Book extract | The highs and lows of art fairs

Amid all the hustle and bustle at Art Basel in Miami Beach this week, it can be easy to forget that just a few months ago, many were wondering whether the Covid pandemic had dealt a deadly blow to the entire art fair model. During the forced hibernation year, the art newspaperArt Market Editor-in-Chief Melanie Gerlis seized the opportunity to research and write the untold history of art fairs – their roots in the commercial heart of Europe, the entrepreneurial spirit of their founders to nurture a new wave of artists. connecting with a new breed of collectors and the explosive international growth that threatened to make the art fair industry a victim of its own success.

This exclusive excerpt from the book, which will be published in e-books in the UK and worldwide on December 1 (April 1, 2022 in the US) asks where the industry is headed now as the commercial, environmental and social sands continue to shift. . While fairs have shown their resilience, the past year has shown that not only can they do things differently, but they need to stay relevant and keep the art fair going. BROWN

Extract from the story of the art fair

The historical and geographic trajectory of the art market and its exchanges has charted post-war wealth growth, supported by rising stock markets around the world. Now threats to democracy and the old world order, including a gradual erosion of the ambitious middle classes in the West and a coincident rise in power in the East, point to different times. The cult of ownership, which underpins any market for tangible goods, is no longer a given.

The pre-pandemic reality was that art fairs were already less places where the art was actually sold and more marketing platforms that focused on trading activities around certain times of the year. Much business was done via PDFs, emails and WhatsApp, and there are now countless ways to meet potential customers. For many galleries, 2020 has been a surprisingly profitable year, especially since the exorbitant costs of holding art fairs were not taken into account.

Like giant media companies that depend on subscriptions and ad revenue from print newspapers, art fairs are gradually accepting that their physical product is only a small part of the picture. Tellingly, it was media scion James Murdoch who finally gave the owners of Art Basel a vital investment in 2020. Already the brainchild of magazine publishers, Frieze appointed former media executive Simon Fox to the helm.

Much has been said about the personal events that come to a natural end. But looking back over the past 60 years shows how resilient the art fair industry has proven to be to challenges, both extrinsic and intrinsic. In this context, the pandemic just seems like a new force for change. It’s a sudden, ten years of gradual adjustment squeeze into one sharp time, but it’s not necessarily bad. The industry has been fortunate to have the power and reach of fast-paced technology, which has kept the momentum going and will undoubtedly play a much greater role in a less hectic future. “If the world went back to 2019 and the way we used to travel, incessantly chasing planes, we would all be very miserable again,” said Adeline Ooi, director of Art Basel in Hong Kong.

Frieze has a ‘powerful brand, created for the better part of 30 years’. The Frieze Art Fair (pictured in London, 2019) kept its brand alive in 2020 as Frieze Week went ahead without the tents in the park Photo: Linda Nylind

Changing times

Forced perhaps, but change is already taking place. ‘Frieze Week’ played well in London in 2020 without one of the trade show group’s two usual tents in Regent’s Park, and quite frankly without much added impetus from the organisation. What Frieze has is a powerful brand, created for the better part of 30 years, that can evoke London, early autumn fun and cutting edge art. It’s not a bad basis for reinvention.

It is also a sign of what art fairs have achieved. Art has become much more desirable, accessible and even more relevant to new buyers since the post-war years. The popularity of art fairs to deliver the goods has exploded further as the experience economy, which was first identified at the turn of the millennium, took hold – now broken down forever on Instagram. This experiential context for art has been grumbled, but art fairs have kept many dealers in business over the decades. Their impact also extended beyond their own industry. In 2018, the global art trade was estimated to spend $20.2 billion on outside support services, with art fairs accounting for the most spending and generating the most employment that year.

These needs remain and so far there is no complete or convincing alternative way to meet them. But not every trade show has a strong enough brand to attract the sponsorship and wider support that keeps the company going. While art fairs won’t go away completely, I feel safe to say that many of the 365 physical events planned for 2020 won’t be back. The majority of those who do will have a more local feel as they continue to boost their brands with digital content even after any restrictions are lifted. Must-see-in-person events will be limited to the bigger brands, likely to reduce international activity to just a few geographic centers.

Ride the roller coaster Photo: iStrfry, Marcus/Unsplash

It is also clear that habits have changed and will continue to change. The galleries that can afford it have stepped up their game online, taking cues from the high-tech auction houses leveraging the appeal of art-as-digital entertainment. Now that we’ve all adapted to work more virtually, the growth of digital art has exploded. Non-fungible tokens, which can secure and sell such work on blockchain-based exchanges, have gone from obscure, nerdy toys to big-ticket auction items.

Technology has expanded opportunities for both sellers and buyers. To stay in business, art fairs need to keep pace in this more fluid and self-governing environment. Galleries want to be able to choose where, when and how they display; collectors don’t always want long journeys and a flood of dinner invitations to underline how they buy; the next generation is just as comfortable wandering social media as they are in a nearby tent. Everyone wants to be more environmentally friendly.

We’ve all now had a chance to see the art world without scholarships and the judges are still not sure how much we like it. The happy truth is that while it is sometimes more convenient and enjoyable enough to look and buy virtually, we do long to see art in real life. This is partly due to the enormous impact that art up close can have, and also because it is the foundation of a rewarding, collective, social experience – which in turn amplifies the art. Lucie Kitchener, the chief executive of London’s Masterpiece, says: “I’m a big believer in shared experiences and in our world bringing people together is at its best at an art fair.”

• Melanie Gerlis, The story of the art fair: a rollercoaster ride (Lund Humphries, 2021),
December 1 in the UK (and eBook worldwide), April 1 in the US

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