The incredible growth of art fairs is a reflection, tangentially about art, more about society; we want to be entertained, and a major art event is more entertaining than walking into a relatively empty gallery, potentially feeling intimidated, ignorant, and vulnerable. It's the same reason galleries have had opening receptions forever; it's an event where people of like minds can mingle, network, and perhaps most importantly, be seen. Everybody at any major art event may be perceived as a sophisticated appreciator of culture while simultaneously enjoy the anonymity of being a part of the “right” group. It’s also about art.
Back in the 80's my friends and I would regularly go the art fairs in what I think of as their formative teenage-to-young-adult years. Ours too. Chicago specifically was edgier, rawer, and riskier. There were no offshoot shows then, but there were events. I remember seeing a Nicolas Africano show in a cavernous warehouse space, with gigantic un-primed canvases just nailed to the unfinished walls. It was way cool.
Another memory - a bit lighter, was a European gallery booth, consisting of one large painting created during the event by 3 German artists (brothers I think). They were fun because by mid afternoon they were flamboyantly drunk, walking around smoking cigarettes and pounding down beer after beer. Somewhere between high-art and comedy. Their painting was OK at best, but the performance was priceless.
Fairs don't seem to have the same energy as in the glory days of the '80's (perhaps I don't either...); they’ve matured into the complacency and comfort of middle-age…and expansion. They’ve also reproduced countless offspring.
So much for nostalgia.
Art Fairs are not for artists; they're trade shows for buyers and sellers in the art business. There are several reasons to go: For anybody interested in contemporary art, it's an excuse for an extended weekend with friends in a cool city (whatever city) immersed in art, it enables one to keep their fingers on the pulse of what's going on in the art market, it beats the hell out of looking at art magazines or sitting in front of a screen, it provides an opportunity to stay connected to specific artists or dealers, and if done right, they’re loads of fun. And for collectors too, why stop at one gallery at a time, when you can peruse 200 in one place?
For a gallery, going to an expo may be similar to corporations spending money advertising or social networking: You don't know whether you'll recover your costs, but if you don't do it, you may lose visibility, and potential contacts and clients. You may lose market share, and feel the negative aspects of non-participation. For many galleries, art fairs have become their primary revenue-generator and relationship-builder. Unfortunately, for smaller, local, or not well-capitalized galleries, the costs of a decent fair are exorbitant. They are stuck cultivating the local or regional market.
There can be other downsides; much work in the galleries or art fairs is momentarily catchy, as if made for an ADHD audience. It captures your attention, perhaps draws you in from across the room, engages you for a moment, but then doesn't have staying power.
A point of debate with my peers is what work do we come away with that resonates, that stays with us, or even from a business standpoint, that you'd want on your wall? Good art should draw you in, but then have enough substance to keep you interested later, or offer the possibility to discover elements that weren't immediately apparent. This can be technical, but equally compelling on the conceptual level. It can resonate emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, but it has to have relevance beyond eye-candy. Great art continues to enrich for generations, balancing the specific with the universal. Is there great art at art fairs?
But beyond these meanders, being here in New York on Frieze week (May 13-18) definitely evokes some of the energies of fair’s past. As with most fairs, the impression struggles to be museum-like, conveying a sense of special-ness, of cultural import and value, while at the same time showing vigorous experimentation and risk-taking. A cultural party of grand proportions.
With ubiquitous, exciting events all over New York:
Frieze Art Fair, Frieze New York, one of the world's leading contemporary art fairs.
Art Miami New York, the international contemporary and modern art fair.
Flux, A contemporary art fair in the culturally rich community of Harlem.
Select Art Fair, features 44 booths of contemporary galleries and print publishers, new media, installation, conceptual and progressive works.
NADA New York 2015, NADA New York is dedicated to showcasing new art, and to celebrating the rising talents from around the globe.
1:54 Art Fair, A European art fair dedicated to Contemporary African Art will make its New York debut.
Spectators balance navigating the city maps with navigating booth maps, correlating the latter with the maze-like quality of the set-up, or trying to ignore the layout altogether to focus on the work.
And then there is art. Where does all of this stuff come from? The staggering amount of creative output from artists working all over the world, is truly amazing. Doesn’t matter if many works are not to anybody’s particular aesthetics; an aspect of the allure is the volume of objects presented.
This is one of the ironic conundrums of art fairs: they are commercial enterprises generating the exchange of millions of dollars worth of art, while most artists represented labor in the isolation of the purist non-commercial bubble of their art practice. So fairs can be considered the pinnacle of the commercial/Capitalist contemporary art marketplace, or the champions of the most cutting edge explorations by the deepest thinkers and aesthetic groundbreakers. They are both.
So, first impressions:
FRIEZE exudes sophistication, a distant museum-like quality of edgy, contemporary art, from the blue-chip names to young, experimental emerging artists. The galleries present the works in the impressively constructed space, as if a permanent installation. Art Miami New York is equally sophisticated, while feeling a bit more accessible to a general audience, perhaps due to the higher proportion of art that could be considered “painting”.
For both fairs, there is a great spectator satisfaction in the discovery of new art or gallery, next to the well known established brand names. The audience at the Previews runs a parallel gamut, the known and the unknowns, a fashionista’s delight of edgy, high-end attire and presentation, on display for assessment and appreciation.
The vibe at art fairs is usually serious. Art, after all, is a serious matter. Frieze managed to interject another flavor with the larger-than-life presence of Jerry Saltz, art critic extraordinaire. Ever in the public limelight, Jerry brilliantly juggles thoughtful insight and analysis of the art world, with a kinetic public engagement on social media, reaching out far beyond the potentially rarefied, elitist audience. In person his manic humor shines through as a demonstration, a living testament that one can be thoughtful yet have fun.
Maybe this idea as metaphor is instructive for art fairs and life in general: Be thoughtful. Have fun.
Part II to follow...