In her newest book, The Art Fair Story: A Rollercoaster Ride, Institute alumna Melanie Gerlis dives into the origins, triumphs, and pitfalls of the art fair – and where it will go next as the art world evolves. The work is part of the Hot Topics series, edited by Institute faculty Jeffrey Boloten and Juliet Hacking and in collaboration with art world publishers, Lund Humphries. Read a complimentary excerpt of The Art Fair Story below.
I grew up in London’s Islington, just as it was starting to gentrify though well before the British press labeled it as ‘trendy’. A market for antiques, vintage clothing and varied knick-knacks ran in Camden Passage every weekend and, in 1989, when I was an impressionable teenager, an art fair opened across the road in the Business Design Centre. It was called Art ’89. I had never seen anything like it. School trips had taken me to London’s rich and varied museums, but here, in a restored agricultural hall, flanked by neighborhood restaurants and corner shops, were hundreds of works of art for sale, all in one place, for people to browse at leisure. These were not necessarily grand works of art, though among the eclectic, modern fare, I seem to recall a Barbara Hepworth sculpture and an L.S. Lowry painting and being amazed that such items could be bought. Almost as beguiling was the well-dressed, upwardly mobile crowd. Visitors were strolling, chatting with friends, pushing prams, grabbing sandwiches and – on a cold January day – enjoying a day out inside. Some were even buying things.
I had no idea that what I was witnessing was the art market in action. There was a lot more that I didn’t know. That the fair was following in the footsteps of pioneer events that had popped up around the world since the 1960s to galvanize the art trade. Or that such gatherings could generate millions of pounds for their host cities. Or that the fair I was visiting would face rising competition on its own turf as well as inspiring events as far afield as Hong Kong and Dubai. I certainly couldn’t foresee that, many years later, art fairs would come to dominate my professional life. I am certain though that the teenage fascination sparked by a local fair set the wheels in motion for my career as an art-market writer. This book, written when art fairs seemed at their most challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, tells the story of how they have stimulated and mapped the world’s growing appetite for art. Their number has swelled from a handful of events in post-war Europe to, at the last count, 365 recognized art fairs, from the Americas to Asia. Fairs have moved from leaning on royal assent or state backing to become part of a fiercely competitive industry.
Commerce is a dirty word
Art fairs, together with the auction houses, have played an instrumental role in transforming the art market from a cottage industry into a $60 billion juggernaut. Bringing galleries together to create a multinational one-stop-shop has proved a potent formula to sell art and bring in the crowds. They have made their greatest impact in the market for contemporary art, less understood and in much greater supply than older works – and an important symbol of a post-war break with the past.
While fairs started out as modest experiments, they increasingly wowed their crowds – in no small measure because of the opulence on show. In 2011, the Hiscox insurance group conservatively estimated that the total value of works on offer at Art Basel was $1.75 billion. At the wider-category TEFAF Maastricht fair it was $3.2 billion. There are few places in the world where visitors can see that amount for sale under one roof. The trappings of such large-scale art fairs, including champagne sponsors and networkers dressed to the nines, are attractive and aspirational. And the art can be extraordinary. To see Picasso paintings and Calder mobiles alongside cutting-edge contemporary artists is a compelling mix. Yet it is not to everyone’s liking. A fine art sensibility does not always sit easily alongside big bucks. Under each art fair ceiling or canopy runs a host of compromises in pursuit of commerce, something that has jarred since their beginnings. Part of art’s all-important intangible value comes from keeping it elite, but a fair serves to make it more accessible. Galleries that pride themselves on their individual programming and high-spec spaces join forces with the competition in a loud, cramped environment that can make them all look very alike. Visitors are a mix of the professional trade, their high-rolling clients and the general public. It is a combination that demands a delicate balancing act. Art fairs unapologetically yoke them together. At their best though, art fairs have been a lifeline for galleries and, by extension, their artists. In 2019, art dealers attributed nearly half of their sales to fairs. As Hyperallergic put it in 2011, ‘Commerce is a dirty word in the art world, but it’s also what makes it run. The growing significance of art fairs mapped a changing clientele. Historically, collectors had educated themselves over decades, waiting until they were nearing a wealthy retirement to invest their knowledge into actually buying a work. Through the second half of the 20th century, this started to change. Would-be art buyers got richer younger, had less time to spare and craved new experiences. Museum curators too, on the lookout for acquisitions to their collections, were increasingly time-strapped. Far easier to see 200 sample showings in a couple of days than travel the world to keep abreast of all the burgeoning scenes. As the mighty auction houses started to pop up around the world with time-based sales aimed directly at these busy buyers, art fairs enabled small, independent galleries to hold their own. By pooling their wares for a limited time, fairs enabled dealers to deliver their own sense of urgency and razzmatazz.
