Commercial art fairs have existed for centuries, possibly as far back as the mid-15th Century at a cathedral at Pand in Antwerp where artists roamed the stalls of picture sellers, frame workers, and color grinders.
Three centuries later, art fairs were taking place in the grand expositions of Paris and at the Royal Academy in London. The United States introduced major European works at its first art fair at the Armoury exhibition of 1913 in New York City.
In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, author Don Thompson examines some interesting facts about Art Fairs.
There is a definitive difference in the atmosphere of an art fair as opposed to a gallery setting; albeit the difference could be likened to the difference between a high end shopping mall and the Bargain Palace.
In a gallery, the sophistication, fashion, style, and conversational exchange add flavour to the selling process which is secondary to the appreciation of the work. Collectors acquire impulsively; usually purchasing only one work by an artist rather than the series.Conversely, the psychology at a fair is referred to as herding – when a buyer doesn’t have sufficient information to make a reasoned decision, reassurance comes from mimicking the behaviour of the herd.
An art fair is not the best place to view art; in fact it is one of the worst. Works are displayed at random, grouped together with pieces that don’t complement each other in context, with none of the benefits of thoughtful curation. Art may be displayed under overly bright fluorescent light, or even by the harshness of daylight or the limited vision of the evening. In poor lighting, much the magic of a piece could be missed.
The pushing forward of the masses in attendance doesn’t do much to help a viewer pause and reflect on a work.
Art dealers are at an advantage at an art fair. They know how to reel in a sale with bait and switch tactics that are not unlike those at a car dealership. By bringing already sold pieces from their gallery and setting them up in a highly visible area, and then claiming that they sold right off the bat, they are able to draw in media and collector attention. Once they have gained that notice, they then can put forward the lesser works that are actually for sale.
Fairs give these dealers a platform on which to gain top consignments because of the high turnover of saleable pieces.
A Place to Start
For the inexperienced collector, or any person new to the art world, a fair is a good place to get the feet wet. A show setting at a gallery does give one access to the artist and to people interested in that particular style of art; however, a fair exposes the uninitiated to a variety of arts. Gallery owners are more available to answer questions at an art fair and to build a rapport with the potential buyer. A potential buyer is also free from the pressure to buy now than he or she would be at a show. By getting to know dealers and where to visit their galleries, the potential buyer can take more time for thought. Art fairs are good for networking.
Art fair organizers have a vested interest in providing an experience that encapsulates their vision. What this means for the art fair goer is that they will be exposed to more than visual art. The exhibition will have spaces for specialized groupings, the music or sound chosen will not be arbitrary, and the food will be art in and of itself. Fair goers will have access to foods they would normally have to pay high dollar amounts for or that they find hard to reach due to reservations and long waiting lists.
The famed art critic Jerry Saltz had this to say about art fairs “In reality art fairs are adrenaline-addled spectacles for a kind of buying and selling where intimacy, patience and focused looking, not to mention looking again, are essentially nonexistent.”
While Mr. Saltz is correct on many levels, art fairs have their place in the ever changing world of art and do their part to garner more interest in contemporary works.
By engaging more members of the public and turning that public into buyers, the art world will further increase its ability to sustain itself in the digital age.