by Sarah Simpson
Art Fair week just passed by New York and has now moved on to Europe. However, for one very long week we had several art fairs and it seemed to be all that the art news could write about and all that everyone in the industry could talk about. I read countless articles on the top ten works at the Armory Show, why Spring Break was groundbreaking, how art fairs affect the art market, etc. I attended a few previews thanks to friends with extra passes; I held a VIP ticket to the Armory Show and Volta as well as a press preview pass to Art on Paper. I went to these and felt the same way that I always feel when I attend art fairs: simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed, bored and excited, and overall both guilty and apathetic. I don’t actually like art fairs, I never have…I think I do and then I go and I don’t. It’s similar to how I feel about winter. I hate it when I’m living through it, but a long and gloriously hot summer usually makes me completely forget about what I didn’t like and leaves me with memories of the first snow of the season, holidays, and all the romanticism that a Northeastern American winter can hold. I forget about the slush, the icy and salty sidewalks, the bitter wind, and the seemingly months-long span of sunless, grey skies…not to mention the short days where I leave for work in the dark and then, amazingly, leave work also in the dark! It’s March, I’m still deep in the “I hate winter” thought pattern. To fill out my comparison, though, when I think of art fairs as fair week approaches, especially if I have a VIP pass to anything, all I can remember is the wealth of art available to be seen, the endless rows of galleries supposedly showing the best they have to offer, and the art connoisseurs descending on New York to buy and sell. If I have a VIP pass, I feel special and I really like going to “invite only” things. Not to mention, there are so many parties associated with the fairs, galleries, and artists.
Then, I actually go to the fair. In an unexpected turn of events, the VIP preview often ends up being more crowded than the public days and I wander around watching very wealthy individuals go from tipsy to drunk, basically using the event as an upper-class reunion. I listen to pretentious conversations and hear the same spiel from every gallerist who ignores me to speak to the older European couple who are terribly (but expensively) dressed. I watch self-possessed art advisors ferry around self-important, though slightly confused looking (dazed, maybe), collectors. This year I had to overhear a twelve-year-old boy tell his twelve-year-old girlfriend and twelve-year-old friends how he wanted to buy this six figure work of art for said girlfriend but had already maxed out his credit card, to which one of his friends replied: “why don’t you just swipe your mother’s?” I would usually be happy to hear pre-teens interested in art but this just felt like adolescent posturing mixed with more money that I will ever have. Further, I almost never like the art that the galleries bring, especially in the contemporary sector. I’ve seen maybe one or two pieces in an entire fair that I like and think are important. It also starts to feel false. The cavernous exhibition space that most fairs take place in, the rows of small white boxes that the galleries inhabit, the glazed looks on the faces of the gallerists themselves, and the fact that there is more excitement at the bar to pay twenty-something dollars for a so-so glass of champagne than there is in front of any of the art stalls. I’m overwhelmed and excited by the crowds, but underwhelmed and bored by the art; I feel apathetic to the entire atmosphere and then guilty for not thriving off of such a major part of the art market. Then, I talk to friends and colleagues and realize that no one else enjoyed the fair, saw much work that they liked, or intends to return to review the work on display. And yet, every art magazine or arts section of the newspapers is publishing article after article on the fairs: guiding viewers through them, talking about how to approach a fair, what should not be missed, and ranking them. I have never read an article talking about how art fairs affect the art world in a broader sense. Obviously they benefit the art market or gallerists wouldn’t spend both the time and money to attend (although several big name galleries dropped out of the Armory Show this year, the Armory being one of the biggest and most important New York fairs to attend). In fact, art fairs were initiated to aid a struggling art market and give gallerists a broader audience…a sort of “if you won’t come to me I’ll come to you” mentality. In fact, many galleries tour the art fair circuit, going from New York, to Maastricht, to Paris, to London, and onward to Miami, LA, etc. You could, if you wanted to, attend a different art fair almost every day of the year. Of course, gallerists won’t do that, you do need to be at the actual gallery for a portion of the year and there are other things to pay attention to like special clients, art auctions, and in-house exhibitions. However, attending a handful of big name art fairs throughout the year can only help. It spreads the gallery’s name, introduces you to new collectors, and young and inexperienced collectors often feel less intimidated by art fairs than walking into prestigious galleries. It’s almost like comparing a shopping mall to a boutique. So many people also combine the fair circuit with vacations and the atmosphere is more high energy than the average gallery day. However, fairs focus almost entirely on the market. Gallerists bring works that not only give a brief overview of the type of gallery they are and what/who they represent but also works that are likely to sell (commercial, marketable, safe). They don’t often bring anything groundbreaking or cutting edge, the art fair (with a few exceptions for the younger ones like Spring Break which often almost seem to be trying too hard to be avant-garde) is not a place for innovation and growth but a place to make money and perpetuate a name brand. What does that mean for art?
