Q. Will fairs “consolidate”? A. No time soon.

Tyler Green posted five questions over at MAN yesterday, including this one:

2. Unexamined question for art journos: Will there be consolidation in the art fair industry? When I talked to Art Basel’s Sam Keller last year he pooh-poohed the idea. (And no consolidation has happened.) But doesn’t it make sense for that to happen at some point? I mean: I don’t even know when artDC is — and it’s this month.

To answer Tyler’s question: artDC is April 27-30, precisely the same weekend as three other fairs: MACO in Mexico City, VIENNAfair and Art Chicago. Simultaneously there’s the Berlin Gallery weekend, for which 29 Berlin galleries (all the powerhouses, plus many rising stars) band together to invite major collectors from all over the world for several days of art tours, plus a gala dinner. (It’s an event conceived as a counterbalance to art fairs, and intended to remind collectors that galleries can provide a better context for seeing work than fair booths.) This week in Europe, BTW, we have fairs in Cologne, Dusseldorf and Brussels, after Frankfurt last weekend. Hello? Maybe it’s time to institute an artworld scheduling committee…

But does all those augur a consolidation of fairs? Not really. The main issue is this: There are tons of galleries, literally a thousand-plus when you start looking worldwide, that are trying to make a name for themselves, build their profile, or simply meet new collectors. To them, fairs provide that possibility – and many will give a new market a shot at least once, because meeting even one good collector makes it worthwhile. Thus, just filling all the booths of a fair is not hard – and organizers can always get a few “name” galleries in by offering discounted rates. From a purely financial level, then, a fair makes sense to the organizers and civic leaders even as the quality level erodes every year and the event becomes totally provincial. The result? To quote my friend Frédéric Bugada of Cosmic Galerie in Paris, “Les foires ne meurent pas, elles agonisent.” (Fairs don’t die, they just writhe in agony.)

Of course, if the market softens severely, then all bets are off. But even then, I think the first consolidation would come in the sense that all the satellite fairs would disappear, leaving just the core events in each city. Fundamentally, however, I think fairs will remain strong for the simple reason that they fit so well into the time-constrained lives of today’s professionals (be they artworld professionals or collectors coming from other professions.) That said, I think it’s sad that so many people use the fairs as a sort of Cliff Notes for engaging with the artworld, skipping the hard (but rewarding) work of going to museums and galleries. As Kim Heirston lamented for my December article The Trouble with Fairs:

“I think many of the people visiting fairs are arriving with shopping lists, rather than making new discoveries there. So many have succumbed to the one-stop shopping convenience of art fairs and auctions. One new collector even said to me, ‘Why should I go to a museum? There’s nothing for sale there!’”

Sorry, Tyler, that was a long answer to a simple question, but the surrounding issues are pretty extensive.

1 thought on “Q. Will fairs “consolidate”? A. No time soon.”

  1. It is a complex issue. I personally think that the fairs like Art Basel and Frieze Art Fair are so successful partly because they are run by a board of very professional and dedicated people who have a good understanding of all the important factors of the art world.

    Many of the smaller fairs might be initiated and run by more traditional fair companies who simply consider galleries another customer to their facilities. Sure, the fair company makes some money on the entrance fee, and as such they care about the number of visitors to the fair, but the galleries have to pay their fees no matter what (which probably all together cover most of the fair company’s costs), except those ones let in cheaper because they’re better and subsequently attract the rest. And hopefully those few special galleries carry some interesting works by artists that appeal to a few collectors who will take the trip out of the way to see the little fair.

    In many ways these smaller fairs are important stepping stones for smaller galleries, and of course many galleries with international profiles even participate at many of these fairs to reach local collectors, especially in Europe or distant places like Mexico and Dubai. But, seriously, if you sell works like Polke or Terence Koh or modern art like Warhol and such, the really interested and wealthy collectors will come to your little gallery in Belgium or China anyway. Or they will just buy via email.

    In some ways I personally suspect these smaller fairs to be cynically draining money from aspiring galleries that cannot yet meet the competition at the fairs in Basel, London, Miami and New York.

    I’d suggest to such an aspiring gallery to pursue the optional strategy of actually establishing a strong program of artists, young artists or blue-chip dealership or whatever is the preference, but it’s got to be good enough to match the level at the top fairs (including stepping-stone fairs like Liste in Basel and such). This takes time and is very different from paying a fee for a booth at some smaller fair, and it requires travel and research and networking on many levels, but it will eventually bring public and critical attention to the artists of the gallery and inclusion in the most prominent fairs where the money is and where the fair really pays off. There is no doubt that the selection committees of the most well-known fairs consider artistic content and quality, and that this is one of the reasons for the successful business and acclaim.

    As long as the fair companies gets paid for their job of hosting booths, they will keep arranging these smaller fairs and attract galleries that should rather spend their EUR 20.000 fees on helping produce work for their artists, and travel and represent and think long-term strategy and artistic content. Such fairs will never make a lot of money or attract the really prominent collectors or acquisition committees from the major international museums and corporations.

    And the fact – which I am assuming here – that they don’t really make that much money, is actually the answer to the question of consolidating fairs, even in order to synchronize them, because deep down the fairs themselves see no need to do that when there is no more money to squeeze out of the little venues anyway.

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