By Stephanie Dieckvoss
Kingston School of Art, Kingston University
A brief history of contemporary art fairs
Looking back at the history of fairs for contemporary art as platforms for the sale and distribution of art at a time when the ongoing coronavirus crisis has virtually stopped the most important opportunity for galleries to generate sales, seems a somewhat indulgent exercise. However, there are good reasons especially in times of great change to remember previous periods of change which brought on the art fair as a novel concept to sell art in the first place and to point out some of the core elements of an art fair that will remain relevant in a post pandemic cultural landscape.
Radical Beginning in the 1960s
The time and place is Cologne in the German Rhineland in the 1960s. A city that was heavily impacted by the destructions of the second world war, but that had once again developed a burgeoning art scene, owed to access to young artists coming from the nearby art academy in Dusseldorf, and a small gallery scene of both re-established as well as new galleries in an area of wealth and collector presence. In short: a place for contemporary German art with the need for a vehicle to promote it to old as well as new buyers in the centre of Post-war Europe. As has been diligently described by various German scholars and witnesses of the time (Zadik, 2003: Zadik, 2006: Zwirner, 2006; Rombach, 2008), it was a group of young gallerists who expanded on a few print stalls selling works on the side-lines of the blockbuster exhibition Documenta in Kassel. They were inspired by the seemingly radical idea of selling art not in elite and discreet gallery spaces but to a mass audience by creating a marketplace for such galleries: a space for everybody to come, see and buy. The so called Kölner Kunstmarkt in 1967 was the first art fair established in such a form and became the model of art fairs as we know them today. Morgner (2014) defines an art fair as “large organized gatherings of works of art, held at regularly spaced intervals and at particular locations, by art dealers/galleries coming from distant regions and they are visited by an international audience” (Morgner, 2014, p. 34). As working definitions go, this will suffice for the moment. It is also worth pointing out that the subsequent comments refer solely to art fairs for contemporary art. Fairs for fine art and antiques have a slightly different trajectory, which will not be included in the analysis, although their genesis is also under-researched.
The gallerists of this first generation, most famously Rudolf Zwirner, who has been remembering this period in very insightful interviews (Zwirner, 2006), might not have realised that for centuries, from the Middle Ages to modern times, art had already been sold in regional fairs and markets as has been known to mainly specialists in the history of the Dutch art market for a long time (see Vermeulen, 2003). Despite its immediate success, Cologne’s biggest drawback was its national focus by only allowing German galleries to exhibit at their art market. This weakness was quickly exploited by a group of Swiss gallerists, amongst them Ernst Beyeler, who understood from the get go that the future of the art market had to be international (Rombach, 2008; Genoni ,2009; Schultheis, 2016) and who from their first edition in 1970, invited international gallerists and dealers to exhibit in what was to become Art Basel – the most established and most reputable art fair of all times, its highs well remembered and its periodical lows quickly forgotten by an art market which doesn’t like to shine the light on its failures. The first international and then global outlook has provided a lifeline for the fair ever since. MCH Group AG, owner of Art Basel, expanded to Miami in the early 2000s by founding Art Basel Miami (2002), and in 2013 to Asia by buying and rebranding the already existing Art HK: Hong Kong International Art Fair, a British enterprise, to Art Basel Hong Kong. As these developments show, not only the art market had become global (Zarobell, 2017) but also art fairs.
National and Regional Fairs and the context of globalisation
From the 1970s on, art fairs mushroomed first in Europe and North America. Each art market active country aimed to set up its ‘national’ or at least ‘regional’ art fair, such as Paris with FIAC (1974), Arte Fiere in Bologna (1974), and in Madrid with ARCO (1982) and so on; and a number of regional fairs in the USA such as Art Chicago (1980) and the Armory Show in New York (since 1994). These initiatives allowed galleries to pool their resources and to gather large audiences through branded and heavily marketed events which would either cater to a regional or international audience (Harris, 2011, Thompson, 2011, Lee and Lee, 2016). Art Fairs became a showcase of national pride, with presidents and kings opening them in certain countries, maybe in reminiscence to the world fairs of the late 19th Century (see Jones, 2016). Paco Barragan, who wrote the first cohesive reflection of what an art fair is and what it does, called this period the “art fair age” (Barragan, 2008; Garutti, 2014). His study also highlights the most important changes to what had by this time already become a quite stagnant and inflexible system – the drive to expansion, globalisation and innovation. The arrival of Frieze Art Fair in London in 2003 introduced the notion of the curated art fair, whereby fairs aim to develop their individuality and identity through expanded curated projects to provide enhanced content in an ever more competitive art fair context (Corrado and Boari, 2007; Moeran, 2011; Yogev and Grund, 2012).
