The Armory Show, NYC, 1913


The State of the Art Fair

Although art fairs have taken place since the 1960s, they have become more frequent, popular, and prevalent within the last two decades than ever before. Some of the most popular and well known fairs include Frieze (London and New York), The Armory Show (New York), Art Basel (Miami Beach and Hong Kong), and TEFAF (Maastricht and New York). From an original ten or so, fairs have grown to 60 or more operating throughout the globe, due in large part to the globalization of the art market and the wildly transformed way art is being bought and sold.

The model of a traditional brick and mortar gallery space has been greatly changed by the art fair’s ability to capture the industry’s key figures all under one roof, including critics, collectors, dealers, curators, and museum directors. The fair provides a forum for the most artwork to be seen by the largest amount of people in one space. Much like that of many brick and mortar commercial institutions, gallery sales have suffered as of late, based strongly on the ability to see so much via social media and to purchase almost anything online. The static storefront, which was once the favored (and often only) way to see and purchase art, has become all but obsolete. In 2017, according to a report published by Art Basel and UBS, more established galleries closed than new ones opened, and the amount of new entrants to the art market was 87% lower than approximately 10 years ago. Now more than ever before, the behemoths of the gallery world such as Gagosian, David Zwirner, Pace, and Hauser and Wirth, seem to be the only ones profiting from art fairs, and most would say that the system is out of order. These galleries represent the highest echelon of artists whose work is sold for the greatest amounts of money in the shortest amount of time. 


TEFAF Maastricht, 2016

The Question of Return on Investment

Art fairs are extremely costly for those who wish to participate, and most galleries, particularly those small and medium-sized that continue to partake, often lose money rather than making it. Most galleries choose to participate, even if it means a great loss in profits, as they feel it is necessary to be present at these fairs in order to be recognized, compete, and survive. According to an Artnet survey of dealers, showing at a fair results in a failure to create profits between 15 and 50 percent of the time. Nevertheless, it has also been estimated that close to half of sales galleries make, on average, are earned at fairs, rendering fairs a necessary evil for the overall sustained existence of many galleries.  The process to get into fairs is also highly competitive, and applications are judged by a panel who chooses who can be represented there. Many smaller galleries are overlooked or cast away, making it more difficult for them to show their work in the places that provide them an opportunity to be seen by the most important people.

Additionally, art is being shared at an alarming rate through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and while the fairs are still attended en masse, it seems less and less necessary to go in person when most of the ‘best’ art is readily available for view online. Technology has vastly changed the way society views and consumes art on a broad scale. Nevertheless, the art fair, with all of its downfalls, remains the keystone of an event-driven art world, filled with the movers and shakers of the industry including artists, dealers, and collectors. 


Technology has vastly changed the way society views and consumes art on a broad scale. Nevertheless, the art fair, with all of its downfalls, remains the keystone of an event-driven art world, filled with the movers and shakers of the industry including artists, dealers, and collectors.


The Future of Fairs

Olav Velthuis of the New York Times notes that the criteria for gaining acceptance to exhibit at fairs should be altered, making it more conducive to art dealers who are operating on less traditional gallery models and systems, and who are becoming more hybrid and nomadic as the landscape of the art market morphs over time. Moreover, Velthuis suggests experimenting with a more regulated system of artists moving from smaller galleries who gave them their first representation, to bigger galleries once they have outgrown their original homes, involving financial compensation for the smaller galleries.

Renowned art critic Jerry Saltz suggests that the art fair system is broken, likening it to many American governmental systems, and noting that those at the top benefit the most, while most others struggle to make ends meet. Since the fairs often define the success of a gallery, small and midsized galleries will still participate, and this is where Saltz believes the most creative, innovative, and best art originates. He suggests that these smaller galleries put pressure on the fairs, as the larger ones depend symbiotically on them to continue upholding the current model. He concludes that those at the top should bear the bulk of the cost in the interest of the art world and community as a whole.

Many other solutions have been suggested in order to keep the art fairs running, while still being inclusive to as many participants as possible. These include reducing the cost for booths as a whole or offering graduated fees depending on the size and level of establishment of the gallery. Fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze have announced reduced booth costs for smaller galleries, using the proceeds from higher priced booths purchased by larger, better-established galleries as the additional revenue needed to make the fairs happen. As the number of fairs still seems on the rise each year, it is likely that the art fair, as an entity, is not going anywhere soon. However, perhaps the system will change and expand going forward, improving itself and, in turn, the future of the commercial art industry.


Art Basel, Hong Kong, 2015