Art fairs don’t die they just multiply

ArtCologne.jpeg Maastricht, Armory, Basel, Frieze, Arco, Miami, of course. But Bologna, Abu Dhabi, Rotterdam, Minneapolis and Stockholm? Who goes to these fairs and are they really necessary? Judging by a hilarious and despairing account of selling absolutely nothing at the recent Art Cologne (read his candid fair obituary here), dealer Kenny Schachter seems to be advocating a cull in the number of deadwood art fairs. Cologne’s problems are well documented and numerous leadership wrangles mean that it’ll get another revamp next year, but to what end?

Similarly, it was with much trepidation that a gaggle of young London dealers sloped off to the newly reborn Art Chicago, formerly the US’s pre-eminent art fair, to exhibit in the invited section of its contemporary sideshow NEXT. What concerns most of them is that the new owners Merchandise Mart (who also own the Armory, Volta and the Toronto Fair) were simultaneously holding three other fairs in the same building (The M. Mart International Antiques Fair, The Artist Project and the Intuit Show of Outsider and Folk Art) under the banner of Artropolis, like some kind of multi-storey monster-truck car park for art.

Despite the mild protestations of their president Chris Kennedy (yes, of that family) – ‘We’re not trying to be the Macy’s of the art world’– Merchandise Mart’s new financial muscle and the windy city’s track record suggest that Chicago deserves another crack of the whip, but when will some of these other art fairs learn to just quietly lay down and die? Oh, and how many dealers do you know ever admit to selling very little or nothing at all?

3 thoughts on “Art fairs don’t die they just multiply”

  1. This is, of course, a live real-time reenactment of the classic game theory puzzle known from mathematics: the dilemma of the commons.

    You know the story: A small village of dairy farmers are prospering happily by sending one cow per family to the common field. One year, an enterprising fellow among them adds a second cow. Lo and behold, by next spring he’s taking his surplus milk to market and driving a shiny new car. By the fall, all of the farmers, seeking to reap a like reward, have added another cow of their own to the pasture. And then the disaster: The field can’t sustain all the cows. They wither and die. The village goes broke. Everyone is worse off than before.

    This is why the social trap of the commons dilemma is often described as a tragedy.

    Galleries have kept signing up artists and proliferating madly — opening the way for fairs and other aggregators of demand and information. If art fairs multiply like kudzu, they will defy their own purpose. But here’s the trap: adding just one more fair always seems like an irresistible proposition, fueled by local pride and the lure of easy profit. By the time the realization sinks in that it may not have been a smart move, all the nails have already been banged into the proverbial coffin.

  2. I found Kenny’s report refreshingly honest. There was something ironic — though perhaps that is not quite the right word here — about the fact that he had Peter Saul’s hilarious painting “Please Don’t Hurt My Money” in his booth. The painting can be seen here, reproduced in an article by Charlie Finch on Artnet.

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