art fairs multiply themselves

Is the proliferation of art fairs just plebeian commoditisation?

The growth in the number of art fairs is one of the overriding trends in the art market for the past two decades. When exactly the saturation point is going to be reached, no one knows. Artforum recently reported nearly 60 major art fairs, and with all the smaller fairs, we might one day count as many as there are calendar days in the year. At some point, the fairs will begin to cannibalise themselves or consolidate as an industry. But for the time being, at least, it all looks rosy.

People from all walks of life

There are more people interested in attending art fairs than ever before. A number of them are novice- or first time buyers who favour the format, because it gets them up to speed with art very quickly. So in that sense, a snob would call the trend plebeian. The rest of us would just call it a democratisation of the primary art market. But the exhibit centres are also trawled by all the top collectors, which means we just ought to welcome it as a more inclusive development.

Despite everyone agreeing that the squaller of an art fair does not present art to its full glory, there are a some interesting economic reasons why they are here to stay.

Experienced art collectors increasingly buy art at fairs, because of the many galleries in one place. You can talk to everyone under one roof. You can quickly and conveniently observe some mega trends unfolding plus there is greater price transparency.

A new competitive landscape for art galleries

As galleries receive stiffer competition, it is now a must to be at international art fairs to reach an audience they would not necessarily reach on their home turf. The aforementioned competition comes from other galleries. Secondly, artists are marketing themselves via digital marketing channels directly to art buyers as never before. Thirdly, major auction houses have ventured into the primary art market, even when the secondary is still their dominion.

The numbers stack up

On an art fair, a gallery can turn over more than they do for months at their regular business address. However, Galleries must be very savvy navigators in this space. It can be extremely expensive to be on one of the major art fairs such as Art Basel or even its side-kick Volta. Some gallery owners must accept red figures the first few times they are attending. The late break even is attributed to having to talk to enough of regular annual visitors, to gain their trust and their business.

However, on balance, art fairs pay off for the industry. Although an obvious bias, TEFAF in Maastricht presents research every year that stands up to academic scrutiny. According to The European Fine Art Foundation, 31% of gallery owners income is derived from art fairs. In over-simplistic terms, then, almost a third of the revenue is gained from exhibiting at local and international art fairs.

Related article: Skate’s Art Fairs Report Spring 2015