorite magazines?

Paris Review, where our co-founder, Matthew Higgs, is a contributing editor. And The World of Interiors, which is my all-time favorite magazine. I love how they bring the history of interiors into a contemporary framework. I think that’s something that’s very on-point in culture at the moment.

What books are you reading?

One of my favorite summer reads this year was Takedown: Art and Power in the Digital Age by Farah Nayeri. It’s about how power and culture are shifting as a result of the pandemic, the #MeToo movement, and Black Lives Matter. It’s very much a jumping-off point for conversations that we’re having at Independent 20th Century about the canon.

I’m also currently reading Art in the After-Culture [by Ben Davis]. Partially because of my tenure at John Giorno Foundation, the last few years I’ve been very interested in, and been thinking a lot about, downtown New York’s avant-garde. What did it look like then, and what does it look like today? There are a number of books that I’ve been reading on the topic. I have to give a shout-out here to the art critic and biographer Deborah Solomon for introducing me to Smash Cut: A Memoir of Howard & Art & the ’70s & the ’80s by Brad Gooch. I’m reading The Loft Generation: From the de Koonings to Twombly: Portraits and Sketches, 1942-2011 by Edith Schloss, too. I also just finished Ada Calhoun’s new book, Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me, which is about Frank O’ Hara and her father [The New Yorker magazine art critic] Peter Schjeldahl, and I recently read It Was Vulgar and It Was Beautiful: How AIDS Activists Used Art to Fight a Pandemic by Jack Lowery.

Another book I recommend is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, who’s a phenomenal thinker about organizational systems. I ordered a copy for my production team as well, because it’s mind-blowingly helpful in terms of putting on a global event. And I’m deep into Ray Dalio’s Principles, which has been game-changing in my thinking about running organizations, leadership, collaboration, teamwork, and really making the most valuable contribution to the people that I work with. I can’t believe I’m just now discovering it.

Any books that aren’t necessarily related to your work?

I just ordered Stefanie Hessler’s new book, Sex Ecologies, out from M.I.T. Press. It’s about the intersection of gender and climate change. I also read The Chancellor, [by Kati Marton] a biography of Angela Merkel, who’s a phenomenal inspiration. And I recently read Amy Odell’s Anna, about the life of Anna Wintour.

Any guilty pleasures?

Astrology. I've been studying it since high school. I spend a decent amount of time on astrology and forecasting for people in life—and for myself.