Dealers of contemporary art had been the first to recognize the need for a new market model. This story begins with the run-up to Art Cologne in 1967. Hard to imagine now, but it was extremely rare for museums to mount exhibitions dedicated to new art. Auction houses, too, limited themselves to historic items until relatively recently. To generate a buzz that could confer value on their lesser-known, newer artists, dealers had to mount thoughtful exhibitions in their galleries. The arrival of fairs opened their programs up to more visitors. Similar events that catered to dealers in older art were already tentatively on the scene and looked to their emerging contemporary counterparts to create a more compelling offering.
Over time, the greater footfall of art fairs meant that they soon vied as a place to launch new works – just as trade fairs became the place to show off a new car or a washing machine. While the content of art fairs was hopefully more inspiring, their model was a traditional one. ‘The art fair is simply an effort to move the product in whatever way possible,’ said the gallerist and art fair founder Pat Hearn back in 1995.
For visitors, art fairs have made the rarefied art world seem more accessible. Gallery spaces, often stark white cubes with buzzer entry systems, can be intimidating. This is despite being free to enter, unlike their art fair counterparts. At the first Art Basel in 1970, a day ticket cost five Swiss francs. By 2019 it was 58 francs, nearly four times the inflation rate during the same period. Yet many visitors feel more comfortable with this model. Anyone with a certain amount of money can belong.
This seems particularly pertinent for modern and contemporary art, which can be more baffling and exclusive than 17th-century still-life paintings. An enthusiastic but uninitiated art lover might walk past a city-center gallery with a show of crushed cars by John Chamberlain or a banana taped to a wall by Maurizio Cattelan. In the aisles of a busy fair, visitors can take it all in at their own pace, with the confidence that the galleries have gone through a validating selection process. There is no pressure. ‘In an art fair, you don’t feel obliged to buy anything,’ says the Hong Kong-based collector Jonathan Cheung. Visitors can stay anonymous or conversely could have their curiosity piqued and begin to ask questions that will develop into a life-long addiction. A fair may even inspire the next generation of artists, curators, dealers, or journalists.
Art fairs can also be fun, or certainly funny, with absurd happenings that tend to save themselves for temporary events. The first waterjet sculptures by Jean Tinguely had Art Basel’s visitors negotiate wet feet at an early edition of the fair (‘Nobody had thought about drainage’). At FIAC in 1975, the Austrian avant-garde artist Herman Nitsch created a performance that involved naked actors drinking the blood of lambs sacrificed at the fair, while Cattelan brought a donkey into an elegant booth at the 2016 Frieze New York, as well as his infamous taped banana to Art Basel Miami Beach in 2019. The sight of art-world luminaries rolling down Paola Pivi’s five-meter, grass turf slope made for Frieze’s first edition in London in 2003 is unforgettable.
Exhibitors sometimes have a laugh too. The Old Masters paintings dealer Johnny Van Haeften recalls a quiet moment at the TEFAF Maastricht fair when he played boules down the plush carpet with cannonballs from the stall of his fellow exhibitor, the armor dealer Peter Finer.
Over the years, entertainment became the name of the game for everyone. Messy trade halls turned into palaces of pleasure, catering to an increasingly varied and international crowd. By consolidating activity into one place at one time under a unifying brand, selling events became glamorous, must-do moments in the cultural calendar. Celebrity visitors have included the likes of Greta Garbo, Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow. Top-tier fairs boast pop-ups of fine restaurants as well as champagne sponsors, to keep the good mood flowing. When TEFAF launched in New York, the fair flew over its renowned oyster shuckers to give the Upper East Side crowd a taste of Dutch luxury.
Fair organizers are by no means the only people to lubricate the in-crowds. Galleries host private dinners that dovetail with the art fair calendar, to keep their VIPs feeling Very Important. Satellite fairs and other cultural events flock to cities around the world to capture the high-net-worth visitors. Parties on Miami Beach or overlooking Hong Kong’s harbour are not bad ways for the well-heeled to network.
