Art is big business, and more and more often, that business is being done at art fairs. The first modern and contemporary fair, the Kunstmarkt Köln was held in 1967, as an attempt to breathe life into a waning art market. Since then, there has been a steady increase in the number of art fairs around the world, leading to an explosion in the past 10 years. In 2005, there were 68 international art fairs, ballooning to 220 in 2014, according to a 2014 Artnet news article. Scott O'Malley, writing for the International Convention of Exhibition and Fine Art Transporters, predicts 270 fairs this year.
Fairs are also taking an increasingly large market share. In 2014, the total world art market topped $54 billion, according to O'Malley. Art fair sales accounted for $10.9 billion, or roughly 20 percent of the total. That's not exactly small potatoes.
Last week was a big time for art fairs here in Los Angeles, with four contemporary and modern fairs taking place, not to mention the photography fair, Photo LA, held the week before. It's no question that art fairs offer a great opportunity to see -- and buy -- a wide selection of contemporary artwork from around the world. They also cost a lot to put on, and a lot to participate in, and if they don't attract a sufficient collector base, they can easily go under. With the ease, convenience and economy of the Internet, are art fairs too cumbersome and expensive to survive? Or are they the wave of the future, the vehicle by which more and more of us will be encountering and collecting art? As the barriers to entry rise with increasing costs to participate for galleries, are they shutting out more adventurous, emerging spaces, becoming simply playgrounds for the "1 percent?"
Artbound recently spoke with a selection of fair organizers, gallerists, and artists to get their perspective on the role and function of art fairs in the contemporary art world.
The basic role of the art fair is to bring a wide selection of galleries together with a community of collectors they might not be able to attract on their own, says Kim Martindale, general manager and partner of the L.A. Art Show, which launched its 21st fair last week. "Art fairs provide a wider audience," Martindale said. "It's really the way of the future because art fairs create a groundswell that is difficult to replicate. Collectors travel for art fairs because they can see so many different galleries at once."
Tim Fleming, owner and director of Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC), which boasted its largest event ever, with 83 exhibitors and 15,000 guests in attendance over a four-day weekend, said that the whole concept of the art fair as a cultural event is really just to support the gallery system. "And for the public," he continued, "you have this great access and tangible moment where you can interact with the gallerists and learn about how they operate and how they support their artists' work."
Fleming stressed that one of ALAC's strengths is its focus on being responsive to its hometown art community. "We've been getting to know our city through the process of building an art fair that relates to L.A., and getting L.A. acclimated to the concept of what a progressive, contemporary art fair can be," he told me. "Our fair is unique in that it strives to be a part of that ecosystem of art practice in Los Angeles and the West Coast."
A number of artists mentioned the benefits of wider exposure that fairs provide. "For most artists fairs bring a certain amount of anxiety," said Amir H. Fallah, a Los Angeles-based painter. "On one hand there's a lot of opportunity to gain exposure outside of the city you live in but you also can drive yourself mad if work doesn't sell. I've only had good things come from participating in art fairs. Having a captive audience for your work is always a good thing."
Although fairs are an opportunity to sell work in a very short period of time, they also offer connections after the fair ends. "I have gotten other opportunities to show my work or interest in special projects just from the sheer number of people seeing the work at a fair," noted Gina Beavers, a New York-based artist whose pop-inspired canvases merge painting and shallow relief sculpture.
The cost of participating in fairs can certainly be prohibitive to smaller galleries, but one of the benefits of the large number of art fairs is an increase in diversity. There are behemoths like Art Basel Miami on the one hand, and fairs for emerging galleries like the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) on the other.
"There is an art fair for everybody these days," says Ry Rocklen, a Los Angeles-based artist whose sculptures include furniture made from trophies. "There are the small off-Broadway art fairs for the up and comers and then there are the big fairs for the established galleries."
Fleming says that ALAC does its best to integrate emerging and blue-chip galleries to present a well-rounded program. "We strive to create a level playing field for all the galleries. It's a very democratic floor plan, young galleries paired next to mature, established galleries, and there's the idea that the whole world is invited to be a part of it."
Scott Diament, the owner of the Palm Beach Show Group, which organizes 10 fairs around the country, echoed this sentiment. "All participating galleries benefit and it actually creates more of a level playing field as all galleries participating are in the same room," he told me via email. "Higher-end galleries do not have the advantage they have in major cities."
As art fairs become an increasingly prominent part of the art market, gallerists may feel the pressure to participate in every fair that comes their way, though virtually everyone I spoke with encouraged a more reasoned approach. "It's all about the gallerist knowing their place in the market, being smart about that, and applying to the correct fair for them," said Claudia James Bartlett, director of Photo L.A., which just closed its 25th edition.
"Ultimately I think galleries should be very selective, and absolutely they don't need to do all these different fairs," said Fleming. "It's about, 'can you build a collector base to support your program, while serving the community and serving the artists?'"
Still, there are some art spaces that have been able to survive without participating in fairs. "Art fairs have obviously played a larger role for galleries that share a specific set of interests," said Bob Gunderman of L.A.'s ACME Gallery, who participates in a few fairs each year. "But there are a number of young galleries establishing themselves outside of this 'circuit,' who are making decisions according to an entirely different set of criteria."
Considering the art fair as one aspect of a balanced program was a commonly held opinion. "Smart dealers will always use it as a tool, like so many other things," said Bartlett. "I don't think that it has to be just one or the other. It's a piece of the pie."
"It is crucial for galleries to participate in art fairs for the same reason it important for them to have a website," Rocklen told Artbound. "In a way, the fairs are an extension of that digital space, where one has access to galleries from all over the world in a single place."
Bringing so much art together in one place can offer a wider audience, but it can also produce a kind of visual fatigue, leading galleries to assemble flashier and more bombastic booths. "Art fairs by their nature have to be spectacles, because you've got a lot of different galleries, typically with many artists in each booth, vying for your attention," said Ray Beldner, co-founder of the stARTup Art Fair which provides a venue for artists without gallery representation. "At the Silicon Valley art fair, I was noticing that each booth got more and more outrageous, the work got bigger, got more colorful, got more kooky. One had flashing lights. I'm thinking, 'what's next, something to be set on fire?' I go into the next booth, and one of the pieces is smoking. It becomes like a carnival with barkers yelling at you."
In contrast to this trend, Beldner and stARTup co-founder Steve Zavattero chose to house their recent inaugural L.A. fair in the Highland Gardens Hotel, after opening their first fair in San Francisco last year. "A hotel fair forces a kind of intimacy and contemplation that you don't see at typical fairs," he said. "It's more conversational, it's quieter, and it lends itself to an experience that is even more intimate than a gallery. We're trying to work against all the bad elements of the spectacle-driven art fair."
Mieke Marple of L.A.'s Night Gallery, spoke favorably of her experience with art fairs in building wider audiences and supporting emerging spaces. Although some of the larger, blockbuster fairs have attracted criticism for their sensationalism, celebrity culture and elitism, Marple offered a historical perspective on the empowering role that fairs can play for galleries and artists. "A lot of people think fairs are the big bad wolf but in Georgina Adam's book 'Big Bucks' she pointed out that fairs were a response to auction houses delving into the primary market. Individually, galleries cannot compete with the resources of an auction house, but when they are all together in a single location they can. In this light, art fairs might even seem like a heroic solution," she told me. "Everything depends on how you look at it."
Top Image: Art Los Angeles Contemporary 2015 | Photo: Gina Clyne.