Art market

Art fairs feel the heat at Barcelona conference

Leading dealer says only 25% of sales should be outside gallery


Dealers’ growing dependence on art fairs came in for criticism at the 5th Talking Galleries conference that was held in Barcelona this week (16-17 January). In his keynote speech, the Salzburg- and Paris-based dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who opens in London in April, said that galleries should do 75% of their business in their own spaces, rather than at fairs. Galleries can make a good 50% of their annual sales on the art fair circuit, sometimes as much as 70%, according to the conference organisers. “They are losing out to the world circus of events,” Ropac said.

Ropac acknowledged that fairs are important places to connect with the art community and were hugely efficient, but that the gallery needed to strive to be the “centre of activity”. It was the responsibility of dealers not to let their art audience get lazy, he said: “Sometimes I refuse to send a work to a fair and make the collector come to one of my spaces, nothing can replace that.”

His comments were punctuated with “Sorry, Victoria”, a refrain that was then repeated throughout Monday’s sessions and addressed to Victoria Siddall, the director of the Frieze fairs, who was among the conference’s speakers.

At a subsequent panel on The Evolving Art Fair Situation, the Madrid gallerist Elba Benitez, told Siddall and the 200-strong audience that the sheer number of fairs worldwide was “more problematic for some galleries than for others” in that they reflected the gap between the moneyed and the more modest players. Delegate Lisa Schiff, the founder of SFA Art Advisory, added to the general disaffection. “I find now that I just hate fairs—sorry Victoria. My clients are burned out and depressed, no-one is excited anymore.”

Siddall took the criticism on the chin, initially joking to Ropac: “We have a great new stand for you at Frieze New York, at the back by the toilets.”  She said that she agreed with him in that “fairs are a place to discover artists, to see art and people under the same roof, but they support rather than replace galleries.” She emphasised how her fairs tried to help smaller exhibitors, with, for example, half price booths in the Frame section for young galleries.

In response to Schiff and other delegates’ comments about general fair fatigue, Siddall said: “I can’t help but see it as a positive that there is more art everywhere; our job is to grow the number of collectors.”

Talking Galleries is an independent platform for industry professionals, run by Screen Projects, a cultural agency based in Barcelona. It is supported in part by the Government of Catalonia, the Barcelona city council and the Sabadell Foundation bank.