Art Fairs: Must Galleries Adapt To Function In A Booming Market

Art Fairs

According to ArtForum there will be nearly sixty international art fairs taking place in 2014. And there must be hundreds of other fairs around the world too. They are everywhere, and whilst not a new phenomenon their numbers have increased inexorably since the end of the 1990s.

The art world has become increasingly globalised during this period. There is more money; there are more artists, more curators, and more collectors, more everything. Art has become a commodity. It is spectacular and popular and highly marketable. And, in order to compete for the attention of ever-wider audiences, galleries have to think global too, in order to increase their reach beyond their own doors.

Expensive websites and smart phones and a super-slick information exchange make it is easy to see what is going on everywhere without ever having to pay anyone a visit. And with more and more galleries struggling to draw in anything like the numbers of punters they used to, something had to be done.

Art fairs are the answer. They provide galleries with an opportunity to maintain relationships, face-to-face, with their existing contacts: with collectors, and artists, curators, writers, editors, and other galleries, and they are also the place to meet new ones. And they all go to them. Every year. If art, because of its increasing commercialisation, is now a growing entertainment industry built, like pop and fashion and film, on a celebrity culture, then art fairs, and the array of parties hosted as adjuncts to them, are great places to be seen. The international art fair circuit is a buzz of activity. It is an event driven social circus which moves around the world to various destinations including Basel, Brussels, Chicago, Cologne, Dubai, Hong Kong, London, Los Angeles, Madrid, Miami, New York, Paris, and Shanghai.

Art fairs are big business, and, not only do they offer galleries the chance to make significant sales in a short period of 4 or 5 days, they come with sizable marketing budgets, which helps when it comes to getting unbelievable numbers of people through the doors. London’s pre-eminent fair, Frieze London, boasts on it’s website that “each year, for the last four years, we have had over 60,000 visitors”. And with the heavyweight auction houses having muscled their way into the primary market, something which galleries had thought to be their preserve, art fairs give them a decent chance fight their way out of the corner.

But art fairs are not only about selling. They are about marketing, and positioning, and posturing, and hooking your artists up with other galleries; they are about progressing the business.

Indeed, to be included in the right fair can fast track a gallery’s success. But once there, the pressure is to stay, with collectors and artists and press contacts all expecting to see them at the fair next year and the one after that.

The pressure on galleries to join in is perhaps higher now than ever before. The first problem though is in getting accepted, when there is a limit to the number of booths allocated, and so few of those already in are willing to give up their hard-won place. Most fairs have selection committees to vet applicants – whether or not the process is based on quality alone is open to conjecture – so, with strict criteria to satisfy, the chances of being accepted are slim. However, there is a silver cloud. The enormous success of international events such as Frieze, Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, and The Armory, has driven the growth of the sector and allowed smaller fairs to flourish, giving opportunities to those galleries not included at The High Table to at least find themselves a seat elsewhere.

The second problem is the cost. VOLTA 10, a satellite of the impressive Art Basel, provisionally offered 15–30 square meters booths at this year’s fair for 5,500–12,500 Euro; then factor in significant additional costs for lighting, extra walls, shipping, insurance, hotels, flights, staff. The investment facing small galleries with limited resources is considerable – more so when the consensus of opinion is that to see real benefit from exhibiting at any art fair galleries need to return three or four years running.

Art fairs have become a necessary part of the art world, and it is increasingly difficult to avoid them. The big galleries do the big fairs, every year. They are international companies with the necessary financial resources to meet the demands of working in the international market place. But increased involvement means increased investment, so how does anyone else get a look in? Small galleries are either playing catch-up, or getting left behind.

 Words: Robin Page Photo: © Artlyst 2014