London Art Pitch is a monthly column by Jamie Sterns, a New York curator and writer currently based in the British capital.
There are more than 200 art fairs a year. Did you hear that? More than 200 art fairs in one year. There are only 365 days in a year so essentially you can throw a dart onto the calendar and somewhere in the world there is probably at least one art fair happening. Does this make you feel excited, or does this make you feel nauseous? For me, this idea puts me in close to an apoplectic fit. It downright makes me want to scream and cry and shake something hard. Why does it put me into such a state? Because it is just the worst. Trust me. I’ve worked at dozens of fairs, as a dealer, organizer, press liaison, marketer, events planner, and advisor (a job is a job, right?). I’m eyeball deep in knowing how fairs run, and that has induced near-total disgust in me toward them.
Thinking about this obscene glut, the word “slaughterhouse” kept popping into my head. I would think “art fair” and then I would get this neon light in my brain, which would flash “slaughterhouse” like a blinking sign for a dive bar on a country road. Instead of being a professional, self-preserving person and ignoring this dive bar of my mind, I’m going to mosey on in and show you around.
Why do I think art fairs are slaughterhouses? Because they are holding pens in which art gets chopped and bought. There is a dehumanizing functionality to it. The processes, the product, and the roles played by each participant have the air of necessity, making the larger horror of it rationalized and/or hidden. How is this so? Let me explain.
The art fair organizer is like a free agent commercial company that is responding to, or trying to be a part of, a needs/demands paradigm in which art is the need and the demand is from collectors. Fairs make their money from the galleries that buy booths to participate. The quality of the galleries equals the quality of the fair. Top fairs are like organic, certified free-range farms, while the lower-quality ones have poorer conditions and poorer galleries participating. The structure/site for the fairs is the slaughterhouse complex and this is divided up into proportioned pens/booths for which participating galleries pay anywhere between $3,000 to $100,000. Most are typically priced around $30,000, which includes white painted walls, some lights, and possibly an outlet.
Many times you can have smaller, cooler fairs with hip young galleries that may be less expensive to participate in but have more street cred. Think of these like artisanal sandwich shops where there is nowhere to sit and you pay $15 for a ciabatta roll with things inside of it. Fairs that are lower quality, in that it does not have very good galleries but it has lots of money, may try to gain cultural capital by having emerging sections or by just giving free booths to “cool” galleries. This exchange of cultural capital is not only done by lower-tier fairs, though. Almost all the A-list fairs have special programs, project areas, lectures, etc., which is an attempt to counter the slaughterhouse-money vibes.
The Dealers are in their booths, which, depending on the financial soundness of the gallery, is either just a giant promotional ad or a live-or-die investment. It’s tragic when it is the latter. The dealer is the purveyor/the butcher—not in a negative way, but rather in a good-with-knives way. They are there to sell, present, and entice collectors to purchase works by artists the collectors may not even know about. It’s like trying to get a finicky eater to taste something new and then getting them to pay thousands of dollars for it. The Dealer’s domain is the booth and most don’t leave it unless they are at a level where they have a crew of staff members that are also highly trained in butchering. They are invisibly penned in the booth for around eight to ten hours a day with crap lighting, crap food, crap company, and crap conversations—it is enough to make even the most enthusiastic seller have the thousand-yard stare.
Most galleries usually do four to five fairs a year, but some do more than a dozen, and often those galleries’ actual spaces function more like photo booths. Their galleries are inventorying and shooting spaces in order to apply for the next fair. Each time they go to a fair, it is in a different city, and each time the Dealer probably sees that city they are in, during daylight hours, for maybe four hours total. (This, of course, excludes those with multiple staff members.) While they are in these cities, their nights are filled with schmoozing, connecting, and networking, so that they get more collectors into their butcher/booth shop—hangovers and three hours of sleep be damned. If you want your horse to win, you need to ride and ride hard.
The Art is obviously the product. The Artists make the Art, and the Art gets selected, wrapped, shipped, unwrapped, and then installed into the booths so that it can be seen and sold over a period of about four or so days.
Most of the work that is displayed in the booth was made previously for another reason, like an exhibition. At the fair, the Art is taken out of its original context, such as a show or a larger body of work, and is inserted into the booth, usually with other artists on the gallery roster. Most booths have a loose theme, as many fairs demand these days, but usually they are pretty much made up, and it is just a sampling platter of a gallery’s program.