With the ongoing expansion of the art market to new players also across emerging economies, the so called “exotic” fair (Barragan, 2008) was born, with emerging markets seeking the advantage of a time-limited tradeshow like event that galvanised focus and energy in a specific location over a certain time. This “test” could hopefully provide a suitable context for a more sustainable art market development in certain regions of the world. The model of the art fair fitted new trends in collecting and the ideology of the one-stop-shop. Consumption in the experience economy changed from a small scale, in depth engagement with art to an event driven, time sensitive shopping spree. Examples of the expansion of the art market into a globalised industry (Garutti, 2014, ch. 5) can be found in the foundations of Zona Maco in Mexico (2003), Art Dubai (2007) or SHContemporary in Shanghai (2007), who became catalysts for the establishment of local art markets. It has to be noted however that compared with the globalisation of blockbuster exhibitions through vehicles such as biennials (Kompatsiarsis 2017), the development of art fairs lagged some years behind the expansion of the wider contemporary art world both conceptually and geographically.
Satellite and niche art fairs – the smaller siblings
The response to changes in consumer behaviour did not only lead to a geographical expansion of the art fair across the globe, but also to a tiering of art fairs according to different segments or levels in the art market. In many cities, smaller art fairs established themselves around the leading high-end art fairs. These so-called satellite fairs offer either works at lower prices points (for example Volta or Pulse Art Fairs), for specialist collecting areas such as drawings, prints or photography (such as Drawing Now in Paris, The London Original Print Fair or Paris Photo to mention only a few), or to support the young and emerging art scenes with often not for profit initiatives such as NADA in the USA or Liste Basel in Switzerland.
These smaller, more intimate but also more conceptual entities often promote a more radical stand in an art market which had expanded by the 2000s into not only a vast global industry, but which had also become dominated by a small number of large multinational companies. Art fairs with a global reach such as Art Basel give vast amounts of space at high costs to equally multinational mega-galleries such as Gagosian, Pace or Hauser & Wirth, thereby not only dominating taste but also functioning as gatekeepers against the arrival of smaller galleries, especially from new growth markets. Although Alain Quemin researched this already in 2008, the situation has still not fundamentally changed (see also Quemin, 2012). These high-end mega events draw an often jet-setting crowd of ultra-wealthy collectors, celebrities and other followers (Hickey, 2008, Thornton, 2008; Thompson, 2011), who don’t necessarily benefit the broader segments of a more affordable type of art on the one hand, or the critical stand of emerging artists and galleries on the other hand (Graw, 2009). Art fairs thereby replicate the hierarchical, pyramid-shaped structure of the art industry. Furthermore, they also, as some writers suggest, enforce a model of cultural homogenization brought on by globalisation, whereby visitors see the ever-same artists with the ever same works in art fairs across the globe. As Adam points out: “Any visitor to any major art fair will be struck by the similarity of offering by the bigger galleries” (Adam, 2017, p. 36).
It was also in these smaller fairs, where changes to the physical structure of the art fair were experimented with. The regimented form of the white three-walled fair booth isn’t fitting for many new modes of art production such as video and film, installation works, or responds well to a more collaborative approach to exhibiting works. Fair organisers and gallerists tried to emulate a different viewing experience by running fairs in hotel rooms, in shipping containers or airport hangers. An early attempt of a digital fair, the VIP Art Fair in New York in 2010 was one of many failed attempts to disrupt the structure of the art fair. Many of them don’t exist anymore, such as Christian Nagel’s “Unfair” in opposition to Art Cologne, many hotel fairs or Preview Berlin.
Maybe the most successful attempt to offer an alternative model to the internationalised art fair model, which is often overlooked, is the Affordable Art Fairs. The original affordable art fair was launched in London in 1999 by Will Ramsey to bring art to the people with a clear marketing message: Art can be afforded by (nearly) everyone in a non-intimidating and welcoming atmosphere. Offering works for under £6000 today by artists directly as well as by galleries, the success of the fairs allowed Ramsey to expand into a now global empire – however one which always allows each of the fairs in different countries to respond to local exhibitors; thereby responding to local taste and collecting habits. With 185,000 visitors a year, the fairs have definitely developed vast and new audiences.
