With the globalization of the art market, the number of art fairs has exploded and now every city wants to get in on the act, but is it positive for the industry? In recent times, the art market has witnessed a revolution in the way works are purchased. In just one decade, the number of international fairs has jumped from 10 to 60, which means that the classic art market model – based on transactions in galleries – is increasingly governed by the economic model of art fairs. International fairs act as a crucial platform for galleries and artists to make their presence known, sell their works and forge links with the art industry’s major players, which they may not have been able to engage with otherwise. They also offer a practical means for art critics, collectors, curators, museum directors and enthusiasts to come into direct contact and have access to a wide range of works from around the world gathered under one roof all in one shot, which is particularly useful in a market that’s now globalized and where people are increasingly rushed and want to see a maximum number of works in a minimum amount of time. Furthermore, this new model pushes communities with similar interests to exchange ideas more freely and is instrumental in transforming the host city into a global destination for art.
Installation view of the Ben Brown Fine Arts booth showing works by Vik Muniz and Claude Lalanne at The Armory Show 2016 (Photo BFA. Courtesy of The Armory Show 2016)
According to TEFAF’s (The European Fine Art Foundation) macro-economic report released last March, the art market had reached its highest-ever recorded level of €51 billion in 2014 and people bought primarily at fairs and online. Sales by galleries at fairs have been increasing: in 2010, the percentage was around 30 percent, while in 2014, it was around 40 percent. Abby Bangser, Frieze’s Artistic Director for the Americas and Asia, says, “We aim to provide our galleries with the best possible platform for selling art and meeting new clients. The ever-increasing applications from galleries to participate in Frieze demonstrate to us that galleries find being a part of the fairs an important part of their businesses. Art fairs are beneficial to collectors who are able to see an enormous amount of art all in one space and it is especially useful for galleries outside the major urban centers, who may see far fewer clients at their galleries. The fairs are also well attended by students and artists, who appreciate seeing a broad spectrum of art, without the need for taking the time and financial resources for wide-ranging travel.”
Despite these benefits, the art market’s change of model and structure are not always positive for everyone. The huge number of new art fairs is definitely an asset for the market generally, but their success may come at the expense of business in galleries. Additionally, this new model based on art fairs can also be disadvantageous for young galleries and emerging artists, as fairs are known to be selective when picking exhibitors, which means that little-known artists are often overlooked in favor of more recognized ones. Lastly, many fairs have emerged in countries where the art market is less developed. This leads us to question if these newcomers can compete effectively with their well-known counterparts such as Art Basel, Frieze or FIAC, particularly with regards to their ability to attract international audiences.
Why the Art Fair Boom?
There are many causes for this recent turn of events, from a model based on galleries to one based on fairs. We have seen strong growth with the internationalization of art and the art world, which can be explained partly because of better communication, especially with the Internet, and falling prices of air travel. In fact, since the birth of the Internet, people no longer need to take the time to visit their local galleries; many prefer to browse artworks online, not only for convenience, but because the Internet provides a wider selection of works that interest them. Also, they can now check information and prices online immediately while purchasing at an art fair. Combined with the ease of international travel, this means that some people favor going directly to visit a fair that will present a larger choice of art pieces. Furthermore, fairs and the satellite artistic events that pop up around them have become vital to the art world’s social scene. Fairs propose precious networking opportunities that a local gallery would not be able to provide within the context of the market’s accelerated globalization. In the end, art fairs have also become prevalent as they benefit the local economies of their host cities. They not only attract tourists, but also work together with festivals and museum exhibitions, which are huge money-spinners themselves.
