Gallery-less art fairs: Asia’s next big art marketing format?

Do artist-led fairs and gallery-less exhibition formats increase creative freedom or weaken institutional support?

There has been a significant rise in the number of fairs that eschew the traditional gallery exhibition model for an organisational style that includes more direct participation from artists. In Asia, the success of artist-led fairs might even fill a grassroots niche for young artists.

A self-represented artist exhibits at Tokyo's GEISAI 15 in October 2011.

In the past decade, several art fairs have emerged that invite artists to apply and exhibit without a gallery. London in particular has seen a wave of new art fairs aimed at cutting out the middle man.

Artist-led fairs in the West

Many of these UK fairs, such as the New Artist Fair, The Other Art Fair and Urban Art, use this looser fair structure to support young and unrepresented artists, who, apart from selling their work directly to collectors, may also gain crucial exposure to gallerists and dealers in attendance. In addition, these fairs market themselves as inexpensive alternatives to budget-busting contemporary art fairs like Frieze or Art Basel.

The Liverpool-based CAVE Art Fair, which will debut in September 2012, sees the artist-led exhibition model as a way to simultaneously draw upon local creative talent while setting themselves apart from the monolithic London art world. Founders Kevin Hunt and Flis Mitchell also stress how this format allows for a more democratic art-going experience.

As Hunt told arts magazine The Double Negative,

CAVE’s not happening in New York or Brussels. Normal models don’t seem applicable in Liverpool. We don’t want to appropriate the models of Zoo or Frieze … We are essentially cutting out the middle man, the sales staff, and getting people to navigate the space and control their own experience, talking directly to the artists.

Distinct from other artist-centred fairs, CAVE Art Fair carefully selects its participating artists, who all come recommended by reputable UK arts institutions. The artists pay no exhibition fee and pocket 100 percent of their sales.

Annurag Sharma, Founder of the United Art Fair.

Asian echoes 

In Asia, where fairs have a much more important role as art institutions within the dialogue of Asian contemporary art history, the artist-led fair is proving to be an especially popular option for those dissatisfied with the restraints of standard gallery representation.

In India…

The United Art Fair was founded by Indian art logistics expert Annurag Sharma who wanted to disrupt what he saw as a “monopolisation of aesthetics” in most Indian art fairs. By allowing young and emerging Indian artists to sell their works directly to the public, Sharma provides a platform for new artistic potentials that can offset the homogenising effects of the art market, creating a more mature art scene. The first edition of the fair will debut in September 2012.

I Made Widya Diputra's commissioned work at Art Jog '12 entrance. Photograph: Nadya Wang.

I Made Widya Diputra's commissioned work at Art Jog '12 entrance. Image by Art Radar.

Art Jog’s model

The upcoming United Art Fair comes on the heels of Art Jog ’12, a similar artist-led fair that is now in its fifth year. Like the United Art Fair, Art Jog selects from artists who apply directly to the fair. In exchange for advisory services from Heri Pemad Art Management, the organiser of the fair, the artist pays a commission on each work sold.

With its more fluid exhibition model, Art Jog is able to expose collectors to young and emerging artists from the region that might not have achieved art fair representation otherwise. The event has been so successful that art fair veteran Lorenzo Rudolf came on as an advisor in 2012.

United Art Fair and Art Jog are unique in the Asian contemporary world in that they focus on emerging or unrepresented artists, yet aspire to the same taste-making prestige as heavy-hitting gallery fairs like ART HK or Art Stage Singapore. As such, they boast a rigorous selection process and strong top-down curatorial influence in their exhibition practice.

Japan’s artist-led democracy

Toyko’s GEISAI art fair, by contrast, adopts a more democratic fair model. Founded by Takashi Murakami‘s gallery Kaikai Kiki, GEISAI is a biannual art fair that features hundreds of artists selling their own works. According to Kaikai Kiki, by representing young and unrepresented artists, GEISAI aims to be “an event unlike any other; a combination of amateur convention and high-brow art fair”. The fair also features a prize juried by esteemed Japanese art professionals and an array of side events and performances.

GEISAI’s ten years of operation show that, at least in Japan, there is room for new art institutions to provide a counterpoint to the elite, collector-driven contemporary art market. The challenge for comparatively outsider art fairs like GEISAI, United Art Fair and Art Jog is whether they can translate this grassroots model into international attention and long-term institutional support for their artists.

Does the artist-led fair model provide a viable way for young artists to find mainstream success? Or is an artist better off trying to work within the standard gallery model? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts.

PR/KN/HH

Related Topics: art fairs, curatorial practice, promoting art, democratisation of art, artists as dealers

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