Marketing Mondays: You Want to Be in an Art Fair?

If you follow this blog you know that I have been covering the Miami art fairs every December for the past six years. I also write, in a much less exhaustive way, about the fairs in New York during Armory Week in March.

I like art fairs, both as a visitor to them and as an artist whose work is sometimes shown in them. Looking at the experience from both sides, I can say that while you might think there are only advantages to showing, that’s not always the case. Let's consider some pros and cons.

 View of the Scope Art Fair in Miami, 2010

Yippee, You’re Getting Taken to a Fair
Unless you have a particularly generous dealer, your work is going to the fair. You will have to get there on your own and pay your own way. For that reason, many artists whose work is at the fair don't get there themselves.

. Most fairs are international, so a lot of people see your work—people who might not see it otherwise. This is particularly true if you show in a gallery located in a small city. The smaller galleries know this too, which is why they submit to the time, energy and expense of applying to and possibly participating in a fair
. Collectors from around the world see, and might acquire, your work
. Curators see your work in an international context
. Dealers see it too. Some attend specifically to scout out new talent for their galleries. Among exhibiting dealers, arrangements are often brokered. Neighboring exhibitors get to talking and before you know it, an artist from Gallery Y is scheduled to show at Gallery Z, and vice versa
. When your work is taken regularly to the fairs, collectors, curators and dealers—all of whom make the rounds years after year—keep an eye out for artists whose work they have seen and liked. You may not be aware of it, but someone may be following your work

. Will the gallery feature your work with fabulous sight lines and lots of space around it, or will it be relegated to a small corner over by the closet? You don’t want to get there only to find that you’re in group exhibition with the packing materials
. Your gallery has to pick its fair carefully. It’s not easy to get into the top fairs, so some dealers will settle for less than the best. There is a hierarchy, and crummy fairs drag even the best galleries and artists down; the gallery can end up looking bad and so can you
. In a good fair it’s hard to stand out because there’s a lot of good work vying for a viewer's attention
. Because it’s hard to stand out, your work may not engender interest on the part of fairgoers—never mind selling, just getting noticed. And if your work is overlooked, a dealer may end up feeling less than enthusiastic about continuing to work with you
. Comparisons are made: Which galleries had the best booths, which artists sold well, whose work sold for the lowest (or highest) prices, whose work has flown out of the booth, whose hasn’t sold at all?  
. If you decide to go, the trip can be costly. In Miami, for instance, the hotels jack up their prices during fair week and the venues are all over the map, which means a lot of travel in free shuttles (which are unreliable) in city buses (which don't go to all the places you need to go) and in taxis (which are expensive as you cross back and forth over the causeways separating Miami Beach from Miami proper). In New York City, hotel rooms are always costly, though public transportation is reliable and convenient (usually). 
Do a Little Homework
If you can, go visit a few art fairs. Find a cheap flight. Crash with a friend, or share a low-cost hotel room with a couple of buddies. (There are a few hostels in Manhattan, believe it or not, and rooms can be very cheap, but be prepared to relax your standards for privacy and cleanliness. Google "Hostels, New York City" for venues in Chelsea and Midtown.) Eat at the least expensive restaurants and avoid the pricy drinks.

Make  the rounds of the fairs to see what they’re like. There's a hierarchy of venues within each event (what you see and what you hear from other people are good indicators), get a sense of who’s showing with whom. See what the artist-run fairs look like. Talk with people. Lunch is the great leveler, particularly when you share tables or benches at the various venues. You rub elbows with collectors—give them your card—and they get to meet someone who could be, might be, just may be the next big star in the art world. In Miami, go visit the private collections (Rubell, Margulies, Cisneros Fontanals); this is work that doesn't go over the sofa, and entry is typically free. Find or gather a group for dinner. In other words, reconnoiter but have fun. Interesting connections can happen when people are relaxed.

But it doesn't have to be Basel/Miami in December or Armory Week in New York City. There are plenty of art fairs around the country: The Affordable Art Fair in Los Angeles as well as Manhattan a couple of times a year;  Art Chicago and its satellite fairs; Art Santa Fe; The SOFA shows in various cities. There are plenty of international fairs, too. Click here for a list. All of them will give you a sense of where you, or you and your dealer, wish to be involved, what to consider, and what to expect. 

