The problem with art fairs
February 28 2017
In The Art Newspaper, former art fair director Cornell Dewitt looks at how fairs need to evolve if they're to keep ahead of the competition:
While fairs as we know them are draining the energy, creativity and budgets of galleries and artists that participate in them, practical solutions exist. For example, allowing galleries to alternate their annual commitment to fairs without losing their spot would address the overall “fair-tigue” syndrome that galleries and visitors face, by allowing more galleries of the appropriate calibre to participate, offering more diversity to visitors, and relieving some of the financial pressures that many galleries feel to repeat their participation every year in every fair.
Other options for fairs include downscaling—or, at least, scaling back of ambition—for some regional art fairs; greater integration with digital and other platforms; and extending their reach both physically and temporally. Pulse new year-round engagement plan Pulse360, the Art Basel Cities programme, London’s Condo gallery-sharing concept, and citywide Gallery Week-style events are all examples of alternative models capable of expanding the art fair experience in art-positive ways.
I've done my share of fairs (Grosvenor House, Palm Beach, Masterpiece) and always found them enjoyable. It's always fun talking to new people about pictures. But from a commercial point of view they're difficult propositions. First, the basic costs themselves (for your stand, marketing) are steep, then you can easily spend the same again designing and decorating the stand. A decent stand at Masterpiece in London doesn't leave you much change from £75,000. That's a lot of money to be sure of making within a fortnight.
Of course, a large element of the cost of any fair is the venue, or rather the lack of them. In London there's simply no large-scale purpose built venue in a central location in which a decent art fair can be held. So they have to build a small town in the gardens of Chelsea Hospital, in the case of Masterpiece (and they do an amazing job). In New York there's a similar problem in the Armouries - a good size spece, but really too small for an ambitious art fair. In Maastricht, space is not an issue with the excellent venue there, and thanks to the collective way the fair is run, costs are much cheaper. But here other issues come into play, such as the arcane politics associated with a fair run and ruled by dealers; good luck getting in if you're not a member of 'the club'.