Chandeliers for Five Cities by Ham Kyungah presented by Kukje Gallery / Tina Kim Gallery at the Encounters section of Art Basel Hong Kong 2016 (Photo Jessica Hromas. Courtesy of Art Basel 2016)
Founder and Director of Art Stage Singapore, Lorenzo Rudolf, notes, “Contemporary art has become a lifestyle and social status. On a weekly basis, there are new wealthy buyers entering the art market. And buying art, especially high-priced art, has become buying social status and a ticket to a glamorous society that one would not have had access to previously. It’s logical that with the increase of the art market, market infrastructures also grow: there are more art galleries, dealers, consultants and fairs than ever. But international art fairs are not only market platforms. They have also become places where the increasingly globalized art world and its followers meet and exchange: they have become social events. Art Stage Singapore is the get-together event of the entire Southeast Asian art world. It is the place and week where creative people from the region – artists, collectors, curators, museum directors, art lovers, etc. – come together and dialogue. We understand and view ourselves not as a single event in Singapore, but part of an entire movement in shaping Singapore as a professional and serious contemporary art hub that is respected all over the world.”
Guillaume Piens, Director of Art Paris, remarks, “The first art fairs were in Europe and the US. These days, there are other actors on the art market from China, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia and Dubai. Art is an important component of tourism and a city’s image. A lot of fairs serve this purpose with the support of local authorities. Historically, one of the key examples is ARCO in Madrid. It was part of the new face of democratic Spain in the 1980s. In the same way, Art Basel Miami, which started in 2002, completely transformed Miami and put it on the map as a destination for contemporary art. It seems as though every city in the world now wants to have its own contemporary art fair, which is why we have seen such an increase in numbers. We have gone from three contemporary art fairs in 1970 to 269 in 2015.”
Survival of the Fittest
The dramatic transformation of the market is an issue for many traditional galleries, which have seen their business decline to alarming levels, as many collectors now buy mainly at art fairs. This has been especially true in London to the extent that the British art market has experienced profound changes in recent decades. In the past, its commercial galleries could count on local buyers, but now the capital is dominated by wealthy immigrants from Russia, China or the Middle East. These newcomers often know rather little about the city in which they settle, which means that they don’t necessarily spend much time discovering individual galleries and prefer to find works presented in one place, as in the case of art fairs. “Bond Street galleries are closing at an alarming rate,” reported The Telegraph in 2014. For instance, Colnaghi gallery, based in Mayfair for 250 years, shut its store front and moved to premises above a leather goods shop. Likewise, Agnew's Gallery shuttered its Bond Street establishment after 195 years in the area.
General fairground view of Art Paris Art Fair 2015 (Photo courtesy of Art Paris)
In other countries, the problem has been similar. The Age reported in 2014 that Anna Pappas, President of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association, approximated that global sales of its galleries had dropped by 25 to 30 percent, and that 30 percent of commercial galleries had closed in Australia in recent years. Even in the US, many San Francisco gallerists have been obliged to sell their galleries and work from home. George Krevsky, Director of George Krevsky Gallery, revealed to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014 that his peers in Chicago and Los Angeles were in a comparable situation. In 10 years, he predicted, traditional galleries would be a thing of the past. Auction houses, art fairs and the Internet would have taken control. Emi Eu, Director of Singapore-based gallery STPI, comments, “The majority of new collectors find it easier and less time-consuming to buy at fairs than going to individual galleries. There are many art fairs, but there are only a few that really offer both galleries and collectors the ideal grounds for buying and selling. There are galleries that have done business on a person-to-person basis rather than at fairs and online, but times are changing very rapidly. One must adapt to these changes because it affects the way we do business.” Rudolf concurs, “Today, if I am a gallery or an art fair, whether I like the situation or not, globalization is not stopping because of me; I am obliged to adapt myself or, even better, to see it as a chance. There are not only more competitors, but the cake has also become bigger.”
