It’s Time to Reinvent the Art Fair
People want to be excited about art. And yet, today, in all areas of the art world, we face an urgent need to find new ways to communicate that excitement to a larger, growing audience for art.
Social media and new technologies have enabled a vast public to connect with art and artists and to be excited, transformed, and inspired. Look, for example, at the success of Instagram in the art world and the increasing use of virtual reality, as well as numerous other digital platforms that have expanded the audience for art.
Art fairs have emerged almost simultaneously as the most powerful platform for galleries to connect face to face with this expanded audience. The success of the art fair sales platform—proven by decreasing attendance at galleries themselves and bolstered by the low barriers they facilitate for those galleries to enter new markets—fuels a continual demand from galleries to participate. The number of international fairs now exceeds 250 worldwide, up from a handful 15 years ago.
Art fairs represent as much as one quarter of total annual art sales worldwide—the figure is slightly over $13 billion annually. And fairs account for over 40 percent of most galleries’ annual revenue. Total art fair attendance numbers are in the millions and will only increase. If we accept that fairs are a kind of new cultural institution, cultural institutions of the future, say, then we should ask ourselves: What do we want these new cultural institutions to look like and how can they serve this diverse and growing audience?
As art fairs have grown in number, size, and stature they have also, paradoxically, become less accessible, inclusive, and welcoming. Some fairs have elected to curtail public days and opening hours and reduced public programs.
Does this trend make for a more profitable and sustainable fair model or is it a short-sighted development, cutting-off popular life-energy and eliminating an essential ingredient of a great fair? I believe there is a vast and significantly untapped popular interest in the world of art that could also prove to be the force behind a new chapter in fair evolution.
The standard model for art fairs is understandably designed to service dedicated buyers. But it might have failed to appreciate its potential to educate and embrace future collectors and others clamoring for an “art experience.” It is doing a disservice to the art industry if the model reduces art to a mere financial asset for multi-millionaires looking for an outlet for travel and social status. People are always hungry for something spectacular. While they will long consume ordinary meals, they hunger to attend a dramatic feast. What has become rote can be reinvented.
The art fair model is structured around the logic of real estate. Fairs today are optimized for floor space and designed to foster sales. At best, the floor plans are similar to shopping malls, taking you briskly from one store to the next. At worst, they are like casinos, a seemingly endless and confusing mirage of repetition and distraction. This logic is an extension of the interest of the exhibitor who is the paying tenant of the fair organizer. But efficiency and linear logic produce homogenized experiences where the same exhibitors present the same artists to the same buyers. The status quo is risk averse and risk aversion kills innovation. It is also boring. Today’s art fair model is like a glider floating slowly to the ground. To fly further a new updraft must be found.
The greatest markets in the world are not made at a mall, no matter how ornate, pedestrian friendly, hotel accessible, and parking convenient the venue. Great markets for art have always been in diverse and sophisticated urban centers that offer a depth and authenticity of experience—history, culture, and excitement. That’s why, historically speaking, franchised fairs in regional locations are anomalous.
Art fairs thrive when tied to community and experience. They thrive when visitors are encouraged to have a sense of place, to go on a journey, have an adventure and be part of a memorable experience. And yet most fairs are designed from the outside in, abandoning visitors at the edge of a grid with nothing but a map. With this in mind, we completely redesigned the floor plan for The Armory Show in 2017, from the inside out, creating an inclusive, welcoming and accessible “town square” for art at the center of the fair with the aisles radiating out from there. To place this kind of experience at the center of a fair, around which the booths are built and not the other way around, acted like a magnet for visitors to enjoy and experience, to share and to start a conversation.
We also engaged the building, its history and personality, as a canvas from which to create unique experiences, inviting local artists to create artworks specifically for the venue. We removed walls and opened the floor plan to allow for texture and variety as well as a greater sense of light, allowing views of the Hudson River to permeate the exhibition space. The goal was to create a distinctive sense of place. Fairs need to have a personality and identity to remain engaging and relevant. It’s my view that every fair, including The Armory Show, needs to meet this challenge.
Today, the experiences that fairs create are the real product and this will only continue in the future as this new audience, who are more accustomed to the idea of sharing than owning, grows. Maybe this is why art fairs are exploring the opportunities of virtual reality. We are in the content business, as art fair producers, and we must embrace that. This is probably why old-school content producers like me, former journalists and art critics, have adapted so well to the evolving art fair business model. An essential part of producing the art fair experience is, of course, facilitating the buying and selling of art, as it must be. But so is creating a place for the exchange of ideas and experiences.
The art fair as an institution of the future will be a marketplace, but also a civic center, guiding visitors on an experience that should be both intimate and awe-inspiring. It is an extraordinary moment in the art world. Never before have so many different areas of the economy and society come together to advance art as a primary vehicle of communication and ideas. In my mind it is completely possible for fairs to function as a successful marketplace for artists and galleries but also take on a bigger, broader role as cultural institutions of the future. The audience is already engaged and asking for it—the challenge is there for us to meet.
Benjamin Genocchio is the Executive Director of The Armory Show.