Artists and Art Fairs: Participation as the Growth of an Audience

If one wishes to be a major player in the commercial gallery world, participation in art fairs is almost mandatory.

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by Jeffrey Grunthaner

The phenomenon of art fairs is here to stay! If one wishes to be a major player in the commercial gallery world, participation in art fairs is almost mandatory. But at what cost? For collectors, art fairs might be viewed as an almost ideal setting for the discovery and purchase of new works by new artists. Ideally, this type of collector would be a tourist, with no real stakes in the spectacle of the fair apart from those works that please him/her enough to purchase. Gallerists, of course, would have a different perspective; and bigger, more established galleries can be expected to look at things differently from small, to middle-size galleries. What’s not generally considered is the role of the artist in art fairs. What should the artists do to make sure their experience at an art fair is worthwhile? Are there any rules of thumb they should adhere to?

Artexpo New York
Artexpo New York

What Artists Should Do at an Art Fair

The artists who are represented by mega-galleries don’t need any advice. Celebrity is a kind of privilege; whether one uses it for good or bad, it’s still a fact that without the art star, contemporary art fairs would have no meaning. But one also has to ask how the independent artists or those working with small to middle-size galleries should comport themselves in the context of an art fair. Agora Gallery's booth at Artexpo New York

For independent artists—that is, artists not affiliated with any gallery, even those who might be independently working at both devoted to their art—the spectacle of an art fair might not seem all too off-putting. After all, art fairs are ideal places for seeing new works or at least seeing what works by one’s favorites artists are considered the most salable. With this, of course, the independent artist should look at art fairs as networking meccas. Even if one wants to treat the occasion more casually, it’s almost certain that an art fair will provide a chance to see an old friend or colleague whom you may not have seen in a while.

For artists working with small- to midsize galleries, options are somewhat different. A decent mid-sized gallery might not even require the artists to be present at the fair. Should the artist choose to go, however, it’s not unlikely that they might need to attend to practical tasks, such as helping to install the work. Especially, for a site-specific piece (or a performative work), an artist can expect to be pretty hands-on in regards to the logistics of the show. Otherwise stated, an artist working with a smaller gallery will be expected to do their job as artists.

The Importance of Attending an Art Fair

So, should artists attend art fairs at all? In light of the now all-too-canonical prestige of conceptual art practices like Alighiero e Boetti’s and Jeff Koons’, it might seem like participation is encouraged if not mandatory. it’s quite possible that the gallery showing your work will be doing so in an art fair in another country. This is sometimes great, and can potentially make your work visible to a wider audience (if you’re not from that country).

Agora Gallery Director Eleni Cocordas and Osvaldo Bacman during Artexpo New York 2018

On the other hand, especially if your small to middle-range gallery cannot afford to budget your plane flight, hotel bill, and the various other expenses incurred by an extended stay in a foreign country, you might be better off not showing up. Does this make you any less of a professional? Yes and now. Again, to the extent that your work is being represented, it is your job to make sure that they’re represented in a way suitable to their best possible reception. At the same time, most artists work with gallerists they can trust: at least enough to show their works in such a way that they can sell. For the independent artist, by contrast, or those who are showing their own work in their own booth, it goes without saying that you need to be there. This goes double for the independent artist who is not looking to be a collector. Participation in art fairs is increasingly an important part of an artist’s career. The syncretic perspective of an art fair provides the perfect vantage point from which to make this decision.

Visiting versus Participating: Tips on What You Should Actually Do

What is the distinction between a visiting and a participating artist in an art fair? Of course, the visitor will have more fun; and it’s entirely probable that the artist who doesn’t attend the fair showing the works will have a generically easier time than the artist who does put in the effort to attend. But this doesn’t mean that art fairs aren’t worth attending. Again, given the ubiquity, almost the normative pervasiveness of art fairs in the contemporary art word, any self-believing artist who has not made it a habit to attend several is probably a mere amateur at their craft.

Visiting

The visiting artist is by nature less obligated than the participating artist. Visitors at an art fair (artists or otherwise) should simply take in the spectacle, enjoying a reacquaintance with old friends as they can. Saying this, it should also be noted that it’s very unlikely that any artist attends an art fair as a disinterested “visitor.” There are always stakes involved: a tacit sense of admiration or displeasure, if not competitiveness. And for all the money art fairs accrue, it’s still the case that they’re reserved only for the hipster contingent of the general populous. Thus, anyone who can have the touristic experience of attending an art fair as a pure visitor should do so by all means.

Visitor admiring kinetic work during ICFF 2017

Participating

Participating artists, by contrast, should anticipate going to work. Especially if your booth requires careful management or overseeing—such as what happens with site-specific works or performances—you’re there for a purpose. Artists have a place in the division of labor; especially the successful ones. Art fairs are one of the contexts where they are, so to speak, “on site.”

Cabell Molina, Fine Arts Initiatives Director, talking to a booth visitor during Artexpo New York 2018

Have you got any good tips or fun experiences to share about art fairs? Let us know in the comments section or email us at blogs@agora-gallery.com!

Would you like to participate in such events? Visit Fine Art Initiatives to discover the opportunities that we present.


Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer and curator based in New York. Articles, reviews, poems, and essays have most recently appeared via Drag City Books, BOMB, American Art Catalogues, Folder, and Hyperallergic. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.

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