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WTF is… an Art Fair?

Miami NADA art fair 2010 (image from forrestallfamily.blogspot.com)

Okay, so, this week is New York City’s art fair week. This may sound like a carnival replete with Ferris wheels, clowns and cotton candy, but it’s not, at least in the literal sense. An art fair is like a carnival in that there’s a lot of excess noise, visual information and people yelling over each other. But an art fair is actually a clearinghouse for art works, a pow-wow of dealers, galleries, curators and collectors that’s part tribe meeting and part shopping mall.

Art fairs are a shopping experience, but one elevated (ideally) to the level of fine art. Think those luxury stores you pass by every day in Manhattan, glossy storefronts whose plate glass windows show off a select few goods, possibly for sale, if you’re cool and rich enough. Then picture a massive convention space full of cubicles, and inside each one a luxury store. What these stores sell, though, isn’t $1000 bags; it’s $300,000 paintings. Sound vapid and depressing? It is, a little bit. The massive concentration of so much art tips the supply/demand scale in favor of buyers, makes everything seem a little less unique, and exhausts the eyeballs.

Though they’ve been hugely popularized over the past decade, commercial art fairs aren’t a new phenomenon. Art Basel art fair began in Switzerland in 1970 and has continued through today, attracting over 60,000 visitors in 2010. A few other significant international art fairs include (also see a handy full checklist for 2011):

In the US, the major players are basically Art Basel Miami Beach, a sister fair of Art Basel founded in 2002 occurring annually every December, and New York City’s Armory Show, founded in 1994 and taking place in March. As these two fairs established themselves, they became the nucleus of week-long art world holidays whose events include independent exhibitions in alternative art spaces, hanger-on “satellite” art fairs who cash in on the flood of people to major fairs, fair-sponsored artist projects and a plethora of parties, performances and activities.

20x200's 2011 NYC art fair map, plus satellite fairs (click through) (via 20x200.com)

Satellite fair is a particularly important term to note. Though art fair weeks are usually referred to by the name of their major fair (Armory, Basel, Frieze), there is a subset of major satellite fairs that have operations alongside multiple major fairs. These include Pulse, Scope, NADA and Verge, who have presences in Miami and New York, as well as a few in London. While the major fairs largely focus on blue-chip galleries and expensive artists (save some “emerging gallery” and “alternative space” sections), satellite fairs often base their programming on providing a more independent, punk alternative to the big boys, featuring younger galleries, higher concentrations of artist projects or basing themselves on one theme or medium. A burgeoning trend is to host satellite fairs in city hotels, giving galleries single rooms to work with.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s separate the art fair into two subsections: the sales and the schmoozing. The collecting side to the art fairs starts at the VIP preview, when high-profile collectors wander the aisles grabbing whatever works their hearts desire before all of us civilians crowd it up. In the boom years of 2006, VIP preview meant a mad stampede to snap up works by putting them on reserve, or buy them outright. In art-fair iconography, a red dot on a work’s label, or on the wall near it, means the work has been sold or isn’t available. It might just be on reserve, AKA waiting for an important collector to pull the final trigger. Dealers are always looking to place a piece with the best collector they can, so a Rubell or a Cohen might be favored over some random oil tycoon. Remember, dealers never have to sell to you!

After the VIPs are done previewing, civilians are allowed into the mayhem, but fairs often require a ticket purchase at the entrance. This means that fair organizers are making money off of you and the galleries!

Art Basel Miami Beach 2010 (image from artbaselmiamibeach.com)

For the most part, galleries buy booth space at art fairs and show a selection of artists from their roster. Booth space is expensive, often running tens of thousands of dollars, so the work on display is often there to be sold, not necessarily to build curatorial credibility. Some art fairs will designate sections in which galleries will only show solo exhibitions in their spaces in a bid to up the curatorial impact.

Outside the sales, there’s the social side of the fairs, the NetJets-sponsored parties and the artist dinners, the random encounters of curators and collectors in fair aisles that lead to museum exhibitions and solo shows. Art fairs are a place to see and be seen, an opportunity to chat up that artist you’ve always wanted to show, the gallery that you want to sell to, the collector that could fund a project. This milieu is the background to every art fair, but no one sees everything behind the curtain, and certainly not the ticket-buying public.

It’s tough to stomach, but the public side of the art fair is also probably the least interesting. If you’re planning on going to the art fairs this coming week, be sure to look up the fair beforehand and see if there are any cool performance or events going in, maybe check out an independent gallery opening or sneak into an after party. Art fair cities tend to turn into giant art-world block parties when the time comes; all you need to do is poke around a little bit to see behind the scenes.

Required Reading:

  • The Slow Ascent: Death and Resurrection of the Art Fair” by Kara L. Rooney, in the Brooklyn Rail
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