Sponsors have found the socio-economic clout of art fairs increasingly irresistible. In Art Basel’s hefty ‘Year 50’ commemoration book, full-page adverts are given over to luxury brands including Netjets, BMW, Ruinart champagne and Sanlorenzo Yachts. The fair has long been backed by the Swiss-founded, global bank UBS, while other financial services companies – including Deutsche Bank, AXA and Credit Suisse – support other art fairs around the world.
Such partnerships have played their part in the growth of the art fair industry although they have not always run smoothly. In 2008, a former UBS banker in Switzerland pleaded guilty to helping US clients conceal their wealth, and testified that he and colleagues were encouraged to ‘solicit new business’ at events such as Art Basel in Miami Beach. In the same year, ART HK launched as the first international success story in Hong Kong – but its lead sponsor was the soon-to-collapse bank, Lehman Brothers.
The history of art fairs has been littered with as many missteps and failures as success stories. Some cities have proved not right for such events, including those with deep-rooted cultural communities. In Los Angeles and Berlin, for example, the local art market has proved too fragmented to sustain a fair for long; in Moscow, an overarching skepticism of contemporary art has yet to thaw.
The first online-only art fair, called the VIP fair, crashed and burned after just two editions, leaving a mistrust of virtual art shopping in its wake. Of the fairs that have stood the test of time, some – including the venerable Art Cologne and the Art & Antiques Fair at London’s Olympia – seem past their peak years. Others, such as the powerhouse Art Basel Miami Beach and the elegant FIAC in Paris, have had their ups and downs but remain in the top ranks.
The difference between good and bad fairs – and good and bad editions of fairs – has often been chance. For TEFAF Maastricht, a fluke advertising slot on the then relatively obscure channel CNN in 1990 coincided with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq. Travelers to town followed the news more closely on their hotel televisions and the fair saw visitor numbers grow by ten percent. Fast-forward 30 years and the same event’s risky opening as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in Europe forced it to close early. As exhibitors came down with the virus, TEFAF’s reputation suffered too.
The wider economic environment has been make-or-break for many fairs, or at least exacerbated the successes and failures. The recession years of the 1990s, for example, stalled the growth of many events. It also proved a catalyst for more grass-roots fairs, such as the Gramercy Park Hotel fair in New York (now The Armory Show), which proved their worth to dealers in testing times. The stock-market booms through London’s prime early millennium years gave Frieze an enviable environment in which to launch. The subsequent economic bust weakened nascent events, including the India Art Summit and Art Dubai – though both made it through. More prosaically, individual decisions over venues and timing have also been vital to whether certain fairs flop or fly.
Overall, however, since their emergence in the 1960s, the modern-day art fairs have served the key purpose of bringing more people to more galleries and to more art, all around the world. One question throughout, though, has been at what cost? These events grew steadily through the 20th century, then at breakneck speed from the turn of the millennium and reached unmanageable levels in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With each success came increased dominance and, into the 21st century, the industry seemed out of touch with the galleries it purported to support. Art fairs were expensive exercises, that took visitors and gallerists away from individual spaces, where art can be shown at its best. For dealers with art priced at the lower end of the spectrum, it all stopped adding up. For everyone, the travel, planning and additional activities that clustered around the art fairs turned them from being fun, cultural experiences into endurance tests. While the COVID pandemic has been a hammer blow across the industry in many ways, one silver lining was that travel restrictions and event cancellations helped to relieve some of the pressure.
The fallout from the pandemic, and the task fairs now face to rebuild, have spurred the questions at the heart of this book. What cultural, economic and commercial forces have art fairs managed to tap into since the 1960s? What have art fairs achieved for the wider art ecosystem in that time? How must they now adapt to stay relevant in a changed world? For many, it is a chance to do things differently – and more sustainably. Iwan Wirth, president of the multi-space gallery Hauser & Wirth, is only semi-joking when he says: ‘What we spent on fairs was insane. I don’t want them back.’ As the artist Marina Abramović put it to me: ‘Let’s have more and more of less and less.’ And yet Abramović – a world-renowned performance artist who has had major institutional showings over the years – for me also embodies the serendipity that art fairs can release. The very first time I encountered and fell in love with her work was at Art Basel in 2014.
The pandemic has thrown down major challenges for art fair organizers and widened some cracks in their business models. Perhaps most of all it has challenged art fairs to refocus on how to stimulate and surprise – the very qualities that have characterized their vibrant history.