Audrey Rose Smith, Communications Manager of The Armory Show, states, “Many factors in the current art economy speak to broad changes in the way artworks are bought and sold today. Art fairs certainly play an important role; however, there are many other factors to consider, such as shifting demographics, globalization and the pace of consumption today. As the art world becomes more itinerant, people may go to galleries less and events (fairs, auctions) more as a result of these changes. The proliferation of online marketplaces is another factor to consider, with a shift toward online bidding among auction houses. Art fairs are certainly shaped by these shifting factors. For example, platforms like Artsy allow collectors to preview works at fairs before opening day and, in fact, much collector activity is initiated or completed via digital platforms. Given the number of art fairs year-round and their global locations, their frequency contributes to the sustained excitement around collecting and talking about art.” However, she goes on to note, “As part of a larger ecology, art fairs support gallery business, offering a new point of sale, acting as a connecting mechanism, encouraging travel to the galleries and meetings at other places throughout the year that ultimately extend beyond the art fair.”
Helping Emerging Artists
Another problem of this new market model is that in parallel with the closing of galleries, it is difficult for young artists to penetrate established art fairs, as smaller galleries representing them have little means to exhibit there. Not only is it tough to be accepted – knowing that the fairs are ultra-selective in their choice of exhibitors – but financial factors must also be considered, like participation fees, booth rental, insurance, packing and transportation of the works – expenditures that many galleries cannot afford. Silvia Koch, Director of Contemporary Istanbul, advises newly-established galleries to be patient and to keep on trying even if they don’t get selected to participate in an international art fair the first time around. She explains, “For galleries, participating in art fairs has become a high prestige factor: you get invited or not; you can afford it or not. It has also developed as the second – after the gallery space – most important channel to sell art, but also the most increasing expense factor for a gallery. These days, the art fair world is divided into a small number of blue-chip shows reaching out to different continents and a larger number of shows specialized in a region, emerging market or topic like contemporary art, modern art, photography, antiques, etc. At the moment, I have observed the trend that galleries and collectors are getting tired of going to blue-chip fairs and showing interest in emerging markets like Turkey – evident in the large amount of good galleries from abroad that already applied to last year’s Contemporary Istanbul.”
Galerie Kamel Mennour booth at Frieze London 2015 (Photo Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Frieze)
Additionally, fairs like Art Miami, Scope and Art Basel offer artists amazing opportunities to become internationally recognized, but they don’t accept the works of artists on their own, preferring to deal with leading galleries. Knowing that the price attributed to a work has become a synonym for quality and talent, this proves that it has become increasingly difficult for emerging artists to become recognized. Some share the opinion that these events favor expensive artists so that the level of the fair increases to be able to make more profits.
However, international art fairs point out that they dedicate sectors to young artists and galleries from around the world, like Art Basel’s Statements, Frieze’s Frame and Focus or Armory Presents. Piens says, “Some established art fairs are only interested in safe or speculative works. Others such as Art Paris prefer to focus on discovery and unveiling emerging art scenes. The invitation of Singapore and Southeast Asia as Art Paris’ guests of honor last year was unprecedented, and 56 artists from the region went on show. Most of these talented artists are unknown in Europe. We hope that their work will become part of good European collections.” Rudolf continues, “Art Stage Singapore supports strong and promising emerging art, artists and galleries. It is surely one of the fairs with the biggest support of and investment in young art worldwide. For example, participation in the Southeast Asian platform costs a gallery only a percentage of a regular booth. Hence it is wrong to say that art fairs disadvantage emerging artists and galleries. Many art fairs today are the catalysts and partners of galleries, especially young ones. Many young artists now kickstart their careers through art fairs, as it is the place where they are discovered by an international audience.”