In other cases the artist will make something specifically for the booth. Many times, having a solo presentation at an A-level art fair is a CV highlight and is one many artists seek, just as they would a solo exhibition at the gallery. In this case, the Artist makes something site-specific or new just for the fair. This may at times involve a slightly subversive gesture (usually only affordable for artists and galleries with stable finances), or it results in artists thinking, making, and producing work with the intention of being for an art fair. This now-familiar practice has affected the trends in Art-making, wherein easy-to-transport and easy-to-digest Art has become more prevalent, not only at art fairs but also in gallery exhibitions.
How Artists behave around a fair is similar to the ride-or-die mentality Dealers have while there. Artists who are showing at a fair have a reason to physically be there, but the art-fair flame is bright, and it draws artists, curators, writers, etc. from near and far to basically buzz around the slaughterhouse, making the whole thing seem culturally relevant. After fair viewing is over, the real business begins. This is basically partying with the same people at basically the same party but in a new city. It is actual agony to witness/participate in. But then there are those times, those stories, those weird hook-ups that result in someone getting a museum show or selling out their booth, so yeah, everyone just has to keep doing it. An additional sucker punch to this whole faux elitism is that all these art fair sky miles have probably melted large chunks of the polar ice cap.
The Collector is the king/queen of the art-fair castle. They are the ones that this pop-up carnival is for. They do not see the construction of the Fair, which is messy, hectic, and usually still occurring up to a half-hour before it opens. They do not see the Dealers and art handlers jetlagged and wearing paint-covered clothes and white gloves, heaving or realigning works. They do not see the Artists nervously hovering and compulsively adjusting and dusting their work. They do not see the bills the galleries pay to be in the art-fair pens, and the owners who are editing the price lists and working in their heads how much they have to sell in order to make a profit, accounting for the cost of the booth, staff, travel, hotel, meals, shipping, and artists’ 50-percent cut. No, the collectors come after all the messy. They look, and some purchase, but mostly they are there to see and be seen.
Art fairs are in all these hundreds of locations because they are like mini city expos wherein the elite and rich of a city can boast about how their city is as good as this and that place, or that they have quality connoisseurs, just like this or that place. It is a thing of civic pride to have a top-quality fair in one’s hometown and because of that the whole city is involved and nurtures this. Thus, when there is one A-level fair, there are about ten lesser fairs or other linked citywide art events.
There are also the hardcore art-fair circuit goers. They literally travel around the world and schedule their lives to attend certain fairs in certain cities (very much like many artists do, but for them it’s a hobby). They are ubiquitous and they are known. The Dealer is trained or quickly learns who is who and when to get a nervous inflection in one’s voice, when certain collectors enter the booth and actually ask a question about a work. Most collectors are picky, though. They are picky in which fairs they go to, which booths they enter, and most certainly what they end up purchasing. These collectors only pick the choicest cuts and the rest of it might as well be for the dogs. This is when what is shown, who is shown, and who is presenting it is key. There are stamps of quality and pedigrees that are implied through this system, even though what is next door might be just as nourishing or more so, even if it lacks certain seals of certification.
There are also different types of collectors. Some are good, and some are evil. The good are adventurous and curious, the evil are entrepreneurial flippers. Both vet out lesser known artists and galleries and some take risks or make investments, so even with the latter it is potentially not a total loss for galleries, but there is sometimes a heavier price to pay depending on which type of collector enters the booth/pen.
The Art World
Lastly, you cannot overstate the effect that fairs are having on the art world at large. The art world is expanding at breakneck speed and that is clearly reflected in this growing mass that is the art-fair industry. It’s like a lump that you thought would go away, but it has gotten larger and metastasized, and cutting it off is no longer an option. The art world is affected by this slaughterhouse of the fairs, as it is changing the structure of how galleries function and how artists produce work. It is also no longer a surprise that top curators are seen as often as the top collectors in this setting, as the fair acts as a locus for all that participate in the art world. Money talks and it makes people walk a certain type of walk.
Museums, biennials, triennials, and all other such (supposedly) non-commercial high art events are less and less relevant in the face of this constant networking churn of the art-fair schedule. There at times feels like less and less separation of the intentions of these more curatorially driven settings and what is being highlighted at A-list fairs. What is the talk of the town at the fair more often than not is then translated into these other settings. It is a feedback loop of prestige, visibility, and underlying all of that is money. The separation of money from art is not possible, it never was, but the agribusiness-like quality and pace of what is happening at art fairs and how that affects the whole of the art world is frankly ghastly, demoralizing, and revolting.
In this, the art fair slaughterhouse, no one’s hands are clean. If you are a part of the art world like I am, then we are all smattered with blood.