Fair-tigue: is the art market suffering?


One of the stands at Frieze Masters 2014

In recent years, the art market has seen a fundamental change in the way that artworks are purchased. In just a decade, the number of international art fairs has increased from ten to sixty, which means that the market has seen a major shift from the gallery-based model of yesteryear to one that is increasingly dominated by fairs. In 1999, London was home to only one art fair, but the capital now plays host to twenty, most of which were inspired by the success of Frieze. International art fairs provide an invaluable platform for galleries and artists alike to make themselves known, establish links with fellow players in the industry, and sell their work. They also provide a more convenient way for critics, collectors, and art lovers to gain access to a vast selection of work from all over the world in one place, which is particularly useful in today’s globalised art market. Additionally, this new model encourages communities linked by similar interests as opposed to location to come together, allowing for a richer exchange of artworks and ideas.

Despite all of these advantages, the changing model and structure of the art market may not necessarily be beneficial to everyone. The multitude of new art fairs is certainly advantageous for the art market, but is their success detrimental to the business of commercial galleries, some of which have been selling artwork for centuries? Furthermore, the new art fair model could mean that emerging artists and galleries are disadvantaged, as fairs are notoriously selective when choosing their exhibitors, meaning that lesser-known artists are often discarded to make room for their more established counterparts. Finally, many art fairs have recently started appearing in countries with less developed art markets. It is worth considering whether these art fairs are able to successfully compete with their more established counterparts such as Frieze or Fiac, especially in terms of how they can appeal to international visitors.

What caused these changes?
There are a number of reasons for the recent shift from the gallery-based to the fair-based model of the commercial art industry. According to curator and art critic Adrian Searle: “We have witnessed a vastly increased internationalisation of art and the art world, which, largely, can be accounted for by better communication, especially via the Internet, and cheap air travel.” Indeed, thanks to the birth of the Internet, there is no need for people to waste time traipsing around their local galleries; it is better for many to browse artworks online, not only for reasons of convenience, but also because the Internet provides a far larger selection of the artworks in which they take interest. This, coupled with the ease and affordability of travel means that many prefer to go to an art fair with a larger selection of artworks. Furthermore, art fairs and the events that spring up around them have become important in the social scene of the art world. Art fairs offer invaluable international networking opportunities that a local gallery would not, which is considered particularly crucial in terms of the increasingly global art market of today. Finally, art fairs have become popular as they are able to provide a significant boost to the local economy of the city in which they are held. Not only do they attract many local as well as international tourists, but they are also held in tandem with a programme of events, parties, and museum exhibitions, all of which can be highly lucrative.

The art gallery, a soon-to-be extinct species?
This shift in the market has been problematic for many traditional art galleries, which are going out of business at an alarmingly steady rate. This has been the case in London in particular, as the United Kingdom’s art market has changed significantly over the last few decades. In the past, commercial galleries would rely on regular visitors from the locality who would purchase artworks to decorate their stately homes, but now the capital’s art industry is dominated by rich immigrants from Russia, China, and the Middle East. These newcomers do not know the city well, meaning that they are unlikely to spend time exploring individual galleries and prefer to have all the artworks presented to them in one place, that is, at an art fair. “Bond Street galleries are closing at an alarming rate,” reported The Telegraph last year. For example, the 250-year-old Colnaghi gallery was forced to move out of its coveted Mayfair location and is now exhibiting artwork in prem ises above a leather goods store. Similarly, Agnew’s closed its Bond Street establishment after 195 years in the area. The Antipodes have seen a similar problem, as the art market has seen a fundamental shift in focus from the local to the international. The Age reported in 2014 that Anna Pappas, president of the Australian Commercial Galleries Association, estimated that the overall sales of artworks in galleries has gone down by 25 to 30%, and that around 30% of commercial art galleries had closed in Australia in recent years. Meanwhile, a Port Melbourne gallerist told the newspaper that her turnover had decreased by a third in just four years. It was also reported that Nellie Castan abandoned her gallery in South Yarra to launch a business involving displaying the works of artists at international art fairs. Similarly, many gallerists in San Francisco’s downtown gallery district have been forced to sell their galleries and move their business to their homes. George K revsky, director of George Krevsky Gallery, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2014 that others in Chicago and Los Angeles were doing the same. “Ten years from now,” he told the paper, “traditional galleries will be a thing of the past. The auction houses and art fairs will have taken over, and the Internet.”

