The business of art fairs

May 7, 2012

If you’ve ever been to Randall’s Island before this weekend, chances are it was to see Cirque du Soleil — the transnational phenomenon which has taken an venerable yet largely impecunious centuries-old tradition, and turned it into one of the greatest money-spinners imaginable. Cirque du Soleil is, above all else, a branding triumph: it’s transformed circus acts into something which can be proudly sponsored by Infiniti and SunLife Financial.

Go to Randall’s Island right now, however, and while you might describe what you see as a circus, you won’t find any bags of popcorn or Chinese contortionists: instead, there’s 280,000 square feet of astonishingly trendy and expensive contemporary art. This is Frieze New York, and it’s has, in a single outing, managed to change the art world’s conception of what an art fair can and should be.

Jerry Saltz, for one, was impressed:

Making my way into the immense white tent that houses the fair, I was shocked. The spaces are wide-open, well lit, generously proportioned, accommodating, sensual. Ceilings soar; a gentle curve in the tent stops vertigo. “How could an art fair feel good?” I wondered.

And that was before the way that the fair coddles the people who go there: Frieze has persuaded some great restaurants to serve food, it has a beer garden, a high-end coffee bar, and lots of VIP spaces and semi-VIP spaces (hello, Soho House) where the rich and self-important can feel rich and self-important. Plus, when the weather cooperates, as it did this weekend, you can wander along the waterline, check out the public-art projects outdoors, and generally enjoy the kind of pleasant day out which no visitor to the Armory Show has had in years.

All of this does come at a price, however — at least if you’re not a VIP. (Art fairs are the ne plus ultra of “free for those who can afford it, very expensive for those who can’t”.) Frieze is setting a new bar, in terms of admission, of $40 — plus another $20 if you want to drive there and park . (There’s no public transportation, but Frieze does provide shuttles from Manhattan.)

Before the fair opened, a lot of people wondered whether New Yorkers would make the schlep; the answer is that, it turns out, Randall’s Island is actually easier to get to than Venice or Basel or Miami. Today, Frieze announced that all Sunday tickets had been sold: “The number of tickets on sale is not very limited,” spokeswoman Belinda Bowring told me, “but we do cap the number so that the tent does not get too crowded – we have had feedback from galleries and they do not like the fair to be too crowded and therefore we try to find an optimum number.” Clearly the $40 price tag wasn’t enough to put off thousands of visitors. But equally clearly, this is not a fair which makes its money from entrance fees: the tent alone cost $1.5 million.

In many ways the most honest and important part of Saltz’s Frieze review comes in the comments section, where Saltz admits that “IF I DID have to pay $40.00 to go to an art fair I would NEVER EVER EVER go”. Saltz’s job is to look at this kind of art, but even he admits that the value of seeing all this work in the same place at the same time is significantly less than $40 — at least if you’re not going to buy anything.

And while Frieze co-founder Matthew Slotover tells the NYT that he is “very much pro-democratization and a larger engagement” with the general public, the fair’s location on a desolate island, and its sky-high entry fee, and even its galleries all mitigate against that. It’s the galleries who asked for — and received — fewer visitors, remember, and on Friday night I met one gallerist who was complaining that while she met some very high-end collectors on Thursday, the Friday crowd had altogether far too many “lookie-loos”.

In the run-up to the fair, Bowring suggested that I might be interested in talking to the lead sponsor, Deutsche Bank, for Felix TV. I was! The Deutsche Bank sponsorship looks and feels exactly the same as the kind of sponsorship that the bank might provide for, say, a Gerhard Richter retrospective at MoMA. But in this case, it’s not a non-profit museum which is the recipient of Deutsche’s largesse; instead, it’s a for-profit art fair, which is dedicated to making money both for its organizers and for its exhibiting galleries. I wanted to ask Deutsche: does the bank think that it is performing the same kind of public service, in sponsoring Frieze, that it does in sponsoring traditional museums? Or is it just trying to market itself to art-loving New Yorkers as a bank which Gets Art?

Sadly, Deutsche Bank never got back to us, so I haven’t yet managed to ask those questions. But the prominence of a major international bank as the lead sponsor of this fair comes as no surprise. It’s just another part of the branding game which has taken over the entire contemporary art world: banks, galleries, artists, curators, art consultants, even collectors all have their own carefully-tended brands, these days, and their prominence within the art world is indistinguishable from the degree to which those branding campaigns have been successful.

Which is why it’s fascinating to me that the imprimatur of high prices is still conferred almost exclusively on those artists with high-profile gallery representation. You’d think that the internet — a medium made for disintermediation — would by now have done a spectacular job of cutting out the middleman and allowing branded artists to sell directly to awed collectors. But that hasn’t happened, and galleries continue to happily introduce big-name collectors to their top artists, comfortable in the knowledge that neither artist nor collector is likely to try to do a deal behind the gallery’s back.

At Frieze, the Gagosian gallery had a stripped down single-artist exhibit of Rudolf Stingel paintings; I’m sure it did very well. But by the same token, if Stingel himself had booked out the exact same booth and exhibited the exact same paintings at the exact same prices, that would have been genuinely shocking, and the organizers would surely have had to deal with a series of extremely upset galleries, just for starters. There are branded artists out there without gallery representation — the Starn brothers are a good example. Given their fame and the number of art fairs every year, it would make perfect sense for them to just send their work from fair to fair, and live on the proceeds. But they don’t, and I’m sure that a large part of the reason is the institutional opposition that any such attempt would run into. Instead, they confine themselves to studio sales, institutional work, and the occasional online special.

The last visual artist to become enormously successful selling his work directly to the public was Thomas Kinkade, who was actually damaged, rather than helped, by the rise of the internet. In the age of Kickstarter and Etsy, one would imagine that there would be a crowded field of artists exploring the possibilities of this new commercial medium, but, it turns out, not so much. The highbrow version of Etsy, Artsy, is all galleries: no artists representing themselves. “We do not currently work with artists directly,” says the Artsy FAQ. “However, should you be represented by a gallery, please have them contact us about partnership opportunities.”

Representing yourself is not a good way to build a strong reputation in the art world: collectors tend to require an institutional imprimatur before they’re willing to believe the evidence of their own eyes. But it does strike me that art fairs like Frieze now have enough institutional imprimatur that if they accept a tightly-curated group of branded artists, people of the stature of Stingel or the Starns, then there probably wouldn’t be any shortage of willing buyers out there. But I’m not holding my breath. Galleries butter Frieze’s bread, and there’s no good reason for Frieze to place that relationship in jeopardy by encouraging artists to disintermediate the galleries.

There’s no shortage of small, artist-run collectives aimed at emerging artists. But just as Kickstarter is emerging as a very powerful platform for established artists, a high-profile art fair could, in theory, allow artists to apply for space just as galleries do. That would be good for artists, and good for collectors. If the fairs don’t let it happen, then they clearly exist to sell collectors to galleries, rather than to sell art to collectors. Remember that, next time you go to one of these things: you might think that the art is the product being sold. But, in fact, it’s you.


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