If there’s one thing the art market has shown clearly in the past few years, it is that there is no saturation point. Art shopping, like shoe shopping for the widows of certain former dictators, is an addiction as much as it is passion. And because art works (unlike shoes) are unique, the allure of the hunt is coupled with the heat of competition: getting the best works, at the best price, inducing art envy in all one’s enemies and friends.
All of which is why, even when (art) fair fatigue should have set in long ago, collectors continue dashing around the globe, pulling out their wallets to acquire, on the spot, the works that stand before them.
It is also why fairs, even bad ones, can often be so successful: when a private dealer offers a work from a private collection somewhere, there’s time to think about the purchase. The same goes for art works hanging in exhibitions, or on view in the days before an auction – the best of which, after all, are shown discretely to top collectors even before the public gets a chance to see them. No, an art fair involves snap decisions. There may be time to check out auction records on your i-phone before writing out a check, but that’s usually all; tomorrow, with audiences in the many tens of thousands every day, it could well be gone. Heck, after lunch it could be gone. If there was ever a scene for impulse buying, the international big art fair is the one.
All of which, to my mind, explains what happened between a soundly-criticized Frieze fair in London in mid-October and the success of the mediocre, yet less-loudly denounced FIAC in Paris just last week.
Because (claims of its PR department notwithstanding), Frieze this year was, in a word, a flop. While Frieze Masters, which showcased established artists “from ancient to modern,” as they put it, received generally positive reviews (though nothing to compare with the accolades that generally accompany fairs like Basel Basel Miami, or TEFAF), no one seems to have had much good to say about Frieze the original, which focuses on “emerging” talent.
“Too big,” groaned some.
“Not a single thing I even remotely wanted to buy,” griped another.
And so on, until the consensus was clear: Enough, already.
And it’s true. It is. It is when dealing in younger, living artists that art fairs are at their weakest anyway, as a colleague of mine recently pointed out. Most of them have waiting lists, which means that the best works are snatched up before they even leave the studio. Generally speaking, it’s the second-rate, “tossed-out-to-meet-the-opening-deadline pieces that make it into the 5 x 5 meter compartments that serve as mini galleries at an art fair.
This was where FIAC had an advantage, and it showed, from all accounts. Works that would have been segregated into the Frieze Masters section in London were integrated with the rest at the Grand Palais, allowing dealers to make – and boast of – successful sales.
But this, too, is where the voraciousness of the art collector comes in: how many buyers at FIAC, I wonder, arrived frustrated by the disappointment they’d encountered earlier at Frieze?
There they’d stood, wallets ready, eager to buy – and found little to their liking. It left FIAC with a low threshold to meet, and they met it.
That’s not to say that offerings at FIAC were all below par: David Zwirner has always presented showstoppers in Paris, and the offerings at Tornabuoni also received rave reviews. But as one visitor, art advisor Clayton Press, put it, FIAC “was homogenous and unchallenging in almost every way. It suffers from boothism: booths filled with material presented as art objects with no connective sinew other than marketable brands or pretentious conceptual objets d'art. (Mirrors should be banned by all makers for 50 years.). Rather boring really, but the weather was nice.”
On the other hand, perhaps “boothism” and predictability is what succeeds best in the art market these days. With the constant merry-go-round of art fairs, it’s unlikely, in any case, that dealers will find either the energy or time to develop something more inspired – or, given the cost of exhibiting there, will take the risk. Meantime, the usual suspects will now all head to the New York sales, credit cards in hand, where they will peer over the shoulders of their friends beside and (mostly) in front of them to see which works they plan to bid on.
But then there will be a smaller group: the ones who visit not only the auctions, but the galleries – and here, too, not only the ones on 57th Street and Madison Avenue and Chelsea, but Williamsburg and Bushwick and beyond. Fewer and fewer of them, I’ve noticed, are still going to all the fairs. They select carefully. They take their time. They approach the scene as they do their collections – as connoisseurs. Because it is, after all, not the thrill of the buy they’re looking for. It’s the thrill of the work of art.