Photo by Will Lytch
In the midst of every crisis lies a great opportunity. — Albert Einstein
“There are decades where it feels like nothing happens,” a phrase attributed to Lenin goes; “then there are months when decades happen.” As we stack up a planetary health emergency, mass unemployment, global economic insecurity, and political instability against the need to continue to make, view, promote, talk, write about, and trade art, several urgent questions need answering. Here’s one for art professionals: Do we still need art fairs?
In the age of the coronavirus pandemic—which has put the proverbial match to a global tinderbox of economic and racial disparities and resulted in worldwide social unrest—it bears asking if art fairs, the art industry’s preferred sales platform, have finally outlasted their usefulness.
A Brief History of Art Fairs
Art fairs are, of course, nothing new. Despite the effort put into dressing up most of the globe’s almost 300 annual art trade gatherings in up-to-date garb, their history stretches back to the late nineteenth century. The first art fair can be said to have been the Paris Salon des Refusés of 1863. A show featuring the work of contemporary artists who had been rejected by the official French Academy — the organizers rejected artworks which did not hew to the orthodoxies of Academic art — the first Salon des Refusés is rightly remembered as a revolutionary gathering. It bears noting today that this legendary event was, first and foremost, a response to a cultural and economic crisis. Not only was the public clamoring for a showcase for more radical art in late nineteenth-century France, the ensuing exhibition was also about putting muchneeded francs into the pockets of the avant-garde.
The International Exhibition of Modern Art, aka the 1913 Armory Show, was a similarly historic event. Held in New York, the exhibition featured loads of American artists but is best remembered for introducing Europeans Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp, among others, to the U.S. Despite Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) (1912) being ridiculed by one outraged critic as an “explosion in a shingle factory,” the exhibition proved a watershed. It occasioned a tectonic shift in taste and helped create the modern art market. The press reviled the experimental objects on view, but the crowds and collectors took notice. Among its storied modern-day legacy: Matisse’s Blue Nude (1907) currently hangs at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and his The Red Studio (1911) at the Museum of Modern Art. Duchamp’s controversial Nude, for its part, is now enjoyed by millions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
More than fifty years and two world wars later, a third important art showcase took place in postwar Germany. Like the 1863 Salon des Refusés and the 1913 Armory Show, Art Cologne was also born of a radical exhibition experiment. Founded in 1967 by dealers Rudolf Zwirner (father of current megadealer David Zwirner) and Hein Stünke, the Kölner Kunstmarkt, as Art Cologne was initially known, was the first fair organized by and for commercial galleries.
Like its artist-led predecessors, it was also developed in response to an artistic and commercial crisis. In the late 1960s, the market for “radikal kunst” had grown stagnant in Europe, especially in West Germany. Inspired by documenta 2, the founders of what is now considered the first modern art fair formulated a brazenly commercial model to attract new clients. They sought to devise an exhibition format that would substantially demystify art objects and art purchases. By doing so, the logic went, they would convert potential buyers put off by the snobbery of traditional galleries into new collectors that would snap up cool contemporary artworks the way millions did convertibles, washing machines, and hi-fi sets.
The gamble paid off. In Rudolf Zwirner’s words: “The word fair alone brought art closer to the vegetable market than to the museum.” Arranged as a series of booths or mini-stores inside a larger architectural structure, the first Art Cologne presented its wares with its prices displayed publicly, an unthinkable idea just a few years earlier. According to art historian Günter Herzog, the fair’s simple but effective innovations allowed 15,000 visitors to comprehend that they could “buy things that could until then only be seen at exhibitions and in museums.” This realization, in turn, brought art and commerce closer in line with larger shifts inaugurated by postwar consumer societies. If, per Andy Warhol’s famous dictum, the best kind of art was business art, then Zwirner and Stünke had struck art fair gold — they had invented the trade fair equivalent of endless multi-gallery exhibitions of Campbell’s Soup Can paintings.
Fast-forward fifty-three years. In that time, contemporary art has gone from tough sell to hot-and-in-demand, with astronomical prices to match. Where art was once innocently commercialized, its current level of monetization has essentially body snatched much of its symbolic value. Until recently the world’s top art fairs—Art Basel, Art Basel Miami, Art Basel Hong Kong, Frieze London, Frieze New York, Art Dubai—were the unabashed stomping grounds of the global 1%. According to economist Benjamin Mandel, the world’s biggest art fairs currently cater to an art market that constitutes a parallel economy. Mandel, who once worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, argues that most art fairs today are geared to a planetary overclass: a subset of global Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (U.H.N.W.I.s) for whom art serves as both ultimate positional trophy and asset class. These individuals have, in turn, remade contemporary art in their image: art as an investment vehicle, with fundamentally conservative and instrumentalized aesthetics thrown in.
In a 2012 New York Times article titled How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality, business journalist Adam Davidson put the issue of the evolving financialization of art in a nutshell. “The art market,” he declared, “is a proxy for the fate of the superrich themselves… Investors who believe that incomes and wealth will return to a more equitable state should ignore art and put their money into investments that grow alongside the overall economy, like telecoms and steel. For those who believe that the very, very rich will continue to grow at a pace that outstrips the rest of us, it seems like there’s no better investment than art.”
But what about those, like Rudolf Zwirner, who no longer believe in art as an investment? Besides bemoaning the rampant monetization of art and the fact that it has become impossible to look at certain art without seeing dollar signs first, the veteran Zwirner has an unequivocal message for galleries around the world. “Art fairs are extremely dangerous and expensive,” he has said, “I invented the art fair but now I have to tell galleries: Find another way. Find something to do in your gallery.”
The (Possible) Fix:
The future of art fairs, and visual art in general, depends on how the fair exhibition model responds to the challenges of income inequality, political instability, and state violence, all of which have been exacerbated by the current global health crisis. As the world changes, art must change with it. That means art fairs, too. The sooner art fairs devise a display and business model based on a set of values inimical to the ongoing financialization of art — which turns cultural objects into an asset class and epitomizes the most basic of the globe’s fundamental inequities — the sooner it is able to credibly address the myriad crises assailing its own trade. The future of the art fair is de-centred, socially responsible, sustainable, and based on solidarity. Or it has no future at all.