image above: I never learned who made this performance piece at Untitled, 2015. If it’s yours, pls let me know, and we’ll credit you!
If you’ve watched HBO’s new, beautiful but dystopian, documentary about the art-world, The Price of Everything, you’re probably thinking, “Screw this—I’m sticking to museums.”
But don’t despair! The art world is as much like The Price of Everything as American families are like the Trumps. The media tends to focus on the drama of 1%-ers and $100m sales. Meanwhile, in 2017, 79% of art purchases were for works that cost less than $5,000. For most of us, the art world is a space to experience mind-expanding wonder and immense generosity of spirit.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about art fairs. Especially if you’re new to collecting, one of the best ways to expand your image bank is to see a lot of art in a short time. It’s like going to a museum, but with way fewer rules. Plus, you can’t go to a museum and take home a piece of original art. That’s why God created art fairs.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, art fairs are here to stay. Why talk about them now? Because the art world, including yours truly, is about to make its annual pilgrimage to Miami. So here’s the deal.
Art fairs are wonderful because you can exponentially expand your image bank with works from around the globe, just like in museums. Unlike in a museum, you can stand nose-to-nose with a Picasso to check out his brush strokes without an alarm going off. You can also experience the art over a glass of wine…and you don’t have to whisper.
Fairs often show works you’ll rarely see elsewhere, like this large-scale sculpture by Norm Paris that’ll be at Satellite Art Show in Miami this year. With so much art going on at once, the fairs are all vying for your attention. To amp up the FOMO, they show some works that are experimental and difficult to collect, even for museums. As you’re walking a fair, you’ll suddenly find yourself surrounded by performance artists, right in the middle of their performance (as I did in the photo above). Enormous and site-specific installations abound. Sometimes works only exist for the duration of the fair.
Heartbreakingly, unless the artist can find a home for them, two of Norm Paris’ large-scale sculptures, including Shipping Loss, (above) will die in a scrap heap after their exhibition at Satellite Art Show in Miami this December. They’re so large that it’s become too costly for Paris to continue storing them. If you can offer them a home, he’s even willing to donate them.
Art fairs are awful because you can’t trust the quality of the work. Fairs are primarily about selling art, so they don’t necessarily have strict curatorial standards.
Participating in fairs is extremely expensive, and they take a lot of resources away from the gallery shows that are crucial to nurturing artists’ careers. An art-fair booth can easily run $6,000-$60,000+, and that doesn’t include all the other costs (e.g., shipping, installation, staff travel, etc.). There’s a ton of pressure to sell enough to justify the cost of being there.
Over the past 10 years, the pressure to sell has led galleries to show more and more “art-fair” art. Shiny, splashy works that won’t offend anyone—the kind you’d see in a hotel lobby—or works from the same few blue-chip artists that are most likely to sell. You can’t completely blame the galleries. They’re in the business of selling art, but it means you can’t trust that the art that you see at the fairs is the best. It’s often just the most popular.
A Damien Hirst spin painting I saw at an art fair a couple years ago, Beautiful Remastered Rubellite Tourmaline Painting, 2007.
Here’s how to make the most of art fairs. Fairs usually cluster together. There’s a prestigious anchor fair, like Art Basel in Miami. Then there’ll be loads of satellite fairs, exhibitions, performances, and parties that cater to every level of taste and budget.
The main fairs rarely show any work that’s affordable, but they’re a great place to see Modern and Contemporary art that hasn’t made it into museum collections. Fairs are also a lot less intimidating than gallery shows. You do have to buy a ticket, but the crowds make even the blue-chip galleries much more approachable. More importantly, it’s a fun way to figure out what you like.
Don’t forget to check out the satellite fairs. Click over to the Art Zealous calendar for most of them. Some fairs are narrowly themed. For example, they might show only African art or street art. Untitled is a high-end fair that focuses on emerging artists. Superfine is all about being accessible. Satellite Art Show is experiential and unpretentious—thus, their #notbasel.
When you find yourself slipping into an art coma, take a break. Don’t try to do too much, or you won’t actually notice the great work when you see it. Remember that fairs are about sales, because of that price often doesn’t equate with value. I’ve seen new collectors walk out of fairs with a $30,000 work that they should have paid $1,000 for. Don’t buy like it’s art-fair crack. If you think you’re in love with a work, ask the gallerist to put it on reserve for you. They will. Then keep looking. A work you really love might be right around the corner. And, if you’re spending more than $500, only buy after you’ve researched the artist.
On the practical side, art fair food is usually overpriced and under-appetizing. It’s often better to eat outside the fairs—just hold onto your ticket to get back in. There’s also never any WiFi, so charge up your phone beforehand. Your fab social media posts will be eating both your LTE and your battery.
For the rest of the fair, I’ll be in the Curatious lounge at Satellite Art Show. Please come say hi—I’d love to meet you! It’ll also be the one place at the fairs where you can recharge your phone.
Holly Hager is an art collector and the founder of Curatious. Previously an author and a professor, she now dedicates herself full-time to help artists make a living from their art by making the joys of art more accessible to everyone.