With art fair season kicking off and in person attendance finally becoming commonplace in many places, we know plenty of art enthusiasts that attended them virtually last year are thinking about attending at least one in person this year, but what are they all about?
The modern art fair has fast grown from a trade show for dealers to a point of convergence for everyone involved in the art market. Gallerists, dealers, collectors, advisors, curators, artists, patrons, enthusiasts and more flock to these fairs in droves to buy, sell and experience the cutting edge of contemporary art.
Throughout the 20th century most major cities, already established as cultural hubs, had a thriving art market with an abundance of galleries and dealers. It was the smaller European cities and towns that, with plenty of artists and collectors, had the capacity for a healthy market but not the network necessary to support it. Fairs like Art Market Cologne and Art Basel, said to be the first of their kind, were attempting to bring visibility and development to their art markets. They’d obviously never heard the phrase "If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain," but it worked and now millions of people travel to art fairs all around the world. Thus the modern art fair, as is often the case with great things, emerged on the margins of the mainstream.
After a monumental rise in popularity since the mid 1900s art fairs have now range in shape, scale, genre and location, among other things. Galleries, dealers and collectors spend exorbitant amounts to both showcase and purchase artwork at these events. In the bigger fairs like Basel, Frieze and Armory, the format has evolved from canvases on stall walls, and art fairs now really go the extra garish mile. You now might see what's known as art fair bling; concept stalls acting as exhibition spaces minimally adorned with dadaist everyday objects or vague and vulgar phrases that sound like corny lyrics in huge glittering or neon lights, and some of the most outrageously dressed people you’ve ever seen.
Celebrities are sometimes spotted browsing the stalls looking to add to their personal collections, however it is known that certain fairs shut down shows for private viewings if attending the vernissage isn’t exclusive enough for them. Coming from the French word for varnishing, a vernissage is a VIP viewing usually the day before the fair opens. Named so because artists at London’s Royal Academy as far back as 1809 would add a last layer of varnish to their paintings as the dealers and collectors would look around the day before a show's opening.
One of the best things to come out of the emergence of art fairs is accessibility, with many of these fairs traveling too, making stops showcasing work along the way. Some of the smaller fairs are especially accessible, with minimal cost for a ticket and less intimidating scale. There are even some fairs like Affordable Art Fair that exclusively feature art with a lower, more accessible price point. So if you’re wanting to visit an art fair but put off by the fanfare, it’s not all Met Gala outfits and Damien Hirst pieces, research a local art fair and enjoy something closer to the original art fairs on the margins of the mainstream.
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