Art Market

Can New York Have Too Many Art Fairs?

Josie Thaddeus-Johns
May 11, 2022 4:00PM

Exterior view of TEFAF New York 2022 at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo by David Benthal. Courtesy of TEFAF.

In a packed art-world calendar, when several events line up at one moment, they arrive like a cosmic blessing. Such a week just passed us, with TEFAF, NADA, Independent, and Future Fair all opening nearly concurrently last week in New York, along with the spring auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, and coordinated exhibitions at Performance Space and the Queens Museum, among others.

“The stars were all aligned,” said Independent’s Elizabeth Dee, who is among the founding organizers of New York Art Week. “It’s really an association of organizations across the for-profit and nonprofit community in New York, exemplifying the depth of both sides.”

Exterior view of NADA New York 2022 at Pier 36. Courtesy of NADA.


But that’s not all. On May 18th, Frieze New York will also arrive in the city, with 1-54 New York, The Photography Show presented by AIPAD, and VOLTA New York opening in the days that follow. That leaves just a week for local and jetsetting collectors to recover in between—an uncommonly short time for two major art moments in one place. Plus, a third fair week will come later in the year, with The Armory Show taking place in September, a time slot it settled into last fall.

As the calendar creates more moments for New York in the spotlight, we might wonder: How many art-world bonanzas can one city host? And even as New York seems to have fully bounced back from the pandemic shockwave, is there a limit to how many art fairs can find success in the city?

Installation view, from left to right, of TERN (Nassau, The Bahamas) with works by Cydne Jasmin Coleby and April Bey; and Anne-Laure Lemaitre showing Ivana Štulić at Future Fair 2022. Photo by Keenon Perry. Courtesy of Future Fair.

The figures certainly seem to suggest there is not. According to Independent’s market report from 2021, New York accounted for 90% of the sales made in the U.S., and the country accounted for 44% of global sales, making the city by far the most significant location for the art fairs in the world.

And yet, art fairs across the globe have struggled, as many in-person events have taken time to bounce back. For instance, the 2022 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report found that just 29% of sales were made at art fairs in 2021 (compared to 43% of sales in 2019). But for 2022, the hope seems to be that the returning enthusiasm for in-person events and travel will lead to more sales. “It’s really the first time post-pandemic that the art fairs are really platforming international galleries,” said Rebeca Laliberte from Future Fair, which this year doubled its exhibition space by moving into a new venue, Chelsea Industrial, and expanded from 34 exhibitors to 50, including international galleries like TERN Gallery, Beers London, Cob, and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery.

Installation view at NADA New York 2022. Courtesy of NADA.

One particular challenge for fairs and galleries in New York is space. With rents back to their pre-pandemic level, the costs of doing business in the city are rising. Indeed, for NADA, back in the city for the first time since 2018, the main factor that held it from returning was the lack of suitable space, said Heather Hubbs, executive director at the fair. “We really only stopped doing the fair in 2018 because we lost our venue,” Hubbs said. “It’s difficult in New York to find space that’s big enough and isn’t going to be exorbitantly expensive to show.” With this latest edition at Pier 36, in the Lower East Side, Hubbs said that she was happy to have the fair within walking distance of galleries that have more recently set up shop in Lower Manhattan.

One of those galleries is Los Angeles’s François Ghebaly, which opened a Lower East Side outpost in May 2021. The gallery skipped the New York Art Week fairs but is showing at Frieze New York, featuring works by Rindon Johnson and Christine Sun Kim, among others. According to Blaize Lehane, partner at François Ghebaly, art fairs in New York offer an important opportunity for dealers to show artists who are new to the gallery. “If your gallery has programming for the next two years, how are you supposed to start?” he said. “That’s what’s kind of exciting about having a local fair in New York. You can offer things quickly.”

Rafael Delacruz, Untitled (In My City), 2021. Courtesy of the artist, Reyes | Finn, and Independent New York.

