I enjoy many art fairs, especially the Art Basels (Basel, Miami and Hong Kong) and, considering its owners, MCH Group, announced a major expansion into the market for regional fairs [the group is to buy stakes in existing fairs], there are soon to be plenty more. In the face of such unprecedented economic uncertainty, that says an awful lot about overall business—I can’t be the only satisfied customer. The draws of convention-centre art are accessibility, convenience and the sheer volume of information to take in; the fairs shrink the world at the same time as fear of travel outside comfort zones has become more of an issue. Mainly, in the age of the post-attention span, fairs are about seeing as much as possible in the most compressed timeframe, so here are some tips to help you tackle them more effectively.
Fight the irresistible urge to look before seeing, and try to seclude yourself from Instagram and early reviews (as much as one can nowadays). The surprise afforded by the organic unfolding of unexpected juxtapositions is the point; don’t colour your opinions before you’ve had a chance to form them. That’s unless you intend to get a jump on buying something—in which case, galleries are all too eager, in the face of a constricted market, to send out preview PDF files should you have determined an acquisition beforehand. With more frequency than ever before, galleries are bombarding jittery potential clients with blanket emails.
As I get longer in the tooth—ie, old—I’ve begun to gravitate towards the more traditional, Modern art rather than the art of late. The Armory and Frieze have Modern art halls and tents outside of the main events; then there is the ground floor of Art Basel and the Tefaf fair in Maastricht, which is inching towards the contemporary at a fast clip—it’s about to open two New York enterprises, one for established and another for more contemporary art. Whatever it is you are after, cutting-edge or tried and true, pace yourself accordingly. Start with the section that coincides most with your interests while you have the strength and concentration levels to absorb it; dissipating energy and the onset of fatigue can make the good appear bad. The issue of how best to approach the geography of a fair is always a tough one: there is the systematic, Teutonic method of following the grid, or drifting and meandering. I always start with the best intentions of following the logical course but, with my hideous sense of direction, I inevitably end up wandering. Forget art advisers—you’d be better served by a companion with good organisational skills. In all seriousness, there is an abundance to take in, from the orgy of art to the schmooze fest in the booths and aisles. Suck it in.
Feet and Food
Sure, staying hydrated is staying healthy, but not at art fairs. Don’t take in too many fluids as the bathrooms are few and miles apart. It can mean (for me) never finding my way again. I personally follow the mind-control tactics employed by 1970s cults and deny myself the use of the facilities for hours on end—makes for more concerted viewing. Repeat after me: ibuprofen, paracetamol, whatever your painkiller/anti-inflammatory of choice, pack some for the long days slow dancing through the booths and aisles. Our feet are the sacrificial lambs of the art world; they carry the weight from biennials, galleries, museums (public and private) and, alas, fairs. So wear comfortable, wide shoes and take care of them by taking frequent breaks. Oh, and food? Follow the ascetic guidelines outlined above and eat before you go. You can go out for dinner afterwards.
Don’t be shy
This is your opportunity to interact with staff, including directors, many of whom depart before the end of the VIP openings—apparently an art fair status symbol. So don’t be shy and speak up; not often do you have an audience of leading professionals at your beck and call. Always ask for the price. This is the art world equivalent of pulling teeth but they have no recourse in this context but to answer! And photograph whatever catches your fancy (or annoys you—always a good sign worth further investigation). More importantly, take images of the wall labels, if not to refresh fading memories. Take business cards from galleries (I type this as I frantically scramble to find the name of a gallery whose card I forgot to ask for at the last fair I attended).
Buy some art
These are high-end bazaars for shoppers to shop, in extremis, so why not buy some art and support the choppy waters of the art ecosystem? But take your time, because times have changed and the element of pause for consideration has been reintroduced into a market that is sobering up good and fast. Price research and due diligence on matters of provenance, condition, etc. are more integral than ever before. Settle on an allotted budget, and approach with (some, not total) self-wrought discipline, which is rich coming from me, a man of multiple mistakes and contradictions. As there are no stupid questions, there are no longer any stupid discount requests—be bold and ask for the outlandish. Though this could also backfire, like when I recently shot for 50% off on a 1987 Barbara Kruger collage, followed by a top offer of 30% less than the asking price, and ended up losing the work altogether. While in Miami I managed to shave more than 20% off a small, early Christopher Wool painting. Hunting and gathering is part and parcel of the process. The longer you wait in the duration of the fair, the more likely that any reasonable offer will be accepted—desperate times call for desperate actions. But watch out for a bout of buyer’s remorse.
There is much to take in at a fair besides the art: the freaks, the frolics and the faces, many surgically intervened upon. These events are best when dense and safe, though someone recently got stabbed at Art Basel Miami Beach, so you never know. Live life one fair at a time and have fun; in the end, there’s loads of learning at hand on just about every occasion.
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