Where is The Art World?
Rule number 17 in New York Magazine’s much discussed rules to making it in the art world urges aspiring art aficionados to “Pack your bags, fly around the world, and hang out with everyone you know from New York.” (In characteristic New York Mag snark, other rules include “Join the establishment. Cling to your street cred” and “Buy the same thing everyone else is buying”). It is true that the art world, like much of the rest of the world, has become global, and one major result of (or contributor to) that phenomenon has been the proliferation of art fairs and biennial exhibitions throughout the world.
What are these events, why go, and who is invited? The short answer is they are the pulse-takers of contemporary art; some are more like professional conventions, other are large scale exhibitions geared towards the public. You go, generally, to see art (and people), and they are open to the public, though not on all days. In more detail then, here is an introduction to the events of the artworld. The long answer is below...
Sometimes referred to as a “vernissage,” an opening is just what it sounds like – the first public (or semi-public) viewing of a new art exhibition. At galleries they are generally open to the public; at museums they are generally not. Don’t expect a crazy party, but also don’t expect to feel out of place. True, many attendees spend most of their time looking at others instead of the art, but many will duck in merely to get a first look at the art on view.
By some estimates there are some 300 biennials every year. To some, beinnials are “a symptom of spectacular event culture” or the “Disneyland” of the art world. But, detractors aside, what are they really? The editors of a recent book on the topic, Elena Filipovic, Marieke van Hal and Solveig Øvstebø, The Biennial Reader (Hatje Cantz, 2010) offer a solid working definition:
“biennial” refers less to a specific periodicity (namely, an art event produced biannually, as its etymology suggests) than to a type or model of large-scale, perennial, international manifestation … Often grandiose in scale, sometimes dispersed across several locations in a city, at times locally embedded through site-specific commissions while being global in ambition, and often involving discursive components such as symposia, extensive publications, or even accompanying journals alongside a group show featuring, for the most part, a panoramic view of a new generation of artists.
In other words, if you go to a biennial, be prepared to trek around the city, and be sure to plan some time for auxillary events. Biennials, like museum exhibitions, are geared toward the public at large so you don't need any special invitation.
Biennials are generally are named by the city they are in (e.g. The Venice Biennale, The Berlin Biennal, The Lyon Biennial), but there are also biennials that change locations with each iteration, for example Manifesta (European Biennial of Contemporary Art), which is held in a different European city every two years. The mother of all biennials is certainly the Venice Biennial (read more on why here.)
Is the documenta a biennial?
Strictly speaking, the documenta, held in the small town of Kassel Germany,is not a biennial, since it occurs every five years. It is, however, very similar to most biennials in that it has a global focus and showcases important developments in contemporary art. It is also an exhibition on which many current biennials are based. Although the Venice Biennial is the oldest art biennial, it is structured on a national model – each nation has a pavilion. The documenta, which was first staged during the Cold War in West Germany in 1955, was a curated exhibition of modern art. Most other biennials are curated in a similar way today, oftentimes around a loose theme (some recent examples include “A terrible beauty is born” [Lyon 2012]; and “Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done?” [the themes, not the title, of the 2007 documenta]).
Art writer Sarah Thornton once said “It’s June, so I must be in Basel.” Basel is home to arguably the most important art fair for modern and contemporary art (though not the oldest currently running art fair; this distinction goes to Art Cologne, founded in 1967), and it occurs every year in June. The organizers of Art Basel also stage Art Basel in Miami Beach (December) and Art Basel in Hong Kong (May).
Art fairs are a chance to see a large amount of art, most of it for sale, in one location at once. Peter Schjeldahl has called museums “home depots for the soul,” but I think this analogy could work just as well for art fairs. Fairs like Basel (and The Armory Show in New York in March, Frieze Art Fair in London in October, and countless others) are generally highly competitive for galleries to get into; galleries apply months in advance and begin planning and designing their booths, arranging the logistics of shipping works - often fresh from artists’ studios – and coordinating their outreach strategy months in advance. The time leading up to an art fair can be incredibly hectic, but when the curtain goes up the results can be astounding. Art Basel generally has some 300 galleries, 2,500 artists and 65,000 attendees.
If you go, be sure to scope out all the satellite fairs (e.g. NADA, Scope, Volta, Liste), many of which are excellent and showcase smaller (but well respected) galleries. It’s best to plan in advance – hotels fill up quickly, especially in Basel. You might also want to get an overview of the fair in advance of attending so that you can quickly locate the works you’d like to see in person. Buying and reserving works in advance is a relatively common practice, so keep an eye out for online previews (for example Artsy’s Armory Show or Art Basel previews). Art fairs are generally ticketed events and you can usually pre-purchase your tickets online on the art fair's website.