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IMG_9434 - Alexandra Zagrebelnaia_edited
Edition #9
Transitions and Resolutions
Alexandra Zagrebelnaia
Edited by Miriam Zeghlache

Why do we need to change the existing art fairs’ model? Perceived barriers as the indicators for a long-awaited transition

Various researchers have pinpointed common barriers to attending cultural institutions and events, including physical constraints, personal access issues, cost concerns, time constraints, product relevance, personal interest, socialization, understanding, and access to information (Bennett, 1994; Tian et al., 1996; Prentice et al., 1997; Milner et al., 2004, Rentschler, 2006). Interestingly, some of the general attendance barriers in the cultural industry can be relevant for the art fairs as well. Despite the consistent increase in the number of art fairs and their popularity among attendees prior to the pandemic, the necessity for reevaluating the existing art fair model has been a topic of discussion among numerous authors.

A multitude of authors (Barrogan, 2008, 2020; Adam, 2012; Saltz, 2018, Stocco, 2019; Ricci, 2020; Ruiz, 2021) have underscored the deficiencies of the current model and advocated for its reassessment. The Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the imperative to reimagine art fairs. Among the criticisms of the current model, the recurring issues, such as art fatigue, lack of contextualization and curation, inadequate exhibition design, high costs, and general elitism, can be identified. 

The director of EXPO Chicago, Tony Karman, emphasized the evolving expectations placed on art fairs, stressing that simply attracting an audience is no longer sufficient. He highlighted the necessity for art fairs to evolve beyond being mere venues for showcasing artworks (Karman in interview to Gerlis, 2021). The industry is undergoing a transformation, potentially leading to the closure of some fairs while others target specific clienteles such as first-time buyers, locals, or affluent individuals.

The process of selecting artworks for art fairs differs significantly from that of museum exhibitions or institutional events. Unlike curators who prioritize thematic coherence or historical significance, art dealers primarily aim to maximize sales and commercial success (Barrogan, 2008; Baia Curioni, 2012). This distinction can result in notable differences in how artworks are presented and experienced at art fairs. Thompson (2011) criticizes the lack of curatorial involvement in art fair booths, noting the absence of a cohesive narrative or thoughtful vision. Galleries often prioritize quantity over curation, leading to an overwhelming viewing experience lacking in contextualization or thematic connections. Stocco (2019) observes minimal artwork descriptions at art fairs, leaving visitors reliant on gallery assistants for understanding. This can result in confusion and dissatisfaction among the broader audience.

 

The sheer volume of artworks can contribute to visual fatigue (Buck, 2014), exacerbated by crowded layouts and inadequate lighting (Thompson, 2011). Additionally, Poli (2011) criticizes art fairs for poor exhibition design, which affects visitors' experiences, although Thornton (2007) argues for the discreet presentation of artworks without distracting exhibition design, emphasizing the importance of neutral space.

 

Another issue that has been extensively debated (Adam, 2014, 2017; Flynn, 2016; Carrion, 2019) in the art market context (including the art fairs), is the one of transparency.  While efforts have been made to address pricing and sales-process issues, many art fairs remain guarded about their price-related practices. Some even argue that undisclosed pricing allows dealers to negotiate based on clients' willingness to pay (Velthuis, cited in Migan, 2020).

 

The global head of David Zwirner gallery online sales, Elena Soboleva (cited in Migan, 2020) acknowledges the high educational value of transparent pricing for new collectors. Therefore, balancing discretion with the demands of an expanding client base and the digital era is crucial. Initiatives by galleries like David Zwirner and Gagosian to disclose prices in virtual booths reflect a changing approach and respond to market demands. 

 

At the same time, at prestigious art fairs like Art Basel, while trusted collectors receive price information beforehand, others “not so important collectors” or “not yet collectors” sometimes may not obtain it at all. Despite some regulations like New York City's "Truth in Pricing" law, pricing practices generally remain ambiguous (Migan, 2020).