For galleries based elsewhere, art fairs in New York also provide a vital sense of connection and stability, said Bridget Finn, co-founder of Detroit’s Reyes | Finn. The gallery’s great run of sales at Independent in 2020, just before the lockdowns hit, was one of the key contributing factors to the gallery staying afloat during the pandemic. “It really kept the business strong,” she said. At Independent this year, Reyes | Finn exhibited its artists’ post-pandemic work, “showing the evolution of people’s practices during this time,” Finn said. By the end of the fair, she confirmed that the booth had sold well, including a new work from Nick Doyle going for $25,000 to $30,000, and five paintings from Rafael Delacruz, which sold for between $7,000 to $10,000 each.

According to Finn, who spent 13 years in New York, the city’s collectors have a particular eye for what they want. “In New York, it’s just amazing because collectors know so much about artists that they’re interested in,” she said. “They can look at a lot of work and really decipher what’s appealing to them. They’re really used to taking it in.”

Installation view of Galerie Hubert Winter’s booth at Independent New York 2022. Courtesy of Galerie Hubert Winter and Independent New York.

For some, like Galerie Hubert Winter, traveling to Independent is the outcome of years of hard work, that is only just paying off after the delays of the pandemic. Though the gallery has always had a historic connection to the city through its New York–based artists (Lawrence Weiner, Fred Sandback, and Alfredo Jaar, to name a few), 2022 is the gallery’s first time hosting a fair booth here—showing Birgit Jürgenssen and the young photographer Jojo Gronostay.

“From a personal point of view, I’m a huge fan of New York and the energy and the spirit here,” said Natascha Burger, the gallery’s senior director, who had made showing at Independent a goal for the past few years. “I always wanted to do it, because this is something completely different in its concept and context,” she said. For her, the focus was on making connections, particularly with American institutional directors and curators—for Jürgenssen’s work in particular, since the Austrian artist’s work is currently on view in “The Milk of Dreams” in Venice. In that sense, Burger said, the fair had been a success, with plenty of high-level connections made, along with a few sales, including an important Jürgenssen piece to a high-profile New York collection.

Installation view of Sean Kelly’s booth at TEFAF New York 2022. Photo by JSP Art Photography. Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York.

But as costs for galleries increase, will all dealers be able to focus on long-term prospects over covering their costs? In particular, the war in Ukraine is leading to increased financial outlay for international fair attendance, and economic forecasts more generally are looking troubling. New York gallerist Sean Kelly explained that he expected this to have little effect on his gallery’s sales. “It’s been my experience over the last four decades that one can have economic adjustments…but truthfully, the art market tends to be a little bit of a haven,” he said.

Kelly’s 10th Avenue and West 36th Street gallery is right around the corner from the Hudson Yards, now a key hub for the art fairs in the city, as Frieze New York takes place at The Shed again this month, and The Armory Show returns to the nearby Javits Center this fall. And yet, he said, the cost and energy of fairs are still worthwhile because of the sheer number of visitors: “It would take you decades to get [that many] people through the gallery,” he said.

Installation view at TEFAF New York 2022. Photo by David Benthal. Courtesy of TEFAF.

Kelly chose to show at both TEFAF and Frieze, enabling two different presentations of work that can reach different collectors. “The thing that I love about TEFAF is that it’s unique in its composition,” he said. “You get a lot of Europeans who travel because they know they’re going to see fabulous things.” Frieze, meanwhile, will be an opportunity to present to the contemporary collecting market, he said: “For Frieze, we’ve done a very contemporary booth, with very young living artists, some of whom we don’t even represent.”

With such variety and demand, it’s hard to see how New York’s charm can ever run out for art fairs. As Kelly reminded me: “Why do you think everybody wants to open galleries in New York? This is the center of the art world, and it will remain so evermore—or in our lifetimes, for sure.”

Josie Thaddeus-Johns
Josie Thaddeus-Johns is an Editor at Artsy.