Wonder why I'm thinking about art fairs now? Because I just reserved for Miami in December. I've got my second annual Send-Me-to-Miami campaign coming up. And on Wednesday I'll have an offer you can't refuse.


Betsy Grant said...

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Anonymous said...

Once again, thanks for an excellent primer that should be on every serious participants' eventual "must know" list of topics. For a more advanced course: try and look up an old art school chum insider acquaintance (think hard) in the Fair city that best fits your schedule/budget and who might just be between boy/girlfriends or has a partner who could care less about going again and might be willing to have you be their neutral-out-of town escort...a priceless education can be had at the VIP end of things (actually more accessible during the frenzy of opening night)...and if you have a great backstory from having lived a "real" life out in the boonies (not NY or LA), don't worry, you'll be able to hold up your end of the chatter around the unlimited bar and $$$$ comp food tables at the parties every night. Well worth covering a few cab rides and treating your friend to something better than a the cheapest dinners...In NY during Armory week, you'll need the week to see 'em all + the goodies on your list too, so do the escort education piece opening night and the next day to get the full flavor and then see where it might lead...

harold hollingsworth said...

I like your perspective on the art fairs, myself, I find them very depressing. I think I approach art fairs much the way I approached music fairs like CMJ or South By Southwest, not the best venues for seeing artists or their work. I got involved with art on another plane as I must have with sound. I refuse to attend them, art basel, art jupiter, any of them. It kills the work, the overwhelming numbers, the way the artwork is hung, crammed, both humans and works. If this is how we "make it", no thank you. I find the galleries, I fly to them, be it in LA, NYC, Berlin, Cincinnati, wherever, I make the effort to see the works in the place that gives them space to do what the artist intended. If we focus on the money aspect, and I know it's a part of the process, then it becomes cheap. The art fairs look and feel cheap. Call me old fashioned if you will, but I need the solitude, the open room, the big walls, not a false wall in a hotel bedroom conversion like at aqua miami, or art jupiter. What are we doing, prostitution? If so, count me out, I have done very well outside of it, and will continue to do so. Pick your route, and pick it wisely, cause it will reflect back, and you may not like the scars and wrinkles from it! said...

OK..this is going to sound really dumb but I am not sure I have figured this out. Who is the art fair for? Is it for private collectors to have the opportunity and convenience to buy from many dealers in one location? Or is it for dealers to see what are dealers are dealing? or is it for artists hoping to find dealers? And then how does someone determine whether the art fair is a success?

Joanne Mattera said...


The art fair is set up for dealers to sell art. The buyers may be wealthy collectors who jet or yacht in to browse and buy, or for wealthy collectors who have already purchased a work, which the gallery brings and installs anyway so the collector can say, "I got it at Basel Miami," or for emerging wealth collecors who go to browse and figure out which dealers they want to develop a relationship with. And for collectors of somewhat more modest means.

There's a hierarchy of art fairs, so this scenario plays out more modestly with more modest fairs, so that established but less wealthy galleries may show and sell their work to collectors of relatively more modest means.

The fairs give visibility to even small galleries.

Fairs not for artists in the way they are for collectors. But since it is artists' work that is being sold, they can be of benefit to us. And, in the ways I noted I the post, they can be used to our advantage.

Christine said...

I'm catching up with my blog reading!
Thanks, as always for your informative post. I am excited because Anelle Gandelman ( taken on my work and will be taking it to AAF Manhattan this Fall. I have heard good things about it, and am hoping my work does not end up being in "a group show with the packing materials"...though I trust Anelle's judgement/hanging etc. What I always respect most about your posts, is the evenhandedness with which you approach each topic, putting forth pros and cons so each reader can form his/her own opinion.
Will be contributing to send you to Miami. It's almost a year now since I started following your blog...which convinced me to go to THE encaustic conference(amazing) and has been irreplaceable re infoinsight provided on Marketing Mondays (never wanted to do a book of those??). Thank you.

Donna Dodson said...

I've been to ADAA in NYC, the Toronto Art Fair and Art Basel in Switzerland... not sure what to make of the art fairs, versus seeing art in a gallery or museum setting. The shopping and people watching aspects of the event are enjoyable and when it's quiet, oftentimes dealers sit at the booths in person, and it's possible to chat them up. It seems worth it to try and wrap one's head around the business aspects of art making and selling.