 

Following  the finance-related aspects of art fairs authors and art dealers (Barragan, 2008; Poli, 2011; Saltz, 2018; Adam, 2007-2021) highlight the high costs of participation in the art fairs as another issue that needs to be resolved. Small galleries, in particular, face significant expenses related to booth rentals, shipping, installation, staffing, and marketing, which can strain their financial viability (Smith, 2020). While these financial challenges aren't directly linked to the audience experience, they can impact participation and overall gallery tension, potentially affecting audience engagement. Although, despite these challenges, galleries keep participating in certain fairs to maintain market status, estimating revenue remains uncertain for many, with some events serving as loss leaders (Velthuis, cited in Halperin, 2017). Transportation costs further compound financial burdens, prompting galleries to explore smaller, less expensive events (Zarghamee, cited in Halperin, 2017), which offer lower booth prices and alternative market segments.

 

One proposed solution involves top galleries subsidizing participation costs for smaller ones, promoting a mixed ecology in the art market,  (Velthuis, cited in Halperin, 2017). Similarly, calls for an art fair "tax" on top-tier galleries reflect efforts to address financial burdens and foster a more equitable landscape (Halperin, 2019).

 

Regarding audience access, high ticket prices pose challenges for art enthusiasts and the general public, potentially limiting diversity and inclusivity. Art fairs like Art Basel charge substantial admission fees, deterring those with limited financial resources and impacting overall attendee diversity and inclusivity. With admission fees ranging from 60 to 150 CHF for Art Basel and £40 to £50 for Frieze, these high costs can deter individuals with limited financial means from participating. This situation is underscored by the irony that collectors and VIP guests often attend the art fairs for free, Moreover, their whole trip to the international art fairs is often covered by these art fairs or the galleries.

 

Besides that, over the past decade, there's been a noticeable trend of dissatisfaction and fatigue regarding the proliferation of art events, noted by various scholars and representatives of the artworld  (Barrogan, 2008, 2020; Neumeister, cited in Thompson, 2011; Saltz, 2018). This weariness stems from the need to attend numerous art fairs, engage in extensive travel, and participate in ancillary events during art fair weeks, leading to what Georgina Adam termed fairtigue (Ratnam, 2014). This concept has gained widespread recognition, with discussions focusing on the overload of art events and criticism of there being “too many fairs” (Adam, 2020; Saltz, 2018). Some have even likened art fairs and their associated events to “endurance tests” (Gerlis, 2021).

 

It is important to mention that not all newly established art fairs have thrived in this competitive landscape, facing challenges in attracting both visitors and exhibitors. The proliferation of art fairs has been attributed to the prosperity of the late 1990s art market, but doubts linger about its sustainability in current circumstances (Single, 2020). Major setbacks, such as the cancellation of Art Stage Singapore and the closure of smaller fairs like the Chelsea Art Fair in London in 2019, underscore the complexities and uncertainties within the art world.

 

This intersection of concerns regarding fairtigue and the varying success of art fairs underscores the need to critically assess the sustainability and effectiveness of these events. As the art market evolves, it's essential to ensure the continued relevance of art events amidst changing audience expectations and market conditions.

Ongoing discussions and critiques surrounding the art fair model indicate a growing acknowledgment of the need for transition and adaptation within the industry. Art fairs must confront the challenges posed by shifting market dynamics, evolving audience expectations, and the repercussions of the pandemic. Only by reassessing their strategies and embracing new approaches, art fairs can remain relevant and continue to play a significant role in the art world.

 

 

Bibliography

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Adam, G. (2017, April 28). How transparent is the art market?. Financial times. https://www.ft.com/content/77cba886-251b-11e7-a34a-538b4cb30025  
 

Adam, G. (2020, April 1). Will coronavirus-related cancellations spell the end of ‘fairtigue’? The Art Newspaper. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/sociallydistant-the-end-of-fairtigue 
 

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