You could say that an art fair does not have to be a place for important change and the growth of artistic merit and thought, that non-profits and museums are where art history takes place while galleries, auction houses, and art fairs are reserved for the art market. But, (and here I am talking more about contemporary galleries) living artists are represented by galleries, they are dependent on the system to eat, pay the bills, make a name for themselves, and enter collections and museums. If they are not producing interesting and relevant new work to sell in a gallery (and presumably at an art fair), then when are they creating important new work? After they have
been “discovered” and the pressure to sell and make money and leave a legacy increases? If artists are dependent upon galleries and galleries are (at least in part) dependent on art fairs, then shouldn’t it follow that the best and most “museum-worthy” art is what should be shown at the fairs where curators, collectors, and many of the art world’s movers and shakers will turn up and pass through? If the art at the art fairs is banal, safe, and generally blah, then where is the new art? Is it left at home? Is it even making its way into the galleries? I’ve read several articles and books on the gallery system, the art market, and the way it influences art production. Galleries are, after all, businesses and the primary aim of any business is to make a profit. Therefore, gallerists would (logically) encourage their artists to produce art that sells. But, this often leads to artists creating familiar artwork throughout their careers that doesn’t change or evolve because collectors associate specific artists with a certain look and style. It also means that artists are encouraged to create what collectors want to see versus what the artist feels compelled to make. In the more recent history of art, the greatest movements and (generally considered) best (or at least most famous) artists were not typically collected or even liked in their lifetime. Van Gogh did not sell when he was alive, despite the fact that his brother owned a gallery and attempted to sell his work. Manet, Monet, and the Impressionists were denied spots in the Salon and then
included in the Salon des Refuses where their work was shown alongside other rejected work (not considered good enough for the main, prestigious salon). If they had created more commercially appealing art, where would we be today?
Now, this is not meant to be a general poo-pooing on galleries and the art market. They both hold an important role and are necessary in today’s art world. What I’m really trying to say is that art fairs make me sad and because I have chosen to be a part of the art world they also make me feel guilty for feeling sad. I want to believe that everything associated with art will be cultural, interesting, and forward thinking, but I know that commerce is a major part of the art world as well. When art makes its way in the world it is sold, purchased, insured, etc. and because of that it is part of the broader capitalistic system and prone to the downfalls and everyday concerns of that system. It still, though, makes the romantic side of me very sad and the pretentious conversations, willful ignorance, and clear pandering to wealth and fame make me question if this is really where I want to be. Not to mention the generally sad feeling of walking around a room filled with things for sale and not being able to buy anything. Of course, I will forget about this as the art fair fades to a memory. I will see exhibitions at museums, galleries, and nonprofits; I will speak with artists, critics, theorists, and colleagues; I will remember what I like about art and the art world; in time, I will forget what made me sad about the art fair until I forget, even, that I was sad. I will probably attend again next year and again go through these same conflicting feelings until I finally decide to walk away from art fairs and pursue art in another format more aligned with my intellectual and idealistic (as opposed to capitalistic) snobbishness. Until then, I am left wondering if anyone actually likes art fairs or if this is a typical Emperor’s New Clothes situation in general.
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