Fair or foul: more art fairs and bigger brand galleries, but is the model sustainable?
Many galleries acknowledge that supply is a problem, with artists under pressure to produce more work
By Georgina Adam. Market, Issue 236, June 2012
Published online: 20 June 2012
Dealers are increasingly calling it “the fair marathon”: a six-week epic that started with Frieze New York (4-7 May), continued two weeks later in Hong Kong with ArtHK (17-20 May) and will reach its apogee with Art Basel, the one fair the art world really, really can’t miss (14-17 June). Some brave souls, including Tim Marlow, the director of exhibitions at White Cube gallery, even slotted São Paulo’s Sp-Arte (9-13 May) between New York and Hong Kong, withstanding a two-night journey by air from Brazil to Asia.
The explosion in the number of art fairs is the most significant change in the market since the turn of the century. The numbers tell the story: in 1970, there were just three main events (Cologne, Basel and the Brussels-based Art Actuel). But the number has mushroomed in the past decade: from 68 in 2005 to 189 in 2011. This year, the Frieze brand unveils two new fairs: the New York edition last month, and the Masters fair, which debuts alongside the London event in October (11-14).
While some fairs have disappeared (notably Art Forum Berlin last year and Art Chicago in February), others have taken their place. And, notes the economic historian Stefano Baia Curioni, to these must be added more than 100 biennials which, while ostensibly not commercial, are also engaged in the market and need a rich supply of art. Indeed, so overwhelmingly important have art fairs become that the general consensus is that they are beginning to replace the gallery sales model.
The reasons for the proliferation of fairs have been often cited: the need to offer a buy-it-or-you’ll-lose-it situation to challenge the auction houses; a way of extending a gallery’s global reach; a way of making contacts with both artists and buyers around the world; and the need to be part of today’s event-driven culture.
This brings in its wake the need for more inventory. The art market is currently growing: based on art sold at auction, turnover last year was the highest ever, at $11.8bn, according to Artprice. But the market is supply-driven and ultimately rests on the artists’ ability to produce enough material. With more fairs on the horizon, is the current model sustainable?
“The pressure that this growth has put on artists cannot be underestimated,” says Victor Gisler of Zurich’s Mai 36. “They just can’t produce enough.” And even if they do, the danger is that a significant portion becomes “art fair art”: pieces that are moderate in size so they fit in a booth, and are “in tune with dominant market trends”, according to the author Olav Velthuis in a recent essay, “Contemporary Art and Its Commercial Markets: a Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenarios”.
Many galleries acknowledge that supply is a problem. “We try to steer away from pushing artists to make fair-related pieces,” says Andreas Gegner, the director of the London branch of Sprüth Magers, while Olivier Bélot, a co-director of Paris’s Yvon Lambert gallery, says bluntly: “No artist worth his salt can decently produce a great deal of work every year.” During Frieze New York, many dealers remarked that work had already been shipped to Hong Kong—and that the best work, anyway, was being kept for Art Basel, the one fair nobody can put in second place.
As well as putting pressure on artists, the fair phenomenon is putting galleries on the spot. “It’s definitely a juggling act,” says Andrew Kreps, the owner of the eponymous gallery. “I don’t think anyone was dying to add yet another fair to the calendar.”
“The pressure to participate in fairs is very high,” Gisler says. He segments the market into three. At the top are the major dealers such as White Cube, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth, who participate in all the main fairs. David Zwirner, for example, is taking part in 15 this year—more than one a month, with many clustered in the prime selling seasons of spring and autumn. “They have no problems. In fact, they need the fairs to generate sales. Their brand is in the art fair market,” Gisler says. “They have large staffs to administer the logistics.”
Alongside the fair explosion, there has been a parallel increase in the size, both physical and global, of the biggest art galleries. Gagosian has 11 outlets worldwide; Hauser & Wirth has five; Zwirner has corralled a chunk of 19th Street in New York, with a new space in 20th Street, and plans to open a gallery in London this year; White Cube has four, counting its new Hong Kong outlet; Pace is in New York and Beijing; Ropac has a vast new Parisian space; Perrotin is about to open a gallery in Hong Kong.
Indeed, some of the big galleries say they could use even more space. “We work with more than 50 artists and even with four spaces, our problem is programming them regularly enough,” Tim Marlow says. “You can save work from the gallery to show at a fair—you’re not necessarily stretching the artist.” In the case of David Zwirner, supply for fairs is boosted by a big chunk of the gallery’s secondary market dealing and its management of some major estates. Julia Joern, a director of the gallery, estimates that approximately 50% of its turnover comes from this source. White Cube, Ropac and other big galleries often make about 20% of their sales in the secondary market as well: Hauser has been sharing part of the renowned collection of Helga and Walther Lauffs with Zwirner.
The difficulties, Gisler says, are at the level of the mid-sized and smaller galleries. “Here things are far more problematic. The mid-sized galleries, with perhaps five to 15 people, feel they must participate in the main fairs. It’s worse still for the small galleries, whose price points are not over $50,000—they don’t have many works at that level and doing a fair, if it doesn’t work out commercially, can be a killer.”
Galleries feel obliged to do fairs because they fear being seen as rejected by the selectors, but the Catch-22 situation is that they are selected on the basis of their gallery programme. If this falters because they are overstretched, then they might not be admitted to the most prestigious events. But everyone I spoke to was clear: the gallery comes first. The programme “is the most important part”, Kreps says, while Thaddaeus Ropac asks: “What sort of gallery does its main business at fairs?”
This year, Gisler decided against doing Frieze New York and Hong Kong. “It’s just too much. You have to put your gallery space first, and concentrate on the shows you are doing there. And in spite of globalisation, it is important as well to stay in your national context, to serve your local community,” he concludes.
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