I recently dipped my toe in the international art fair environment for the first time by attending the American franchises of Art Basel and Frieze.
To provide brief context, the history of art fairs is generally traced back to the advent of medieval trade fairs, such as the Champagne fairs (fitting), that peaked in the 12th century. Fast forward to the 20th century and the advent of the modern art fair, where trade fair logic collides with centuries of institutionally engrained patterns of elitist art consumption. Some of the earliest art fairs were created in smaller cities in an attempt to maintain relevance in an increasingly globalized art world that aggregated around global cities. Rudolf Zwirner for instance—father of mega-gallerist David Zwirner—founded Art Cologne in 1967 to attract European buyers. In 1970, the Swiss town of Basel hosted its own fair, its first step to becoming an internationally recognized brand. Nowadays, art fairs are an international phenomenon that punctuates the art world calendar. Drifting from its local origins, Art Basel opened its first Miami edition in 2002. Frieze art fair, launched in 2003, opened its first international edition in New York in 2012. Others, like the Armory Show (est. 1913) and The European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF) have so far remained faithful to their respective New York and Maastricht locations. Looking specifically at contemporary editions of Frieze and Basel, it’s interesting to highlight that since 2009 Art Basel has been owned by Swiss marketing company MCH and, since 2016, Frieze has been owned by Endeavor, a “media and entertainment” agency that also owns companies such as UFC and OpenBet. Acknowledging the corporate underpinnings of art fairs is a good way to remember that they are simply, well… fairs.
The definitions of “fair” in Merriam Webster are the following: a “gathering of buyers and sellers at a particular place and time for trade” and “a competitive exhibition usually with accompanying entertainment and amusement.” These really hit the nail on the head—art fairs are a competition of which city can provide enough divertissement to secure a step on the trajectory of the art market’s flutterings.
I will refer to the “art world” as the unified art market mass that completes its annual cycles around the globe. Once you hop on to the carousel, your entire worldview is distorted. Suddenly, everybody knows everybody—or at least pretends to. Or perhaps everything is simply spinning so fast and in such a closed circuit that everybody is conglomerated by sheer centripetal force.
Each spectacle takes place locally, and the art world has its own psychogeography for every city it stops by. Well-treaded “desire paths” have become tradition, so much so that they also attract intrigued onlookers. Before the fairs, articles reveal to readers at which art world watering holes they are most likely to sight the biggest sharks: try catching Larry Gagosian at Joe’s Stone Crab for example. But the true euphoria happens at the events: parties, afterparties, and boozy brunches. The entire scene creates a sense of exclusivity, with attendees obtaining VIP status (I’m pretty sure the guest rankings go from VIP to VVVIP) in order to feed into a reward system of self-importance.
The next day, the same VIPs might be caught at the fairs, wearing their best luxury brands and sunglasses, as consistently reported by Kenny Schachter, to prove their hungover state or to avoid seeing the art at all costs—who knows. A personal favorite was a green leather handbag in Miami ornate with a SpongeBob meme that read “Ciao Peasants” in a tone that was just not ironic enough. A bit of eavesdropping will reveal recurring conversation topics: from the previous evening’s shenanigans to artwork sales and celebrity sightings.
Disdain aside, the collective experience of the city through these tinted glass lenses is an important aspect of the community building that is used to forge artist-gallery-client relationships. Similarly, gathering the art world ecosystem into one place to meet and exchange in real life, going back to the original idea of the trade fair, is not completely ridiculous. The hubbub of the main events, in this case Art Basel and Frieze L.A., attracts satellite fairs, some of which have become destinations in their own right such as New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) in Miami and Felix Art Fair in L.A., and other events which haven’t necessarily gained as much in reputation but benefit from the traffic nonetheless.
The fairs themselves are industrial affairs. An infinite maze of booths structured in alleys leading to the mega galleries in the center. Reviews, even by experts, have been rather grim in the past year, criticizing uninspired and superficial art. It’s true that after a couple of booths, a lot of the art starts to look the same: colorful, vaguely expressive figurative paintings, some AbEx and AbEx lookalikes, a good amount of textile-based works, and a generous dose of humorous sculptures. Inevitably though, the sheer quantity of artworks and trend-driven repetition is bound to create a feeling of lassitude, even for die-hard art lovers, especially under the neon lights of the exhibition center. It’s worth reiterating that an art fair is more of a trade show than a series of curated exhibitions. What we see is what the galleries think will sell, and so far they’ve been right. Despite tepid reviews and an even cooler economic climate, booths keep selling out—often before the fair even starts—and prices are consistently high.
Both Miami and L.A. had their instagrammable star artworks. MSCHF’s ATM Leaderboard at Perrotin’s Art Basel booth and Jeffrey Dalessandro’s work at “A Hug from the Art World” at Felix Art Fair. The latter was clever in grabbing the attention of key tastemakers—how could Jerry Saltz not repost his and Roberta Smith’s miniature sculpture lookalike? These two pieces were self-referential to the extent that they played with and poked fun at accepted art world tropes: excessively large bank accounts and home-grown celebrities. Jeffrey Dalessandro’s work in particular appealed to the specific satisfaction of recognizing people, bonus points if you actually knew them. Traditional notions of taste still govern enough that the most instagrammed works are not the ones that sell for the most money. Mega Galleries still lead the way in this regard. In Miami, Pace sold Agnes Martin’s Untitled #14 for $7 million while Hauser & Wirth fetched the same price for Philip Guston’s Studio in Small Town. In L.A. Hauser & Wirth sold Mark Bradford’s Shall Rest in Honor There for $3.5 million.
The excessive displays of glamor coupled with inflated sale prices leave a bitter aftertaste in two of the American cities most affected by the housing crisis. With L.A. ranking as the second city with the most homelessness in the U.S.A. and Miami’s ever-increasing real estate prices driving locals away, the art world’s peacocking borders on vulgarity. Art Basel Miami in particular ostentatiously transforms South Beach into its personal playground. The boardwalk is lit with strobes from the private parties held in adjoining hotels, while access to the beach is intermittently surveyed by bouncers guarding the entrance to luxury branded tents. Meanwhile, in the main fair, only three of the 269 galleries were Miami-based. Certainly, the fair has redynamised the local art scene and pumps some money back into the city. However, given that the fairgoers’ circuit hops from one high-end restaurant to the next, we might wonder whether the distribution of this money simply further entrenches inequalities and accelerates gentrification. From my experience, Frieze L.A. is more discrete. The parties happen behind closed doors and are more diluted in the city, though this may be due to this year’s move to the Santa Monica Airport location. Even if it’s less in your face, the overall impression of inequality subsists.
So what do we make of these observations? Art fairs are portrayed as glamorous reunions, filled with A-listers, money, and high fashion—all of this is true. If we dissipate the art world aura though, they are also very successful marketing and customer loyalty events. The fairs’ cultural legitimacy and branded VIP events are the perfect luxury soup for high net-worth individuals. As a result, the glitterati flock in masses to play out an aspirational lifestyle that, in itself, contributes to perpetuating desirability around the events. As another cycle of fairs begins, the art world—or the luxury world—keeps on turning, bringing along its jaded attendees and brand partnerships who become increasingly close to one another and out of touch with their immediate environment.
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