Inside the World of Art Fairs

by Rita Job

The Salon De Refuses in Paris in 1863 was perhaps the very first instance of a large-scale exhibition that could be termed an art fair. The event was a place “where artists at war with authority could be seen and where the public could go either to jeer or to enlarge their ideas of what a work of art could be,” as Robert Rosenblum wrote in his book, 19th Century Art. If great artists like Eduard Manet and Camille Pissarro thought it a great idea, it is no wonder that almost a hundred and fifty years down the line the art fair business seems to be growing by the day.

From the Art Basel in 1970 to the latest Contemporary Photography Biennial in Germany (Biennale für Aktuelle Fotografie), art fairs have seen a steep rise in numbers through the years, especially in the 2000s. As Georgina Adam observed, “the number has mushroomed in the past decade: from 68 in 2005 to 189 in 2011.” Art galleries, artists and even collectors are increasingly becoming loyal supporters of these events and their popularity has only been increasing with time. With the invention of the internet and cheap air travel, art fairs have become a platform of connection and collaboration for the art world. Economic advantages of art tourism are so extensive that new art fairs and expos are continually sprouting around the globe in hopes of getting a slice of the proverbial economic pie that just keeps on growing.

Art fairs can be viewed from three different perspectives – the artist, the art gallery, and the collector – and there are a number of factors that decide whether art fairs are actually beneficial to these key players.

Art Fairs And Artists

Art fairs have undoubtedly become the driving force for the art world in the last five years. They are crucial in elevating local art scenes to an international level. For artists, what could be more advantageous than showcasing their works in front of thousands of potential buyers and participating galleries on an international level? Art fairs give artists an opportunity to not only expose their art to several different kinds of audiences but also to build their network and recognize their potential markets.

However, hard choices come along with the rise of immense possibilities. Artists need to think hard about who they’d like their potential audience to be, how selective their participation should be, and the geographical locations of the fairs they’d like to take part in. With the sheer number of art fairs around and little guidance, it’s easy to lose track of the main goal. Creators need to keep these goals in mind at all times while choosing art fairs – as well as the frequency of participation – that align with the overall objective.

But keeping track of their goals isn’t the only challenge that artists are facing. Art fairs have become incredibly popular and, consequently, choosy when it comes to the participants. Many emerging, less-known artists find themselves continually being rejected in favor of established creators, or not being able to cover the enormous participation fees. This is where being represented by an established gallery is particularly beneficial. Conventional galleries continually bring emerging talent onto the art scene, whether through exhibitions or art fairs. They will help artists with curation, promotion, and the participation costs. After the art fair, galleries will continue to represent and promote the artist, thereby keeping the artist in front of important collectors, curators, and museums.

The main point here is that although there are a number of avenues like art competitions and commissions available to artists for participating in art fairs independently, showcasing your work under the umbrella of an established art gallery can definitely give artists an advantage, not only in terms of sales but also promotion and networking.

Art Fairs And Art Galleries

Since their inception, art fairs have helped elevate numerous galleries from favorites of the local art scene to international powerhouses. By participating, galleries are provided with unprecedented opportunities to show their best artists and their works to thousands of people in a matter of days, to form connections with other galleries and artists, and to enhance their reputations.

Somewhat apprehensive about participating in the beginning, even the most well-known galleries soon discovered that collectors found them more approachable at booths than behind doors and that those collectors are more inclined to buy right then and there as opposed to thinking the purchase over for weeks.

According to The European Fine Art Foundation’s macroeconomic report of 2015, sales by galleries at art fairs and expos have increased from 30% in 2010 to 40% in 2014 as fairs continue to provide galleries with a platform for selling and meeting new clients. This situation is particularly beneficial for less known, peripheral galleries situated far from the world art centers of New York, London, and Paris. However, there are also drawbacks as some gallery owners find that traditional sales are harder to come by as collectors gravitate towards fairs where massive assemblage of works in one place provide easy ‘shopping’ experience. British art market, for example, has especially suffered. According to The Telegraph, such historic galleries as the Colnaghi and the Agnew’s Gallery were forced to shut their Bond street locations and either move to smaller establishments or close up for good.

Globalization and the emergence of online galleries are other factors in this profound change the art market has been undergoing in recent years and art fairs cannot be singled out. As the matter of fact, if we look at the situation as part of the larger art market ecology we notice that art fairs are actually more helpful than harmful to galleries. Art fairs support the art market by providing a connecting platform between the galleries and collectors and encouraging new relationships between galleries and artists.

Art Fairs And Collectors

For collectors, whether budding or seasoned, art fairs and expos are meccas of opportunities. After all, contemporary art fairs exist for them, and collectors are the king of the art fair castle. From hundreds of artworks on display to please the eye to social events to educational programs and collectors tours, art lovers will find themselves in a perfect environment to buy, learn, and socialize with the like-minded crowd.

For aspiring collectors and first-time buyers, art fairs provide a platform to train the eye and figure out what kind of art moves them and what leaves them indifferent. Industry insiders across the board advise emerging collectors to attend art fairs for educational purposes. First-time goers will be wise to grab a floor plan and go through the booths, systematically jotting down what captivates them, and attend educational events organized by the art fair.

In addition, and perhaps one of the main reasons art fairs are so beneficial to budding art collectors, first-time buyers are able to see dozens of galleries in one spot which presents a wonderful opportunity to start a relationship and ask questions. Attending galleries and their staff are very approachable and are more than happy to answer questions about their gallery and the artists they’re presenting.

For seasoned collectors, attending art fairs has become a lifestyle. Besides buying art, collectors come to socialize, rub shoulders with other art lovers, and attend glamorous VIP events and luncheons. With over 200 art fairs and 365 days in a year, there is always something going on for the art world socialites.

But attending social events isn’t the main reason collectors flock to art fairs. In the contemporary art ecosystem, collectors can pick a fair for every type of art they choose. Lovers of the ‘newest’ art have the NADA Miami Beach, where around 84 percent of artworks is one year old or less. For the lovers of historic works, Frieze Masters, occurring concurrently with Frieze London, represents the ‘oldest’ artworks, with the median age of art a ripe 78 years. Generally, however, top fairs focus on achieving a balance by showing a diverse selection of newer and older artworks.

There is truly an art fair for everyone. There is a growing demand for art, and art fairs seem to have found the answer. Collectors of photography, experimental art, and even prints can find an art fair that caters to their tastes. Whether introducing new talent to the world, selling, or socializing, art fairs are global gatherings that continue to evolve and captivate the global art ecosystem.