Today marks the public opening of the 2008 Armory Show in New York. The art world is all aflutter in anticipation. This is the first major art fair to be held after the recent announced cancellations of other fairs around the world. What will happen at the Armory?
Naturally, there has been plenty of talk (and even some chatter) about the demise of the large-scale gallery art fair. The recent – and sudden – cancellation of artDC is an excellent example of the winnowing of these fairs. For the last 10-15 years, gallery fairs were the deal. It was where a majority of galleries did a significant amount of their annual business and actually cleared a profit. More importantly, they also have been the life blood for smaller galleries.
The general reasoning for the cancellations has been blamed on the current bleak world economy – especially in the US. Here is the quote from artDC’s press release:
artDC organizers regretfully announced today their difficult decision to cancel the 2008 show due to the recessionary nature of the present economy.
[C]urrent indicators show that the return on investment is not there for our exhibitors in this economic climate.
I have another thought as to why art fairs are suffering, and after reading an interview with the Armory’s executive director, Katelijne de Backer, I think I might be on the right track…
I believe fair organizers are focused primarily on simply getting galleries and people into the fair. Little to no interest is placed on promoting the sales of the artwork exhibited at the fair.
As Ms. de Backer was quoted saying (and, apparently, boasting):
There is a bigger reason for doing this fair: to show art…[W]e also provide an opportunity for the general public – who is not a buying public – to see what is happening in art.
Last year we had lines of people from the entrance on the pier to 62nd Street and when they were told it was going to be a two-hour wait, they said "OK, we’ll wait." These weren’t the people who were going to buy any art; these were people who were interested in art.
Also, although the Armory Show runs on commerce, the galleries don’t necessarily expect everything that they show to sell. A lot of the commerce actually happens after the fair closes, and a lot of galleries take advantage of that to show really provocative work. It’s almost like couture fashion: they’re not necessarily presenting what they think collectors are going to pick, they’re presenting what they want their gallery to stand for.
Say what?!?! This is a real crappy attitude for a fair director. As a gallerist, I will bet you lunch that the artwork a gallery takes to a fair is what they want to sell. Selling art at a fair is how we pay those un-gawdly expenses we are charged to have the privilege to exhibit.
Fairs are all about the commercial side of the arts. It’s about retail sales! That’s why there are price tags on each and every piece of art on display. Overlooking the needs and goals of the gallery and the artists they represent spells doom for the current fair model.
This is the problem we (art fair exhibitors) have found: the fair directors are most interested in getting galleries to fork out the thousands of dollars for a booth, and to get people to pay the $15 to attend the fair. Both of which put money in their pocket not the galleries’ or artists’. They show little or no interest (or understanding) in actually promoting the galleries, the artists or the art work. Getting school groups into the fair (and artificially inflating attendance figures) does not ultimately help an artist or a gallery.
If the art is not sold, everyone loses: The artists suffer. The galleries suffer. And, the fairs ultimately suffer.
Art Fairs were once the bread and butter of galleries and the artists they represented. Now the fairs have become showcases for the fair directors and the large galleries who can afford to use them as expensive calling cards. If interest is no longer in getting buyers to the fairs, galleries will no longer attend, and the fairs will not return.
With that said, Laura and I are excited about exhibiting at the Affordable Art Fair in NYC this June. Our research indicated the AAF crowds are the "buying types". That’s right up our alley.