Organizers claim art fairs are “important” and that they’re “forums.” In reality, they’re adrenaline-addled spectacles for a kind of buying and selling where intimacy, conviction, patience, and focused looking, not to mention looking again, are essentially nonexistent. They are places where commerce has replaced epistemology, and the unspoken contract that existed between artists, dealers, and collectors has been scraped. As one private dealer gleefully told The New York Times recently, “It’s one-stop shopping. The mall experience . . . fashion, parties, and fun all wrapped up in one.”
Welcome to the branded and marketed art world of 2005. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it’s certainly more so now. These days art fairs are perfect storms of money, marketability, and instant gratification—tent-city casinos where art is shipped in and parked for five days, while spectators gawk as comped V.I.P.s and shoppers roll the dice for all to see. And in this game, everybody plays: artists, dealers, and buyers.
There were 530 applications for 190 spaces at Art Basel Miami this past December, where booths cost between $20,000 and $50,000, and $9,000 got you a storage container on the beach. So it’s obvious many dealers are clamoring to participate in fairs, yet even our best gallerists claim to hate them. Jeanne Greenberg says, “I’m never inspired there,” Andrea Rosen finds them “depressing,” and Gavin Brown calls them “disgusting.” All participate in more than two fairs a year, as do most dealers. Partly, this is a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thing. It’s hard to say no while everyone else is saying yes. As one dealer put it, “It’s childish, but you feel left out if you don’t have a presence at the fairs.”
Which brings us to the adult side of doing things you dislike: Being a gallerist looks glam and glitzy, but it’s often a risky, month-to-month proposition run on a mom-and-pop scale. For many dealers, especially newer ones, art fairs are vital to their survival. Michele Maccarone says, “Fairs are sickening, but I couldn’t run my gallery without the money I make there.” Her colleague Zach Feuer admits, “I can’t stand them, but I made as much money at the first NADA fair in Miami as I did that entire year in my gallery.” Art fairs are so integral to the workings of the art world that one young dealer recently wondered, “What did people do before them?”
Herein lies a crucial catch: Art fairs may be all about commerce, but as Scott Rothkopf points out on the Artforum website, “the real action is elsewhere”—meaning the spin-off activities, smaller fairs, shows, parties, and whatnot. Art fairs are the new biennials. They are gigantic conventions where everyone sees one another, hangs out, and does deals. Fairs generate a genuine sense of community in an art world so sprawling that this experience is otherwise rare. They are more egalitarian than curator-driven exhibitions in which one person tells everyone else what to look at. Curator Massimiliano Gioni ruefully calls them “the ultimate form of the avant-garde: the corporate avant-garde.” As Rothkopf wrote, “Who would pass up an excuse to commingle with immensely talented artists and curators in immensely beautiful surroundings, often with immensely beautiful people?” I gladly took a pass on the most recent Miami and Frieze fairs because these events make me feel existentially adrift. (Few are further from the epicenter of action than an art critic at an art fair.) Yet after hearing many say how much fun it all was, I now regret not going. When fairs first started multiplying, I loved seeing art I wouldn’t see otherwise. Now, there are so many of them that critic Brian Sholis is right to call them “cookie-cutter corporate fairs.”
A downside to the cookie cutters is that artists are asked to churn out work for fairs. They do; the work is sold; and they’re asked to do it again when the next fair comes around. How much of this art is first-rate is debatable. It’s a vicious cycle, and it’s accelerating. Fairs now have ancillary fairs and ancillary fairs have ancillary fairs (there were at least four concurrent events in Miami last December). In the short run, a lot of people are making a lot of money. In the long run, this could be costly for everyone.
Fairs have helped breed a new bifurcated purchasing system. (Auctions are worse, but I’ll deal with them another time.) Now, there are collectors and there are buyers. Collectors go to galleries and cultivate relationships with dealers and artists. They look, deliberate, and buy in private, often acquiring works from various periods of an artist’s career. Typically, collectors are affluent and involved, if sometimes annoying about their obsessions. Buyers are the opposite: They’re affluent but detached and are almost always annoying. They tend to buy only in public, acquire impulsively, and usually buy only one work by an artist. They rarely cultivate relationships with dealers or artists, and according to numerous gallerists, buyers never set foot in their galleries. Christie’s Amy Cappellazzo dolefully observes, “These people like to see art in a marketplace.” For buyers, purchasing art “in a marketplace” is a rush.
Someday the money will dwindle, the buyers will scatter, and the rush will go elsewhere. We’ll be left the way we always are when money leaves: on our own with art to pick up the pieces. It won’t be bad—at least the crowds will be smaller. For now, all anyone can do is behave in ways they won’t be embarrassed about when the current bubble bursts.