How is the proliferation of art fairs changing the business?

Ahead of the ARCO art fair in Madrid, the Arts and Culture supplement of EL PAÍS asks two specialists to discuss the effect of the rise of contemporary art fairs held around the world

 An image from the Miami Basel fair in December 2014.
An image from the Miami Basel fair in December 2014.

Poker chips

By Blake Gopnik

I’ve been moaning for years that art fairs, and the market they represent, have turned art into commodities – but I realize now that I didn’t quite get my moaning right. After all, any object that has any kind of worth, in the culture at large, is going to be the subject of buying and selling. Art works have been bought and sold since at least the Renaissance, and they have survived the onslaught. Attempts to escape from the market, from the 1960s to today, have turned out to be futile: Even the most ephemeral of conceptual projects, such as the texts of Lawrence Weiner or the performances of Tina Sehgal, have had price tags attached by collectors. Cash value may sometimes mesh badly with artistic worth – paintings get too much attention because they take price tags so easily – but at least the two metrics have had some kind of relation. Overall, collectors have always paid more for masterpieces, the way they’ve spent more for a meal at Maxim’s than McDonald’s. Not much point moaning.

Or not, maybe, until now. The current level of market activity, brought on by the fairs and now spread across the entire art world, has fundamentally changed our entire artistic culture. Now that art works have fully blossomed as an “asset class,” the issue of underlying artistic worth has gone out the window. When you are buying purely for investment, whether a work you’ve spent $5 million on turns out to be “good” or not becomes irrelevant. All that matters is whether someone else will want to buy it, in the brief time-frame you’ve set, at the price that will bring you a profit. (The price doesn’t even have to go up: The new futures markets will let you bet on artists losing value.) These days, when you buy art you aren’t investing in some notion of underlying value, the way you might when investing in a dam that will fill a sure demand for energy. You are investing only in a guess about other investors’ guesses about motion in the market for your asset class.

A couple of years back, when our current situation was in embryo, I was surprised to find collectors shrugging off a pile of examples I gave of once-famous, big-ticket artists who turned out not to have mattered to our culture. (Monticelli, anyone?) I was assuming that collectors would measure the value of their purchases by the underlying artistic worth that they represented, and would be worried about getting their judgment wrong. What I’m now realizing is that this has stopped mattering to art investors, so long as other buyers are making the same art-historical errors that they are, for the few years that the investments will be in play. In this new environment, art objects have become a kind of pure market entity: As the ultimate example of objects without an evident use, or any necessary demand, works of art float free of pedestrian notions of inherent worth to circulate as ideal tokens of exchange. In this, they are rather like gold, except without even its obvious sparkle and permanence.

If this number is correct, the math is easy: in one year, four art fairs open each week”

Thanks to the art fairs, works of art have gone from being objects of contemplation whose excellence gives them a market value, to poker chips that have no worth, or even meaning, outside the casino. This is a seismic shift in culture.

Blake Gopnik is critic-at-large for Artnet News and a regular contributor to The New York Times.

Four a week

By Berta Sichel

During the mid-eighties before art fairs were a global trend, I interviewed Ileana Sonnabend at her gallery. I asked her about art fairs. She ignored my question and answered with a question: Would you think this is an imperative task for someone who spent four evenings every week visiting artists’ studios?

Now that art works have fully blossomed as an ‘asset class,’ the issue of underlying artistic worth has gone out the window”

She went on telling the pleasant experiences she had had over decades with their artists, and how she was delighted to include their work in an important collection. Around this time, I also tried to do a formal interview with the former dealer John Weber. It never happened because he would rather just talk and than make statements for publication. He wasn’t very interested in the subject either, but sensed that the art world was changing. One of his worries was that museums were presenting artists without a solid career in the gallery world, and claimed the mission of discovering new artists belonged to the dealers. He was somewhat surprised by dealers waiting for museums to take the risk before working with lesser-known artists.

Thirty years later, both iconic New York art dealers are no longer with us, but it would certainly be remarkable to know their opinion on the overwhelming number of art fairs today. Before the fairs went global, their rise began with three main events in 1970: Art Cologne, Art Basel, and Art Brussels, all located in wealthy cities and bases of important art collections. Today, these are the numbers: in 2005, there were 68 fairs and by 2011, there were 189. In a recent interview, a New Yorker dealer said that today there are about 220 current contemporary art fairs around the world. If this number is correct, the math is easy: in one year, four art fairs open each week.

It is impossible to contest that their impact is directly challenging the traditional museum/gallery experience. Art fairs, as well as art auctions, continue to develop into the driving force behind the art market. Yet, the evolution of most of them into commercial “trade fairs” signals a shift in energy and attentiveness. Art fairs today have very little to do with art appreciation, how one experiences art, or with art and culture. In a recent panel discussion at Sotheby’s New York, Elizabeth Dee, gallery owner and founder of the Independent Art Fair, said it is, “critical to talk about the dynamic of fairs vis à vis those that were founded and run by galleries and those that have become more institutional private enterprises.” The constantly rising costs for participating dealers leave very little room for risks, and since art fairs are a business and, as with any other business, have to make profit, there exists little room for experimentation and trials. Today, according to Dee, the annual budget of galleries participating in art fairs is around $250,000.

Finally, art fairs alone cannot supply the basis for an expanded, well-informed, and erudite art audience. They can support some dealers and some artists, however cannot be sustained without a local strong art scene, including a large network of museums, alternative art spaces, outstanding universities, and institutional support. For good or bad, today most of them are organized around social happenings: power breakfasts and gala events where one socializes, meets the artists, takes selfies to post on social media and has fun. But, maybe, we should just all relax and have a good time regardless of the blatant inequalities in the world today.

Berta Sichel, curator and writer, was the Artistic Director of #1 Cartagena. International Biennial of Contemporary Art, in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, 2014.

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