When The Armory Show opens this year on March 7, it will pay homage to the centennial of its 1913 namesake, which introduced the European avant-garde to America and paved the way for New York City to become the capital of the modern art world. While there will undoubtedly be many artworks depicting nudes, none will make history by descending a staircase: Marcel Duchamp's iconic cubist painting (Nu Descendant un Escalier) has become synonymous with the original Armory Show–which opened on February 17, 1913, in the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets–and with modernism itself. "This exhibition will be epoch-making in the history of American art," crowed its organizers.

The current-day Armory Show has gone through many incarnations since that initial moment of shock and awe, including an 81-year hiatus before its precursor, the Gramercy International Art Fair, was opened by some adventurist gallerists in the Gramercy Park Hotel in 1994. That sprawling fair moved to the 69th Street Regiment Armory in 1999, branded with a new name: The Armory Show, which morphed into the familiar West Side pier show in 2001.

New York City’s largest art fair, The Armory Show essentially had the playing field in Manhattan to itself for a decade. Known for a high-end smorgasbord of contemporary and modern art, it has long attracted A-list galleries and provided a convenient annual opportunity for artists—especially New York–based artists—to check out emerging trends and the work of their rivals. Like Art Basel Miami Beach, the show is surrounded by a series of satellite fairs, including Volta, Scope, and the Independent. Its only significant competition has been the Art Dealers Association of America fair, which runs around the same time and is restricted to member galleries.

But that picture has dramatically changed over the past several years. A convergence of factors, from major galleries dropping out of the show, to the proliferation of art fairs worldwide, to the advent of a bold new upstart in town, Frieze Art Fair New York, is forcing The Armory Show to reinvent itself.

Even before Frieze, the Armory fair had already lost some of its luster. Starting in 2009, several of the usual suspects stopped participating. The New York Times commented that the fair was “feeling its years” despite the addition of a second “Modern” pier showing significant 20th-century art. The Armory’s conventional chock-a-block booths seemed cluttered compared to the compact solo-booth alternatives at places like Volta. Then there was the new scale of competition: Art fairs have gone viral in the past decade, with virtually hundreds of fairs popping up around the world, from the latest, Art Basel Hong Kong, to such well-established art-world events as Art Basel, Frieze London, and Art Basel Miami Beach.

Everything got a major jolt in May 2012, when a hip new kid arrived on the block. Frieze New York, a spin-off of the highly touted London fair, (literally) unfurled its tent on Randall’s Island and was an instant hit. Under an airy big top, Frieze managed to house 180 international galleries, drawn both by Frieze London’s reputation as “the grande dame of cutting-edge art fairs,” and the exciting new venue—a sinuous tent with an adjacent sculpture park. Unlike The Armory, Frieze’s capacious booths had ample space and natural light. The result was a seductive fair that looked and felt dramatically different.

The Armory lost not only a few galleries to Frieze New York (some galleries, like David Zwirner, participated in both) but also a few satellites. Pulse, for instance, switched its dates to coincide with the new fair, which by design occurred the week before the major spring contemporary and modern art auctions in New York. (This year’s Frieze runs from May 10 through 13.)

“Frieze came last spring and shifted the paradigm of the New York artfair landscape,” says Noah Horowitz, who became executive director of The Armory Show in November 2011. “We listened to both the galleries and the audience,” he explains, which resulted in efforts to “pare things back and make the Armory Show more human scale, more bespoke.”

For this year’s Centennial Edition, which runs from March 7 through 10, The Armory Show is pushing that evolution to the max. “I think The Armory had an image problem it was struggling to deal with, and one could say it was too corporate, too big, or too much one booth after another,” says Horowitz. “The show got very large and a lot of people felt it was not going in the right direction. We have made a concerted effort to give the piers a face-lift and whittle out a number of exhibitors in exchange for galleries who are doing more ambitious presentations. At the same time, we are specifically rebuilding relationships with galleries that stopped doing The Armory Show.” This year there will be 210 galleries from 30 countries. (A new architectural firm was hired last year to revise the dense floor plan and make it more user-friendly.)