Signs of a change
By the end of the 2000s, art fairs had become the most important source of income as well as expense for many galleries. In 2010, galleries made on average just under 30% of their annuals sales at art fairs. By 2019 the figure had risen to 45% (Art Basel, 2020, p. 186). Galleries’ reliance on art fairs led to an increase in the criticism of the art fair model for galleries and collectors alike. The market journalist Georgina Adam termed this development “Fairtigue” (Ratnam, 2014). It reflected not only the overwhelming amount of ca. 180 major art fairs across the world (Art Basel, 2020, p. 190), but also the lack of distinction between fairs, the event driven fast paced character and the focus on the ultra-rich. For many galleries the exhibitor costs and the unsustainable amount of travel, combined with ever more demands on artists to produce works of art suitable for art fairs, has also led to increased criticism. In line with this, scholars have more recently tried to understand how art fairs relate to the above-mentioned experience economy and how they fitted in the context of consumer behaviour more widely, especially in the context of late capitalism (Kapferer, 2010). More attention has also been paid to the project heavy approach to criticality and an emphasis on the curatorial employed by Frieze Art Fair and by other fairs (such as Art Basel’s Art Unlimited). Academic studies are reflecting critical on the impact and authenticity of art fairs as curatorial platforms (Brien, 2016) and the role artists play in art fairs (Dieckvoss, 2021). Despite increased recent scholarship it is surprising that a more cohesive understanding of art fairs is still outstanding. A forthcoming publication (Korbei and Nathan, 2021) aims to address this gap, but there is still more work to be done to investigate a platform which has dominated the art market for the past 50 years and its impact on a market which for many mid-sized galleries looks already very unstable, even before the coronavirus pandemic.
At the end of 2020, a year scarred for everyone everywhere by the coronavirus crisis, the future of existing art fairs as well as the art fair model seems all of a sudden uncertain. Art fairs live of face to face engagement between exhibitors and visitors. In 2020, all art fairs between March and November had to be cancelled wherever they were supposed to take place and the end of the situation is as yet not in sight, despite recent optimism by art fair organisers. At the time of writing of this piece, Art Basel Hong Kong just announced in a press release its 2021 dates being postponed from March 2021 to May 2021. Art fairs’ shopping mall architecture, brief time-based structure and their oftentimes vast size make them not only expensive to organise, but the experience is so geared towards visitor numbers of between 30,000 and 100,000 people (Art Basel, 2020, p. 207) that the atmosphere cannot be translated to a satisfying online experience. While all major fairs have offered an online experience in 2020, these online viewing rooms have received mixed acceptance. While they can focus interest of online visitors on certain time periods and have proven that even the more traditional art market is able to enter the age of technology, they can’t make up for the huge financial losses that galleries are experiencing. Non-digital art has to be experienced in the physical realm. Digital viewing rooms have enhanced a transparency in displaying prices which is hopefully here to stay in a market that is still perceived to be opaque and unregulated (Adam, 2017). In response to the crisis, some authors predict a strengthening of local markets with smaller fairs catering for more local audiences (Woods, 2020). In a conversation between Mark Spiegler, Global Director of the Art Basel Fairs, and Georgina Adam, Spiegler points towards the innovation push and the upskilling currently happening not only for his company but for the wider industry. “Digital habits” won’t go away, but hopefully they supplement real live experiences. But which galleries and art fairs will survive the massive financial fall-out of the pandemic and how consumers really behave in a post-pandemic world has a yet to be seen.
Questions for further discussion
- What do you think makes are buying least intimidating today?
- What could the future of the fair be in a post-Covid era?
- Do you think art fairs were successful in their attempt to take on the supremacy of auction houses?
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Stephanie Dieckvoss joined the department of the Creative and Cultural Industries, Kinston School of Art, Kingston University, in September 2017 as senior lecturer and course director for the Art Market and Appraisal (Professional Practice) MA. She furthermore works as a lecturer at Central Saint Martins and teaches Art History, Art Markets and Globalisation; she is also a member of Sotheby’s Institute of Art Online Faculty in New York. Stephanie holds an MA in Art History, an MBA (Public Services) and a PgCert in Art and Design Education and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Authority in the UK and a member of PAIM, the Professional advisors to the International Art Market. In addition to her academic work, she writes as a journalist for Handelsblatt and the Neue Zuercher Zeitung. Before becoming an academic, she held numerous positions in the professional art market for more than a decade. Her research interests centre around contemporary art markets, cultural globalisation & emerging markets and the art school as institution. She currently focuses her research on art fairs and power and on private museums in emerging markets. For further information and publications click here.