Emerging artists don’t get invited to the party
One of the main problems of this new art fair-based market model is that, with many galleries closing, fewer emerging artists are able to have their work displayed. And it is hard for emerging artists to infiltrate established art fairs, especially as the smaller galleries that represent these artists have less means by which to display art at a large-scale international art fair. Not only is it hard for an exhibition to be accepted, as art fairs are highly selective when choosing their exhibitors, other financial factors must also be taken into account, such as participation fees, booth rental, insurance, transport, and packaging of the artworks, expenses which not all galleries can afford to pay. Furthermore, fairs such as Art Miami, Scoop, and Art Basel offer fantastic opportunities for artists to gain international recognition, but these fairs do not accept the works of single artists, instead preferring to accommodate prominent galleries. In the words of New York-based artist s Andrea Fraser: “The specifically artistic values and criteria that marked the relative autonomy of the artistic field have been overtaken by quantitative criteria…where programmes are increasingly determined by sales – of art, at the box office and of advertising – and where a popular and rich artist is almost invariably considered a good artist, and vice versa.” Given that the price tag attached to an artwork has become synonymous with quality and artistic talent, this proves that it is becoming increasingly harder for emerging artists to gain recognition, as these events often prioritise more established and expensive artists so that the overall quality of the fair can be increased and more profits can be gained. However, there are some companies that have noticed how the recent change in the model of the art market has made it hard for emerging artists to have their work displayed. The Current Art Group USA, a Division of Contemporary Art Projects USA based in Miami, aims to act as a gallery for emerging talents who desire global recognition. In December 2012, the group presented the works of 21 artists at The River fair during Art Basel week.

Are ‘international’ art fairs really international?
Of a similar vein are the difficulties faced by non-Western galleries wishing to be represented at international art fairs. Despite the fact that a number of non-Western art fairs have sprung up in recent years, particularly in Singapore, which has seen the founding of the Singapore Art Fair, Affordable Art Fair Singapore, and the more recent Art Stage Singapore, it remains easier for Western galleries to be represented at international art fairs. Lorenzo Rudolf, founder, co-owner, and director of Art Stage Singapore expressed this concern in an interview with AMA: “There are a lot of young, emerging art scenes growing in Asia… We have a lot of galleries that are still young, that are not established enough to compete with Western galleries, but at the same time we have a flood of Western galleries coming to Asia who want to find new Asian artists, and also want to sell these artists here in Asia. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, these Western galleries are more powerful, mo re professional, and wealthier than the Asian galleries, which means that the best Asian artists go out to Western galleries.”

It is also the case that if a number of Western galleries are exhibiting at an art fair, it becomes harder for local galleries to present their works alongside these galleries. Tamar Yogev and Thomas Grund write in their essay Network Dynamics and Market Structure: The Case of Art Fairs: “Most artists are aware of the link between artistic ‘international style’ and larger opportunities to exhibit abroad, and, hence, deliberately implement international artistic codes in their works, for instance, by using the English language rather than Hebrew.” This suggests, then, that in order to be presented at an ‘international’ fair, an artist’s work must appeal to a Western audience, meaning that some local art may be pushed aside. Hou Hanru, a Paris-based art critic, curator, and artistic director of the Second Guangzhou Triennial in China adopts this view: “Along with the boom of events such as biennials all over the world, especially outside the West, contempora ry art has gained a totally new position and managed to make itself global. This helps ‘non-Western’ artists become part of the global scene and express their voices. However, an inevitable trend, such as economic globalisation, is that similar and sometimes hegemonic norms are being adopted everywhere, and cultural differences are being replaced by a new dynamic of globalisation and resistance.”