The fair is rebranding itself while hyping its major historical connections. According to Horowitz, the new, improved fair will be “more gallery-driven, and more conceptual, with a lot of single, tightly curated booths.” A Solo and Special Projects program has been created to showcase single artists or themes. The David Zwirner gallery, for example, will feature a site-specific, eight video-monitor installation by LA artist Diana Thater, who is known for manipulating space with projected images. Mai 36 Galerie’s booth will focus on Matt Mullican’s system of symbols and pictograms, and at the Hannah Barry Gallery, James Capper’s working, machinelike sculptures, called “Hydraulic Power Tools for New York” will be used in a demonstration area to actually drill and fracture plaster blocks, a literal reference to the act of sculpting itself.

A part of the Solo Projects program will commemorate the original 1913 show. Francis Naumann Fine Art is creating a curated booth that will pay homage to Marcel Duchamp’s Nu Descendant un Escalier by displaying important archival items connected to Duchamp’s iconic piece, including some of the material used in the original work. Such contemporary artists as Mike Bidlo, Joseph Kosuth, Sherrie Levine, Sophie Matisse, and Yoko Ono, along with others, have created or repurposed works referencing the famous painting. On Pier 92–Modern, half-a-dozen galleries will be showing work that specifically relates to the 1913 show. DC Moore Gallery will exhibit works by Walt Kuhn and Marsden Hartley, who were participants in the original Armory. At Driscoll Babcock, there will be iconic period art by Hartley, Duchamp, Stuart Davis, and Childe Hassam, among others.

Eric Shiner, director of the Andy Warhol Museum, is curating the Focus section, which each year concentrates on art from a specific geographical region. Focus USA will feature “contemporary art production in America today,” he says. Seventeen galleries are participating, ranging from Gagosian Gallery, which will show Warhol, to the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports, which will highlight Cary Leibowitz, the artist also known as Candyass, who has done paintings that are visual one-line jokes. The section will have an innovative spin: Shiner is hoping to have each artist present in the booth, “because at art fairs the artist almost always goes missing or is boiled down to a statement by the gallery. It might be interesting to have the collector consult with the artist before buying a work. We want to quite literally turn the mirror onto the fair itself, so we’ll be revealing a lot of things about the inner workings, about the transactions, about the commercial aspects of the fair, and rethinking it I hope as a result.”

Perhaps most emblematic of this is the branding program created by Liz Magic Laser, known for her cutting-edge videos, who is The Armory Show’s commissioned artist. Call it a metaconcept: Laser used six focus groups to contemplate the identity of the fair and its signature elements as she watched through a one-way mirror. Under discussion was everything from the show’s thematic concept to the print advertising, T-shirts, and catalog design. What resulted was a self-referential design strategy that essentially turns corporate market research on its head.

The clever repackaging is a good metaphor for the enormous effort being made to update every aspect of the show. Says Horowitz, “Before Frieze came to New York, The Armory Show was the default fair of choice. Now there is another choice, so our position in relation to that is to hone our set of what we think we do well, and really refine what The Armory Show is, and the commercial aspect is a very strong point of it. This is the first major art event of the new year, and it really kicks off the beginning of that busy spring season, which continues through Basel in June. We also want to very strongly emphasize our American roots, and this year’s Centennial campaign is a huge part of that.”

The jury is still out on whether New York can ultimately sustain a two-fair art season. Observes Sally Morgan Lehman, codirector of the Morgan Lehman Gallery, which is participating in The Armory Show for the first time this year, “Frieze has a reputation of being cerebral and high-end, but a lot of collectors love The Armory and spend money there. Can they coexist? [Last year] people did amazingly at The Armory, and they did amazingly at Frieze. This is the biggest art community in the world. If there’s going to be any place with two major art fairs, it’s got to be New York City.” The Armory Show takes place March 7 through 10 at Piers 92–Modern and 94–Contemporary. Frieze Art Fair New York takes place May 10 through 13 on Randall’s Island.

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