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Are there too many art fairs?

1 February 2016

From the February issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here

With several art fairs staged every week, are such events damaging to the more traditional art trade, or do they allow greater public engagement with art?

Martin Levy

There have been enormous changes to the art world over the past 50 years.  The auction world has been transformed from a wholesale trade outlet into a global marketing operation. This process began during the late 1950s, driven not least by the vision of Sotheby’s future chairman, the late Peter Wilson: the 1958 black tie evening sale of the Goldschmidt collection of Impressionist paintings is often held up as a landmark moment.

As prices rose, and as the market became more transparent, opportunities for traditional dealers in works of art reduced; their sources shrunk and their margins were squeezed. Many businesses found themselves unable to reach the new audiences who loved the thrill, glamour and spectacle of buying under the hammer. Then there was the London property boom (and bust) of the 1970s, which led to an ongoing change in many streets long familiar to buyers of works of art: Bond Street, Sloane Street, Kings Road, St James’s Street and Mount Street have all, over the past 40 years, become synonymous with high-end fashion, smart restaurants and other ephemeral accoutrements of modern wealth. Cork Street is being rapidly redeveloped, the art market in New York moves uptown and downtown like a yo-yo, and in Paris the market is, with notable exceptions, greatly diminished.

Art and antique fairs offer many benefits to both buyers and sellers, and fill a gap left both by the increasing absence of physical galleries and by the weakening interest shown by major auctioneers in anything likely to sell for less than an eye-watering amount.

Fairs take many guises. At a basic level, they are modest successors to the World’s Fairs that dominated the marketing of art and manufacture during the second half of the 19th century. They are an opportunity for sellers to meet buyers, and vice versa. But, with the falling number of open gallery spaces – both for traditional and contemporary art – fairs are an important point of access for the young, the uninitiated, or the plain busy. Here, facing no immediate commercial pressure, the public is able to study and handle works from all cultures, and to engage with dealers, who are often leading experts in their fields. In this way, knowledge and enthusiasm can be shared.

If there is a negative side to the ubiquity of art fairs, it is that they risk becoming over-anxious exercises for selling. At shorter and shorter events where, after the initial rush of buyers, gallery owners leave their booths in the hands of junior staff members, the opportunity to cultivate new faces is abandoned. And in the absence of a fixed presence on the ‘high street’, boredom can set in for buyers and sellers alike, as the same works build up air miles across the continents in the hope of finding a new home.

In discussing the present state of the art market, The Economist noted in December 2015 that ‘The desire to live in the presence of history has ebbed and flowed’. But evidence that the taste for the modern and contemporary has totally eclipsed art and design from older times risks being overstated. Fairs are an opportunity to demonstrate, for example, that older art can be equally engaging, and perhaps even more rewarding.

Today there are constant opportunities all over the world to visit an art fair of one description or another: from Maastricht to Basel, from London to Beijing, and from New York to Paris. In a world lived on the internet and on planes, these events offer the public a chance to spend a few hours of leisure absorbing a wide range of artworks. And make no mistake: there is no substitute for the understanding gained by seeing art of any sort in the flesh. Art and antique fairs are here to stay. It is up to exhibitors to make them fresh, interesting and engaging.

Martin Levy is the director of H. Blairman & Sons Ltd, London.

Niru Ratnam

The rise of art fairs has been a key feature of the contemporary art world in recent times. The first fair, Cologne Art Market, started as a trade fair for German galleries in 1967. The following year, three dealers in Basel copied the idea and opened it up to international participants, beginning what would become Art Basel. Now no-one is quite sure how many art fairs there are; the Art Newspaper’s 2015 calendar listed 269 art fairs, but many more were not included. Nearly every week throughout the year, a number of art fairs are taking place somewhere.

The complaint of ‘fair-tigue’ was coined by the writer Georgina Adam to describe her reaction to the ever-growing roster of art fairs. It’s a familiar, straightforward argument for why there are too many: they lead to exhausted viewers, to galleries spreading their stables thinly, and to a repetitive viewing experience. However, there is a decent counter-argument to this. A rapidly expanding audience for contemporary art, as well as more art being produced, means that an art fair is not necessarily out of proportion. Secondly, as Art Basel’s global director Marc Spiegler recently pointed out at the Talking Galleries Barcelona Symposium, the old model of gallerists – with their waiting lists, favouritism and closed dinner party invitation lists – is increasingly given short shrift by a new generation of high net worth individuals who were not necessarily born into collecting families, but who work hard and do not have Saturday afternoons free to traipse around exhibitions. The relative lack of the metaphorical velvet rope at art fairs in comparison to galleries means that fairs are an attractive proposition, not just to new collectors but to the general public with an interest in contemporary art.

My objections to the proliferation of art fairs come from a slightly different angle to the now standard ‘fair-tigue’ argument. The art world has dramatically changed and expanded in the last 25 years, with new art scenes emerging constantly. It has moved well beyond being primarily located in London, New York and Paris. Correspondingly a number of groundbreaking exhibitions have attempted to address this changing landscape, such as ‘Magiciens de la Terre’, Documenta 11 and ‘Century City’. These exhibitions were not just united by a subject matter informed by globalisation, but the curators also tried to reimagine the space and structure of the exhibition in order to reflect an art world breaking free of its canonical straitjacket. However, the space and the structure of the art fair, in some ways the most visible products of this expanded art world, have stayed largely unchanged. Central to this is the trade fair model, where the location, look and feel of the fair could be used just as well to sell light machinery or watches. The default choice of this model leads to a standard size art fair, where over 100 booths is considered the norm, as well as a generic layout of long corridors with booths either side.

The upshot of this is that the ever-expanding contemporary art world is packaged up and delivered in the same way around the world. Curators such as Okwui Enwezor, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Catherine David, and Nicolas Bourriaud have thought seriously about how exhibitions might evolve to account for globalisation. However, aside from being involved in talks programmes that attempt to inject some intellectual validity into the big fairs, these curators have not significantly engaged with art fairs despite them being popular arenas for viewers to engage with contemporary art. There are too many fairs around the world that simply replicate the model of European industrial exhibitions, despite there being no need to stick to this structure – as the small amount of site-specific fairs demonstrate. Critics need to start reviewing art fairs rather than shows no-one visits; curators need to start rethinking ways of structuring fairs; and art fair organisers need to ditch the desire to look like a trade fair with endless rows of art with anodyne lighting, walls and stand-builds.

Art fairs are here to stay, but they do not need to be presented in a way that reduces the complexity of the different art scenes that make up today’s art world. Instead they need to be as thoughtful and reflexive as good exhibitions – after all, no-one ever complains that there are too many of them.

Niru Ratnam is the director of START Art Fair.

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