Where form meets function

As the dust begins to settle after Art Basel Miami Beach 2013, the discussion over the impact of art fairs continues to linger. With the Miami Beach event even bigger, louder and more fashionable than ever before, it is yet another sign of the rapidly growing influence of art fairs.

Art fairs continue to develop into the driving force behind the art market. However, with their evolution into commercial “trade fairs,” characterized by the focus on high price sales (Jeff Koons’ Elephant at Art Basel Miami Beach was reportedly priced at $20 million), many worry that this development signals a shift in energy and attention, especially in the New York and London art scene. With such an overwhelming number of fairs – Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Basel Hong Kong, Frieze Art Week, the Armory Show, Art Brussels and so goes the list – one cannot help but feel that their impact is directly challenging the traditional museum/gallery experience.

By design, art fairs are able to offer visitors an immense collection of artwork and make art accessible to a global audience.  Consequently, more people are able to view artwork that they may never have the opportunity to experience thanks to the size and diversity of art fairs. Despite the positive aspect of exposing people to bigger exhibitions and more diverse international artwork, the impact of art fairs is problematic. Scale and diversity leads to the development of an insatiable viewing appetite, which ultimately leads to grander expectations placed on art museums to offer a similar viewing experience. Due to limitations on size and financial resources – mostly as a result of reliance on funding – art museums find themselves struggling to offer both the amount and diversity of artwork seen at any art fair.

Alongside art museums, galleries are affected as well. With all the hype surrounding these major art fairs, gallery exhibitions now find themselves playing second fiddle to fairs as premier calendar events. Galleries are now forced to turn to the fairs in order to stay relevant, thus resulting in a reduction of their exhibition schedule in order to focus on their participation in the art fair calendar. Accompanying this, major collectors are more interested in attending fairs, as visiting galleries has grown more timely and inconvenient.

Though galleries still remain responsible for creating a market for artists and remain the foundations of all major art fairs, the shift of focus from a local art scene to a global one will have significant impact in the future.

Ultimately, without a local art scene we cannot have a global art scene. With art museums and galleries having to compete in order to stay relevant, they find themselves forced to reevaluate their role and reposition themselves. As a result, they are beginning to move beyond their walls. Arts education-based programming and community outreach in art museums has grown in significance over the last few years, most interestingly with MOMA offering two free online classes on the free education platform Coursera. In turn, dynamic public programming is playing a more important role in galleries across the globe, as they try to offer a similar social atmosphere to those generated by the art fairs. (Galleries are now places for society’s elite to be seen much like art fairs.)

Nonetheless, these adjustments by galleries and art museums have done nothing to halt the meteoric growth of art fairs and their attendances. According to both the Frieze and the Armory Show websites both fairs averaged attendances of 60,000 people each in 2013. With those types of attendance figures as the norm, it is now understood that significantly more people are viewing art at art fairs. The number of fairs have grown substantially, too. According to The Economist, Britain had only one contemporary art fair before 1999 and now they have over twenty operating at different times throughout the year.

The success of art fairs is that they are the ideal global platforms for creative exchange amongst galleries, artists, curators and collectors. Galleries are able to make new international contacts, collectors are conveniently introduced to new international artists, and curators and artists from different parts of the world are able to exchange ideas more frequently. Ultimately, art fairs have resources that art museums and galleries don’t.

It is a concern that the art world resources seem to now be restricted to a few gargantuan art fairs as opposed being spread across countless art museums and galleries, especially considering that fairs have a strong commercial nature. Each fair is characterized by an emphasis on sales, so much so that a dealer from the London Art Fair said he could make a year’s worth of earnings in one fair. With commercialism driving these fairs, it begs the question, are they enhancing the idea of art as commodity?

Yes, art is ultimately a product, but it is one that has historically been more concerned with engaging critical discourse rather than sales generated. As a result of this consumerist approach, the natural progression is that art becomes created to sell rather than inspire creative dialogue. This idea was reinforced by art critic Roberta Smith’s critique of art fair culture: “Maybe it is not the art fairs themselves but rather the quantity and the ubiquity.”

This emphasis on quantity has an increasingly negative impact on artists. Art fair hype surrounding their work forces artists into increased productivity, and as a result, a select few artists dominate a fair one year only to fade into obscurity the following year, as galleries and dealers look to cash in on the new “it” artist. Although this may not be an uncommon art world phenomenon, it seems as though these art fairs serve to amplify its malicious nature.

Even though art fairs hold serious concerns for both traditional art institutions and the strength of art in general, they have ultimately opened the art world up to a much larger audience and there are now more people viewing art. With the painful reminder of the consequence of the 1980s art market and art fairs showing no signs of slowing down, there is no telling the limits of their impact, let’s just hope history is destined not to repeat itself.


This article was written by Houghton Kinsman for

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