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.