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What are art fairs anyway?

Posted by Devin Cole  June 8, 2012 11:43 AM

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The influence of art fairs on the market has grown exponentially in the last few years. How and why do they grow? What effect have they had on the market and even how artists do their work?

Joanne Mattera, a widely exhibited artist, who blogs about galleries and art fairs in New York city and elsewhere: Art fairs are national or international gatherings where art galleries set up shop in booths to do business, to see and be seen, to attract new clients, to be available to repeat clients, to promote their artists, to be on the lookout for artists whose work they like. Not all art fairs are the same, though most must apply to be admitted.

There are the big international art fairs that require huge sums of money to participate, whose dealers must therefore show the work of big-name artists for six and seven figures. These are fairs like Armory in New York City, Art Basel Miami Beach in Miami, Art Basel in Switzerland, Art Cologne in Germany and Frieze Fair in London.

There are smaller international art fairs that require smaller (but still significant) sums, which attract mid-level galleries with a more modest roster of artists whose prices are more affordable. The selling range would be more in five figures, low to high. These are fairs like Pulse, Scope, NADA, all of which show in Miami and New York City; Volta, which takes place in New York City and elsewhere internationally.

For some dealers, these are the “fallback” fairs if they don’t get into Art Basel Miami, or Art Miami, or the Armory fair. “Now I know what it’s like for you artists, this constant rejection,” said one dealer who was participating in one of these fairs after his application was declined from Basel Miami.

There are small but wonderful fairs like Aqua Art, which takes place in Miami, which are primarily national, which attract smaller galleries that bring great work by good artists at prices a larger swath of the art-viewing and art-buying public can actually afford. But it’s all relative. One multimillion-dollar sale by a blue-chip gallery at Basel Miami might equal the entire three days of sales by the 50 or so galleries here.

In this way, the art fairs are like an aquarium, where there fish of different sizes, each swimming around it its own particular level. If you watch the aquarium fish, they go around, but they maintain their particular level.

Christine Pfister, Owner of Pentimenti Gallery in Philadelphia who shows with Volta: "Art Fairs are machines of sorts, presenting and selling work. Each gallery’s booth is like short a curated exhibition taking place outside the gallery space that involves thinking, reviewing and selecting work, in a short time span and showing work to as many people as possible. Fairs bring artists, collectors, press, curators, and galleries together for cross pollination, broadening the artist and the gallery’s audience to the national and the international community."

Richard Polsky, author: "Art fairs are very expensive for dealers and galleries to participate in, but they bring hundreds and thousands of visitors to your booth to look at work. That amount of viewers can’t really compare to the foot traffic of a regular gallery during a one month show."

Todd Levin, Director of Levin Art Group: “Art fairs have very little to do with what the vast majority of artists do every day. The aesthetic meaning of art collapses under this brute weight of price at art fairs. According to Forbes, “When a product becomes indistinguishable from others like it and consumers buy on price alone, it becomes a commodity...” – and in light of over 3,000 artworks by 2,000 artists at the 2012 Armory Fair alone, we can see that breakdown of meaning with our own eyes. Art, in one way or another, has always offered me a way to understand myself better. But at places like art fairs, art and money exchange roles: money becomes ‘divine’ by being translated into art, and art becomes commonplace by being translated into money.

Therefore, it is impossible to see [or] interact with art in any meaningful way at an art fair as they currently exist. This results in “art fair art” - a proliferation of meretricious art called into being by market demands – art that has what one might call ‘wall power,’ a kind of immediacy, a style of ingratiating effect, many times a jumbo economy-sized scale; in short, the ability to stand out amongst so many other artworks in a crowded salon like setting where everything is clamoring for attention in the midst of a total visual/sensory overload.

Perhaps Robert Hughes presciently summed the current state of affairs we find ourselves in even more succinctly when he wrote in 1990 - “...What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture...” - and so Art Fairs as well.”

Donna Dodson graduated cum laude from Wellesley College in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts. Since 2000, Dodson has been honored with solo shows nationwide for her wood sculptures. Dodson enjoys public speaking, and has been a guest speaker in conferences, panels and forums at museums and universities in North America.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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