Book extract | The ups and downs of art fairs

Amid all the sparkle and glitter at Art Basel in Miami Beach this week, it can be easy to forget that just a few months ago, many wondered if the Covid pandemic had dealt a fatal blow to the world. whole art fair model. During the year of forced hibernation, The arts journalMelanie Gerlis, editor-in-chief of the art market of, seized the opportunity to research and write the untold history of art fairs – their roots in the commercial hearts of Europe, the spirit of company of their founders to connect a new wave of artists with a new breed of collector and the explosive international growth that had risked making the art fair industry a victim of its own success.

This exclusive excerpt from the book, which is published in the UK and on e-book worldwide on December 1 (April 1, 2022 in the US), asks where the industry is heading as the commercial, environmental and social sands continue to change. While the fairs have been resilient, the past year has shown that they can not only do things differently, but need to stay relevant and keep the art fair going. BRONZER

Extract from the story of the art fair

The historical and geographic trajectory of the art market and its fairs has mapped the growth in post-war wealth, supported by rising stock markets around the world. Today, threats to democracy and old world order, including a gradual erosion of the aspiring middle classes in the West and a concomitant rise in power in the East, point to different times. The cult of property, which underlies any market for material goods, is no longer a given.

The pre-pandemic reality was that art fairs were already less of places where art was actually sold and more of marketing platforms that focused business activity at certain times of the year. Much of the business has been done through PDFs, email, and WhatsApp, and now there are a myriad of ways to meet potential clients. For many galleries, 2020 has been a surprisingly profitable year, in large part because the exorbitant costs of art fairs have been taken out of the equation.

Like giant media companies that depend on subscription and advertising revenues from printed papers, art fairs are gradually accepting that their physical product is only a small part of the picture. It is telling that it was media scion James Murdoch who finally gave Art Basel owners a vital investment in 2020. Frieze, already a brainchild of magazine editors, has appointed former media director Simon Fox at its head.

Much has been said about the natural end of in-person events. But looking back over the past 60 years shows just how resilient the art fair industry has been in the face of challenges, both extrinsic and intrinsic. In this context, the pandemic appears as yet another force for change. Suddenly, that cuts ten years of gradual adjustment into one period, but that’s not necessarily a bad one. The industry has been fortunate to have the power and reach of rapid technology, which has maintained its momentum and will undoubtedly play a much larger role in a less hectic future. “If the world went back to 2019 and the way we travel, chasing planes all the time, we would all be very miserable again,” says Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel in Hong Kong.

Frieze has a “powerful brand, created for almost 30 years”. The Frieze Art Fair (pictured in London, 2019) kept its brand alive in 2020 when Frieze Week took place without the tents in the park Photo: Linda Nylind

Time change

Applied maybe, but the change is already taking hold. Frieze Week went well in London in 2020 without either of the two usual fairground tents at Regent’s Park, and frankly without much extra push from the organization. What Frieze has is a powerful brand, created for almost 30 years, that can evoke London, early fall fun and cutting edge art. It is not a bad base to reinvent yourself.

It is also a sign of what art fairs have achieved. Art has become much more desirable, accessible and even relevant to first-time buyers since the post-war years. The popularity of art fairs to deliver the goods has exploded again as the experience economy, first identified at the turn of the millennium, took hold, now entrenched forever on Instagram. There are grunts about this experiential context for art, but art fairs have kept many dealers in business over the decades. Their impact also went beyond their own industry. In 2018, the global art trade was estimated to have spent $ 20.2 billion on external support services, with art fairs representing the most expense and generating the most jobs that year.

These needs persist and, to date, there is no comprehensive or convincing alternative to meet them. But not all fairs carry a brand strong enough to attract the sponsorship and wider support that will keep them going. While art fairs aren’t going away entirely, I feel safe saying that many of the 365 physical events scheduled for 2020 won’t return. The majority of those who do will have a more local feel, while continuing to strengthen their brands with digital content, even after the restrictions are lifted. Unmissable events will be limited to the shows of the biggest brands, which are likely to consolidate international activity in a few geographic centers.

Ride the roller coaster Photo: iStrfry, Marcus / Unsplash

It is also clear that habits have changed and will continue to do so. Galleries that can afford it have improved their online game, taking inspiration from high-tech auction houses that have harnessed the allure of art as digital entertainment. As we’ve all adapted to a more virtual operation, the growth of digital art has exploded. Non-fungible tokens, which can secure and sell such work on blockchain-based exchanges, have gone from obscure cheesy toys to high-priced auction items.

Technology has increased the options for sellers and buyers. To stay in business, art fairs need to keep pace in this more fluid and self-managed environment. Galleries want to be able to choose where, when and how they are displayed; collectors don’t always want long journeys and a flood of dinner invitations to punctuate their purchases; the next generation is just as comfortable hanging out on social media as they are in a nearby tent. Everyone wants to be more environmentally friendly.

We have all now had the opportunity to see the art world without fairs and the jury is still out on how much we love it. The happy truth is that while sometimes it can be more convenient and enjoyable to view and shop virtually, we crave to see art in person. This is in part because of the impact art can have up close, and also because it is the basis of an enriching collective social experience which, in turn, amplifies art. Lucie Kitchener, Managing Director of London’s Masterpiece, says: “I am a firm believer in shared experiences and in our world, bringing people together is at its best at an art fair.

• Melanie Gerlis, The history of the art fair: a roller coaster ride (Lund Humphries, 2021),
December 1 in UK (and eBook worldwide), April 1 in US

About Margaret L. Portillo

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