Is the art world increasingly weighed down by the burgeoning fair industry? Or is there no such thing as too many art fairs?

From the dealer to the collector, and from artist to critic, there are a slew of players in the global art scene whose perspectives need to be considered. Art Radar investigates.

Hakgojae Gallery at Art Basel in Hong Kong 2014. Image courtesy MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG

Hakgojae Gallery at Art Basel in Hong Kong 2014. Image courtesy MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG.

The art fair age

The number of art fairs have multiplied alarmingly since the turn of the century. In 1970, there were just three events: Cologne, Basel and Art Actuel. But as Georgina Adam observed in 2012, “the number has mushroomed in the past decade: from 68 in 2005 to 189 in 2011.”

For 2015, The Art Newspaper‘s calendar lists some 269 fairs. The thirteen major ones spread from March through to December, beginning with The Armory Show in New York and ending with Art Basel Miami Beach. As Forbes observed, it’s more likely that there’s a big contemporary art fair going on in the world at any given time than not.

In response to the onslaught of fairs, Spanish curator and critic Paco Barragán declared the current era “the art fair age” in a 2008 book, according to an article by The Nation. The fair is gradually usurping the function of art institutions, because people are increasingly going to art fairs instead of museums to see art.

To buy art, collectors are turning to fairs for their efficient one-stop-shop system, the testosterone-fuelled friendly competition with other collectors and the glitzy glamour of after-parties and satellite events. According to the 2015 TEFAF Art Market Report, art fair sales amounted to an estimated EUR9.8 billion in 2014 – forty percent of total dealer sales. As Art Radar‘s recent coverage of the TEFAF Report summarises, the estimated EUR9.8 billion is just a conservative estimate of the true impact of art fairs because

many sales take place after the events when dealers follow up with new contacts.

General view of Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG. Image courtesy Art Basel.

General view of Art Basel Hong Kong 2013, MCH Messe Schweiz (Basel) AG. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Collectors and organisers: Art fair-tigue

It is undeniable, therefore, that art fairs have drastically changed the way the art market operates. But is the escalating number of fairs sustainable? For collectors, the year-long fair schedule, combined with a burgeoning biennale scene, necessitates constant and exhausting globe-trotting. Overheard at Art Basel Hong Kong 2015 last month by our Art Radar correspondent:

I’m beat. I came here straight from The Armory, and from here it’s straight on to Dubai. I don’t know how everyone manages it!

The strain is also felt by fair organisers who battle with the gigantic jigsaw puzzle of an international art calendar. For example, Art Basel had to move its Hong Kong fair from late May to mid-March this year, so that it didn’t clash with the summer biennales and Basel’s own flagship fair in June. But the move meant that Art Basel Hong Kong’s dates fell smack in the middle of Europe’s TEFAF Maastricht. When asked to comment, Art Basel director Marc Spiegler was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as exclaiming:

It’s reasonably insane. […] How many different places can we all be at one time?

The same article suggests that the art fair might end up being a victim of its own success, because the physical marathon of fair-hopping has caused some buyers to skip fairs altogether:

New York dealer Sean Kelly said at least 15 percent of his clients have “jumped off the art-fair treadmill” in the past couple of years, preferring to stay home and shop the old-fashioned way by going to gallery shows and artist studios.

Artists: Art for fair’s sake?

A more fundamental problem emerges as art fairs proliferate: in response to the growing need for fair inventory, artists might be pressured to produce more. Such pressure is hardly conducive to the creation of good art, notes The Nation. Georgina Adam was already worried about this in 2012 when she wrote in The Financial Times:

Considering that White Cube is showing Kiefer in Hong Kong, and both Gagosian and Ropac are launching their new spaces in Paris with Kiefer, it seems difficult not to believe that many artists might be overstretching their creative capacities.

Takashi Ishida, 'Burning Chair', 2013. On show in the Film Sector, Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. Photo: Kenji Takahashi. Image courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.

Takashi Ishida, ‘Burning Chair’, 2013. On show in the Film Sector, Art Basel Hong Kong 2014. Photo: Kenji Takahashi. Image courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.

Also in 2012, Adam speculated in The Art Newspaper that in addition to over-producing, artists might tend towards producing homogenised ‘art fair art’: “pieces that are moderate in size so they fit in a booth and are ‘in tune with dominant market trends’.” New Jersey-based art advisor Clayton Press was of the opinion that “the same pieces keep cropping up at fair after fair,” telling the WSJ that

There should be an international moratorium on art made with mirrors, Mylar, aerosol paint, and virtually any ‘found objects’ no matter how esoteric or dear.

Critics ‘priced’ out of the game

Whether a work is ‘art fair art’ is ultimately a matter of opinion. But those who look to critics for a gauge of quality will have to keep waiting. “There is nothing more redundant than an art critic at a commercial art fair,” wrote Andrew Frost for The Guardian last year. The Nation admits that critics don’t want or don’t know how to make the “calibration [between price and value]”, and “published criticism is the last response an artist can expect of a work displayed at an art fair.” The result of this is an

absence of critical response to fairs, despite their importance to the contemporary art world, in magazines of art criticism such as Artforum or Art in America.

The Nation makes a nostalgic reference to the Salons of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which Diderot’s comprehensive writings gave birth to the genre of art criticism itself. Back then, Diderot had six weeks to study the works and as much time as he needed to craft his critiques, a process which took over a year for the 1767 Salon. Unlike today’s critics, Diderot could take his time because

members of Diderot’s minuscule, exclusive readership could afford to wait for his tips about the best works to acquire. […] Theirs was a world in which communication and trade were conducted far more slowly […].

