Sometimes a fair is just a fair

noyoushutupAfter the noughtie boom and the ’08-’09 bust, and even now with the art market engine appearing to turn over and offer the promise of a restart, might it not be time to leave behind the idea of assessing the art fairs as “shows” that are akin to exhibitions at kunsthalls, projects spaces, museums and galleries? Perhaps it is my own sensibility at the moment, but why do we, or should we, really care?

I think we’ve seen that some number of art fairs are now fixtures of the art world’s event-cycle; they offer a service that I think is reasonable: to bring together in one spot a wide variety of dealers from around the world to showcase the work of the artists they represent (and, in some cases, those that they don’t.) Are they ideal venues in which to view and to think about works of art? No. But do they offer, as Sarah Thornton wrote about the Armory, a “terrible viewing experience” because of their “indiscriminate lighting, bad acoustics, awkward floor plan, and dearth of food and drink”? I don’t think so. (If Thornton had added “droves of tourists snapping iPhone pictures and obliviously jostling everyone and everything while plugged into an audio tour,” I’d have thought she was describing what it’s like to visit MoMA.)

I just don’t find this kind of commentary interesting or necessary. Let’s treat the fairs like what we know they are: trade shows. What do I think of the trade shows?  Were they strong? How did they look…”overall”? Are they forums for engaging with and thinking about and assessing the aesthetics and politics of works of art? Really? Are these the questions we want the answers to where art fairs are concerned? Did dealers make sales, and by making those sales, put money in their artists’ accounts so that those artists can keep doing what they do (or do something different, if they so choose)? That’s the bottom line question (no pun intended) in my mind. If the background din and lack of snacks made it harder for collectors to buy work, then yes, let’s talk about that. But if not, then let’s not.

And so sorry, but for as much as everyone squealed with delight about Independent (a.k.a. the ‘Black and White and Monochrome’ show), it was not that great. It was not some revelation. Was there good work? Of course. Was it self-congratulatory? Unquestionably, yes. But there I go, commenting on an art fair as it if deserved the attention. It is what it is…and that should be enough.

2 thoughts on “Sometimes a fair is just a fair

  1. Point well taken about MoMA. On Friday afternoon a line of about 500 people snaked out front, all the way to Sixth Avenue. Marina Abramovic was doing her performance in the main atrium, under klieg lights and encircled by additional throngs. Galleries and elevators were overflowing. Dozens of teenage girls were snapping pictures of a wall listing Tim Burton’s artistic accomplishments. There was nowhere to hide for the “spiritual pilgrims” assumed by the museum-marketing literature to seek solace and introspection inside the museum’s walls.

    On the larger point, though, I take a different view. While art fairs are of course trade shows and should ultimately be judged in terms of how much business they transact, the facts have changed around them in ways that make them impossible NOT to read, in part, as curatorial undertakings. They have become proxies for cultural events.

    Institutional footprints change. We may not like that commentary and comedy have displaced objective reporting on TV–but audiences interpret that as the news. We may not like that celebrities have supplanted people of substance in the conduct of our civic life and the framing of our cultural and political debates–but they have done so. Likewise, no amount of anxiety by folks committed to serious forms of critical discourse will dispel the incontrovertible reality that for a large part of the art audience, fairs are THE place where a certain picture of today’s art is formed.

    This is, in part, the result of astute and in some respects laudable innovations by dealers and fair organizers. The proliferation of project elements at all major fairs, along with the trend toward single-artist booths has upped the curatorial ante. One might voice alarm about the frayed and fuzzy borders between selling and curating. But on the whole (and speaking as an occasional moderator at fair-related panel discussions), I consider the intellectualizing of the fairs a positive phenomenon. It makes art fairs considerably more interesting than furniture fairs, for example.

    The narrative of the evolution of the art fair is not much of a narrative when compared, say, to the narrative of painting. But it is a narrative of a certain sort, and one to which a great many people in the art world are committed. Some people seem to have become more adept at picking apart the minutiae of fair developments than talking about the art on view. (I must have heard more about the floor plan at Miami Art Basel than about any single object on view.) Like it or not, the evolution of fairs is today analyzed and interpreted in a certain critical light, analogous to the lively discourse around the meanings and implications of museum display. Whatever one’s view of the works at the Independent fair, the event certainly succeeded in its stated goal of getting people talking about what a fair can be. I mean, here we are.

    What’s the bottom line? I actually do think that fairs have a critical function. It has to do with the editing down of the sprawling global enormity of the art world into some sort of coherent, intelligible, transparent subset of activity–the artists and galleries that are deemed noteworthy in the given tier of the market where the fair operates. This kind of editing has fallen victim to bloat, a reflexive opening of floodgates brought about by economic anxiety last year. And when things get too big, too sprawling, too agonizingly tiresome to navigate, attention really does get reduced to why it’s so hard to get an espresso at the VIP lounge.

  2. Fairs are also the most nimble form of art infrastructure. All they need is a good rolodex, an attractive catchment area and some enterprise. While museums, art history departments, critical scholarship and art publishing may take a generation to bed down—witness Sadyaat Island in Abu Dhabi, M+ in Hong Kong or the expansive desert that is the Indian institutional landscape—fairs can become world players in a few short years, and can shape a more global ‘new art world order’. Frieze was the last example in Euro-America. Duabi and Abu Dhabi (if they can get over Emirati rivalry and combine forces), and Hong Kong are obvious examples to follow. [Full disclosure – we have participated in two of the three.]

    The most important feature about art fairs is not how they show, but what they show. I will venture that ‘projects’ and curatorial accouterments will continue to be a much bigger part of the Armorys, Friezes and Art Basel Miamis of the world than HK10s or Art Dubais. At least until the audience becomes as familiar with what these fairs in Asia are showing versus what is shown in Euro-America.

    So I will qualify Andras’s reading somewhat. I think fairs don’t just act as filters, they also allow new stories and trajectories to emerge, in a world which is still far too narrow in what it thinks of as canonical art. Anyone not convinced — just look at the wall ‘documenting’ the history of the ‘modern’ at Tate Modern — and list artists and ‘movements’ outside Euro-America. It is a very short list. Fairs will make it longer well before scholarly exhibitions at museums.

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