Promoting the International Dimension
Galleries from non-Western countries that wish to participate in international fairs also face challenges. Although the number of fairs outside Europe and the US has considerably increased, particularly in Singapore with the creation of the Singapore Art Fair, Affordable Art Fair Singapore and Art Stage Singapore, it is still easier for Western galleries to participate in international fairs than for galleries from emerging countries, as they are generally more powerful, more professional and richer. Nonetheless, numerous international fairs have been actively tackling these problems by seeking to exhibit a wider range of works that reflect the international dimension of their events. For example, the Singapore Art Fair’s founders, Laure d’Hauteville and Pascal Odille, endeavor to build a fair that promotes artists from the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia. Rudolf is on the same wavelength: “Art Stage Singapore is not a platform that only looks for the most successful galleries. Being in Southeast Asia, we are committed to support Southeast Asian galleries, to give them a special platform to the global market and to bring them collectors they would have never met otherwise. Last year, we had over 40 galleries from Singapore and over 70 galleries from Southeast Asia. In other words, we try to give everyone the chance to grow in the market and to become successful internationally.”
British artists Gilbert & George at their book signing at Art Stage Singapore 2015 (Photo courtesy of Art Stage Singapore)
Piens notes that Art Paris is a generalist modern and contemporary art fair that works with a thematic approach. It is now a European fair that focuses on the East and the emerging scenes of Central Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The idea is to promote discovery and get to know a specific scene in depth: Russia in 2013, China in 2014, Singapore and Southeast Asia in 2015, and Korea in 2016. Smith discloses, “Last year’s Armory Focus was the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean (Focus: MENAM), which included 15 participating galleries. Focus: MENAM exemplifies the many ways in which The Armory Show acts as a diverse cultural platform that welcomes not only established Western artists, but also emerging artists from as close as New York to as far as Cairo or Jeddah. While the art fair model may be criticized for having a particular focus or bent, The Armory Show strives to provide not only a platform for commerce, but also for serious intellectual and cultural exchange.”
Fairs of Local Flavor
All this seems to prove that it can be difficult to draw foreign audiences to younger art fairs in countries where the global art market is less developed and still lacking experience in the organization of international events. However, the last few years have seen the burgeoning of new initiatives on the part of fairs which, far from competing with those better established internationally, hope to reflect the particular identity of their region. For example, Art Fair Tokyo’s Managing Director, Kiichi Kitajima, says, “Japan has a rich history of collector culture and so probably no longer falls into this category [less developed art market]. However, rather than dealing with the commoditized artworks of artists with global fame like the major art fairs of Europe and America, we aspire to offer experiences unique to Japan, gathering types of art of a high quality and which can only be seen here. We aren’t aiming for the global, but rather something local to Japan. We hope that many collectors from Japan and overseas will come to visit us as an internationally unique art fair.”
Piens remarks, “Art fairs need to position themselves as the venue for the discovery and promotion of a local or regional art scene to attract collectors to travel there. They cannot just be a marketplace with no real identity.” Bangser discloses, “These fairs are vital to their local communities, and there is always a place for different types of fairs in the increasingly globalized art market.” Séverine Waelchli, Director of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, points out, “There remain big differences among art fairs. Art Basel, FIAC and Frieze London are of a more classical type. Then there are more confidential art fairs such as Art Geneva, Art Brussels and Art Berlin, which allow galleries to work at a different level, to be able to spend more time with people they meet and to show less well-known works.” The multitude of art fairs of different sizes and profiles representing both the most sought-after Western artists and emerging talents from around the world ultimately gives galleries an abundance of choice to find one suitable for them.
Contemporary Istanbul 2015 fair area (Photo courtesy of Contemporary Istanbul)
Rudolf concludes, “You just have to be professional, serious, knowledgeable about the market, honest to yourself and have a clear strategy on how you want to grow step by step and to succeed in the global art scene. You have to know how the art world functions and match make exhibiting galleries with collectors, buyers, curators, museum directors and the media. That is the way to build up a fair. At the same time, you have to create a social get-together with a special and good mood so that people want to buy art. If you know these mechanisms and understand the art world, then there is almost no place where there isn’t a chance for a new fair to be successful. But, as mentioned before, we are in a time where there is a proliferation of art fairs. There are too many similar art fairs and not every fair can be successful. The competition is tough and you must know what you are doing to succeed.”