Ultimately, modern critics are rendered redundant by the market, which has become the bona fide judge of art quality at fairs. A particularly bitter comment on the increasingly financial art world by curator, professor and author David Hickey reads:

[The buyers are] in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious. Art editors and critics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people.

What about the dealers?

So how does the art fair model fare for dealers – recipients of said windfall profits? The top dealers  like White Cube, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth, among others, reap the most benefits; for them the fair costs are more than comfortably justified by headlining sales figures toted up at each event. Mid-sized galleries have to choose wisely: fairs significantly increase overhead, but skipping a prestigious fair might significantly harm reputation and sales. The ingenuity of the art fair model is neatly summarised by The Nation:

The fairs don’t exist to promote the galleries; the galleries exist to get into the fairs.

The pressure to participate is very high, Victor Gisler of Zurich’s Mai 36 told The Art Newspaper. Gisler said:

[…] mid-sized galleries, with perhaps five to 15 people, feel they must participate in the main fairs. It’s worse still for the small galleries, whose price points are not over USD50,000 – they don’t have many works at that level and […] if it doesn’t work out commercially, [it] can be a killer.

Kalfayan Galleries at Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Kalfayan Galleries at Art Basel in Hong Kong 2015. Image courtesy Art Basel.

So how do galleries choose their fairs? Art Radar interviewed ten galleries at Art Basel Hong Kong last month. All galleries surveyed ranked the Basel fairs on the top of their lists, while Frieze and TEFAF were popular with bigger galleries. Apart from the major international fairs, dealers tended to choose regional fairs with locations convenient to their client groups, while galleries with a medium focus such as photography gravitated towards medium specific fairs.

Responses were mixed when dealers were asked if there were too many art fairs in the scene today. Quite a few replied to the affirmative with a semi-exhausted sigh and a shrug that asked “but what can you do?” Sidd Perez, Curatorial Associate of Philippines-based gallery The Drawing Room, told Art Radar:

Even though the flood of fairs can be overwhelming, they do provide different specialisations and programming thrusts. It’s after all a matter of strategising between different platforms, and it’s a good thing that there are now many opportunities in the market.

Satellite fairs: Keeping the party going

Kept busy with booth duties, not too many of the surveyed galleries at Art Basel Hong Kong had time to visit neighbouring debut satellite fair Art Central at the time of interview. Most wished the new fair well and do not view it as competition. Joanne Huang Chi-Wen of Taiwan’s Chi-Wen Gallery told Art Radar:

It’s a normal thing for big fairs to attract satellite art fairs. Not every gallery can get into Basel after all, and Art Central seems to fill an important niche in the Hong Kong market. Also satellite fairs are always a good thing – it creates a festive atmosphere in the city and draws more visitors to the city.

Li Hao, 'Guaxiang No.18 (卦象No.18)', 2014, mixed media on Xuan paper, 170 x 45 x 6 cm. Image courtesy Art Central.

Li Hao, ‘Guaxiang No.18 (卦象No.18)’, 2014, mixed media on Xuan paper, 170 x 45 x 6 cm. Image courtesy Art Central.

Echoing the views of a recent Artnet article on an art hub’s need for diversity and range, Johnson Chang of Hanart TZ Gallery told us:

I am all for diversity and choice, and better projects will appear even stronger in context.

A representative from a Japanese gallery had an opposing view, however, exclaiming that the frenzy of events quickly becomes too much of a good thing:

There are definitely too many fairs, and not just in Hong Kong. People don’t know which one to go to and end up trying to rush through everything. It’s confusing for the public to have so many fairs.

A public (af)fair

Speaking of the public, e-flux reminds us that the art fair is not just for buyers. The fair has become the new event-based way for everyone to experience art, from the world’s wealthiest collectors to the anonymous visitor who will probably never purchase an artwork in his or her lifetime. Boris Groys writes:

[…] Art fairs, while ostensibly existing to serve art buyers, are now increasingly transformed into public events, attracting a population with little interest in buying art, or without the financial ability to do so. […] Art is becoming a part of mass culture, not as a source of individual works to be traded on the art market, but as an exhibition practice, combined with architecture, design, and fashion – just as it was envisaged by the pioneering minds of the avant-garde, by the artists of the Bauhaus, the Vkhutemas, and others as early as the 1920s.

Owing to the increasing hype and media attention, people who would not otherwise step foot in a museum might be motivated to sample their first dose of contemporary art. Furthermore, the diverse locations at which fairs are held contributes to intercultural exchange and art globalisation; Yuli Karatsiki, Gallery Manager of Kalfayan Galleries, told Art Radar:

Art fairs are among the most important platforms for reaching out to an international audience. Despite the benefits of the internet and web-platforms, nothing can replace the personal contact between people and the interaction with the work of art in real life.

Art, including the art market, is ultimately for the people, after all. Perhaps one thing that organisers should bear in mind, therefore, is to keep art fairs accessible and avoid hefty ticket prices. A more sophisticated art-educated public can only be a good thing. According to an Ocula article, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija pondered the question of who can best judge art’s quality at the 2013 Intelligence Squared (IQ2) debate entitled “The Market is the Best Judge of Art’s Quality”. Tiravanija answered simply:

I’m a great believer in people.

Michele Chan


Related Topics: art fairs, market watch, business of art, collectors, globalisation of art, democratisation of art, events in Hong Kong

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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