Vanity Fair: Movement from This Art World, to That Which Is to Come

James Elder Christie, Vanity Fair, ca. 1895.


“Now as I said, the way to the Celestial City runs directly through this Town with its lusty Fair; and he who would go to that City, and yet not pass through this Town, must necessarily go out of the world.” —John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678

Life out of the world is possible. But there reside existential problems. Some have publicly retreated to this once comfortable, now alien and forbidding, estate (viz. José Freire). Others, exiled by circumstance, continue to reside outside, unable to raise the fees required for entrance.

Before and beyond the Fair lies the Gallery Show, now in attenuated circumstance. The Fair is a preeminent contributor to this diminishment. Sickened by declining attendance, the vanishing quantities of literate judgment, and the descent of art society into a Slough of Consensus, the impending Death of the Gallery Show brings the loss of an art culture no Fair can replace.

At the moment, much is being said about the Fair and its fairness (viz. Jerry Saltz). Such talk is parsed in terms of mega-galleries vs. smaller galleries, established galleries vs. young galleries, or successful galleries vs. aspirants. Various and specific players have proposed taxing the Fair’s wealthy to aid its indigent. But this does nothing to curtail risk and next to nothing to make the Fair affordable. For most, such aid from above will comprise down-payment assistance on a booth-load of losses. Philanthropy couched in these terms is problematic, if not disingenuous, spawning a raft of now-revealed charity cases (again, Freire).

George Cruikshank’s 1839 etching of Vanity Fair in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

As the Fair will persist, so let it play an active role in mitigating those circumstances it has in large part created (again, Saltz). First, the Fair must be fiscally feasible. This can be arranged through Fair organization, gallery selection, and fee structure. The Fair is expensive and risky, and the expense and risk are borne almost entirely by the galleries. Yet all galleries, whatever their size and level of success, bear this total risk at the same cost (if on measured footing). Fair promoters do a lot for their chit, but once paid and the notes are cashed, the galleries endure on their own unequal assets to face the great crowd.

One proposal might be to make the price of Fair participation relative to a gallery’s Fair sales: ardent sales, high cost; listless sales, little or no cost—an income tax of sorts on Fair business. Implementation of such a plan would obviously present many problems (e.g., the possibility of choosing participants for their ability to generate cash, misreporting sales, doing Fair transactions after the Fair, etc.). But these could be worked out.

Second, the Fair needs to recognize and address its role in crippling the Gallery Show. In the art world the arduous starting point in addressing a problem is often a panel discussion with notable and teasing names. But post-panel, economic fairness and minimization of risk are required. Helpful, too, would be the voluble refrain that Fair-goers be gallery-goers, that every booth is a toehold of a place in the real world where the real action takes place: perspective and humility in the eyes of organizers, and attendees recognizing that the art culture lives in galleries and in the shows they do.

Mitchell Algus, an art dealer in New York, contributed to ARTnews’s Winter 2017 issue, “How to Fix the Art World.”

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