By HEIDI MARSTON
What's good about the Art Fairs? Here is one thought, you get to meet a lot of people who are interested in looking, making and collecting stuff. The stuff we are talking about is artwork or objects made by people who want to share it with who ever will look. There are pieces we like some we don't but there is always something for everyone and people are always willing to tell you what they think of it. I have gone to Miami and New York a few years in a row to go to the art fairs like Scope, Pulse, Bridge, Basel and the Armory and what puzzles me is that a lot of artists I know always ask me "Why do you go?" never "What did you see?" (Until after I answer the Why question).
So here it is, I go because I make artwork and the fairs are an opportunity to see what hundreds of thousands of other makers are doing all over the world in the span of a four days. When I answer this way most of the time I get the response of, "I would just rather go galleries to see work, the fairs seem so commercial." I have to admit I don't really understand this response mostly because I usually don't ask them "Why don't you go to the fairs." I guess people who haven't gone seem to think that going to the fairs is like going to a street market where people are yelling at you from all angles trying to get you to buy some art. I can assure you this is not what happens.
In the last issue of Big RED, one of our editors posed these questions:
What I wonder about, though, is what appears to be a growing dependence on the art fairs to increase visibility and profits.
I'm not against the art fairs, but it seems like some of the galleries who participate in a lot of fairs changed over time to show more fair-friendly work.
I just wonder what kind of impact the art fair market is having on the small, privately owned galleries.
After having been a looky-loo at the fairs and working for a gallery during the fairs, I actively see the importance of asking these questions. It is true the art fairs have become the place where collectors go to buy work all in one place because going around to all the galleries is getting harder and harder as people get busier and busier. It does help galleries increase visibility and profits, and it also helps artists increase visibility and income. Some galleries have tried to show more fair-friendly work and many of them have realized there is no such thing. At fairs like Pulse and Bridge, most of the work would not be what I would think of as fair friendly, many of the galleries take a real risk by showing installations and other things that are not "cash and carry". Galleries have tried toning it down, some have hyped it up, and there is no formula that shows how this has affected their sales. There is no rhyme or reason because fair goers all go for their own reasons and are all looking in different ways. Some galleries bring work they think is less conceptually challenging and often they realize that what is easily digestible to some is really spicy to others. What happens then? The fairs become a place to find anything and everything and your gallery may or may not have what is on the menu that day.
One of the major benefits to the art fairs is that in many ways it levels the playing field. While the blue chip galleries are usually at the Armory, the other fairs offer an opportunity for established artists and galleries to be along side newer galleries exhibiting emerging and mid-career artists. In September of 2007 Eli Klein Fine Art opens its doors on West Broadway. The opening exhibition included well-established artist Alexander Calder alongside modern, contemporary and emerging artists. This year Eli Klien participated in the Bridge Art Fair in New York and they had an exciting and eclectic booth. The booth had work ranging from paintings of Chinese artist Liu Bolin about the current state of transition in China, the contemplative photography of Boston based artist Judith Larsen, to the sculptural plant forms with skulls growing out of them by Shen Shaomin. When I talked with the Director, Rebecca Heidenberg she said it had been really interesting talking with new collectors and introducing their artists work to people from all over the world. The owner of the gallery, Eli Klein talked with excitement about exhibiting many different artists at different levels as a way to highlight new ideas and aesthetics in emerging art markets. Later that evening I went to an opening at Eli Klein and the artists in their gallery spanned three decades of art making from all over the world. Seeing the booth at the fair and then going to the gallery highlighted the importance of both experiences.
Another common question about the art fairs is "What art are people buying?" This is a really hard question to answer because people buy anything, everything and nothing. What I would buy someone else hates and what some fair-goers can't get enough of many people don't even notice. We all know it is easier to find something you want when you have a lot to choose from, so when I think about the impact the art fairs have on the small, privately owned galleries I realize one can't deny that there is an impact. It is very expensive to participate in the fairs and many smaller galleries get left out. However, not being in the fair doesn't necessarily mean you don't get the benefits of their existence. Many of the galleries from lesser known places like Richmond Virginia (if you are ever in that area check out ADA Gallery), would say how they are part of growing gallery communities and took the fairs as an opportunity to talk about their location, not just talk about themselves. So while smaller galleries may not always have the ability to have a booth in the fairs, the galleries that do seem to realize that standing alone doesn't make you look better, it makes you look alone.
So what's good about the art fairs? It is a different experience than going to galleries and there are important factors for both. I go to galleries to see a particular show or artist. I go to art fairs to see things I would normally not have access to from around the world. Going to the fairs doesn't give you the magic answer to what people like, what collectors are buying, or what galleries are selling the most. It is just a larger scale perspective on what is happening in different art communities everywhere. So now when people, who are clearly skeptical about the art fairs, ask me, "Why do you go?" I answer, " Because it's great to know we are not alone."