However, several art fairs have been making a conscious effort to combat these issues, by actively trying to showcase a wide variety of work that reflects the international dimension of the event. For example, the founders of Singapore Art Fair, Laure d’Hauteville and Pascal Odille, aimed to create a fair that would promote artists from the Middle East, Northern Africa and South-East Asia. Lorenzo Rudolf seems to think along similar lines: “We’re putting on a fair that has a really strong Asian identity. Two thirds, three quarters of the content has to be Asian. Sure we also need Western galleries, but it should be a complementary story and not a dominating story,” he told AMA. Similarly,
Art15 London, which was founded in 2013, focuses on displaying the works of around 40 lesser-known galleries from all over the world, presenting works from Sub-Saharan Africa, South-East Asia, and Central and South America.

The difficulties of appealing to an international audience
Recent years have seen the birth of a whole host of art fairs in countries with less established international art markets, such as: India Art Fair; OFF-Biennale, Hungary; Art Safari, Romania; Bogota Art Fair, Colombia; and ARTBO, Colombia. There are a number of problems associated with holding art fairs in countries with fewer links with the international art market, and it can be difficult for these fairs to attract international visitors compared to their more firmly established Western counterparts. For example, India Art Fair, whose seventh edition took place between 29 January and 1 February this year, attracts figures involved in the art world from all ends of the globe, but “the fair risks losing its international tag if it does not improve its appeal for leading galleries from the U.S. and Europe,” News Week reported. One of the main reasons why international attendees criticised the fair seemed to be due to the lack of organisation, perhaps a question of cult ural differences. Although around 80,000 visitors attended the fair, their only options were to arrive either “by car on chaotically crowded and sometimes gridlocked highways, or squashed into unbelievably crowded metro trains and then [stumbling] along broken pavements from a nearby station,” according to the aforementioned newspaper.

International galleries also reported having difficulties transporting artworks to India due to strict customs regulations. “The fair doesn’t take care of the logistics. Shipping the art works from abroad is an uphill task. India still does not have qualified art transporters. Moreover, we have to pay 15 per cent duties at the customs whether we sell here or not. And we cannot sell here either even if someone buys it here. We have to take it back and make the sale there. I find it strange and extremely inconvenient,” Andrew Shea of Aicon Gallery, New York, told The Hindu. Another issue was the lack of Wi-Fi at the event. “It was an international fair with exposure to the best galleries across the globe, but commercially, we made a huge loss as the Internet did not connect at all. Now, we cannot go back to our country and do it; it will not fetch the same response. Imagine coming here with so many works and going back with huge losses only because of Wi-Fi,” said the owner of Miro Gallery, Paris, according to The Hindu. He was not the only one to complain about the lack of Wi-Fi affecting his experience of the fair. Problems such as these seem to have made the fair less appealing to international visitors, which has been reflected by the decrease in the number of foreign galleries exhibiting at the event. The figure dropped from 31 at last year’s edition to 21 this year, and an even bigger decrease can be seen from 2012, when half of the total of 90 exhibiting galleries, which included prestigious names such as White Cube and Hauser & Wirth, were from abroad.

Fairs with a local flavour
These facts prove that it can be hard for art fairs in countries with less experience holding international art events to accommodate foreign visitors. However, in recent years, there have been other initiatives to establish fairs that do not try to compete with their well-established international counterparts, but rather aim to reflect the flavour of their locality. For example, the Dharavi neighbourhood in Mumbai, one of the largest slums in India, is to hold its first biennial this year. The Alley Galli Biennial, which is to run from 15 February to 7 March, has no pretensions to compete with other art fairs, and does not aim to display the works of professional internationally renowned artists. Instead, the fair is to display art that has been crafted from recycled materials and made by the area’s residents, including children. The general aim of the fair, which is to promote public health through creativity, also reflects the region in which it is to be held.

The rise of the international art fair has revolutionised the exchange of art, globalising the art industry and bringing with it a whole host of advantages. It allows for a more interesting exchange of artworks, as well as better opportunities for galleries and artists to meet other key players involved with the international art scene. Furthermore, many artists who would not otherwise have been known internationally can have their work exposed to people from all over the world. This model also benefits curators, collectors, and art enthusiasts as they are given a wider range of works from which to choose. Nevertheless, it is still true that a whole array of problems have been left in the wake of these changes. However, hopefully more new and alternative art fairs will continue to spring up, and the near future will see a wider selection of fairs to accommodate not only the wealthiest galleries and the most lucrative Western artists, but also provide a platform for the emerging art scenes and artists across the globe.