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):
- ARCO Madrid (Madrid, Spain)
- Art Cologne (Cologne, Germany)
- ARTHK (Hong Kong)
- Frieze Art Fair (London, England)
- ShContemporary (Shanghai, China)
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.
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!
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.
- “The Slow Ascent: Death and Resurrection of the Art Fair” by Kara L. Rooney, in the Brooklyn Rail
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture
Parents complained that the famous sculpture was shown to their sixth graders.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Tickets to Sold-Out Vermeer Show Are Going for Hundreds
The online resale market for the Rijksmuseum’s smash exhibition is booming, with tickets selling on eBay for over $2K.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.
i love y’all for posts like these.
Didn’t you guys produce a printed guide for Armory? If so, do tell!
We did along with Art Fag City. Get a sneak peak here: http://twitter.com/hyperallergic/statuses/42386209468719105
Be sure to pick them up in 20×200’s survival kits, which will be handed out during the fairs. You can be sure to snag one at their booth in Pulse.
We worked with Art Fag City and 20×200 on a pamphlet guide to art fair week events, it’s being distributed in 20×200’s free art fair survival kit bags. Very exciting!
From California to New York, I’ll be a Solo Artist at the New York Art Expo on Pier 94 ~ Stop by my booth 198 and check out my work.
Good luck with Expo– Usually a Money Suck
The Miami picture looked familiar
What a joy, reading this post!:)
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