Contemporary Art History 101 – The Creation of the Art Fair

Art fairs, they seem to sprout overnight in diverse parts of the world, they are economic models, but what makes their success, what are their challenges, especially in a post-pandemic world? Deep dive into a timely subject when so many art fairs are taking place, this month, in New York, one of the art capitals of the world.

The art fair journey is not new, they have not been invented in recent times, but they have multiplied at a phenomenal pace in recent years. It is a history of expansion, triggered by the globalization of the art world and the art market. From going to a few a year, people started talking about fair fatigue and other issues related to them and right before the pandemic, due to the rising cost of booths, travel and the sustained pace, the model started to be questioned. Let’s go rewind and see how we got to this point.  

The art fair is feeding one giant beast, one with a growing appetite for experience and most importantly art. The past few years haven’t shown a slowdown. On the contrary, fairs are anonymous to a certain extent, it is easier to not be intimidated when you are looking at art with hundreds of others, while the private settings with a door closed that needs to be buzzed and a gallerina welcoming you is definitely a cold shower that needs to overcome for many. But how did we go from a handful of events in post-war Europe to more than 365 recognized art fairs (and we are still counting) and a $60 Billions dollar industry in less than a century?  

Fairs are a one-stop-shop giving collectors and art lovers access to international artists and art. While for galleries, especially emerging ones, the cost economically and the physical burden are taxing and might not be so sustainable after all. Many players are winners in this model, the overall value of art is insane, leading insurers to get big premiums, it gives artists global exposure, high-end brands are sponsoring those events and attracting a new clientele and while galleries are sometimes making up to 50% of their annual revenue at fairs, the other side of the coin isn’t so shiny. Some cities have learned the hard way and new ones are learning from the missteps and failures of others. Where did it all start?  

The first contemporary fair was created in 1967 in Cologne, and this fair, named simply Art Cologne, still stands today despite the fact that some are saying that its best years are behind. It is true that it doesn’t have the buzzing vibe or the light that the Frieze Art Fairs have, or the prestige of Art Basel. Timing and venues are keys, especially for fairs that have started as grassroots ones. Built on the ashes of the international exhibition of the mid to late 19th century, Cologne had many advantages. It is close to Bonn airport which has direct flights from New York. Furthermore, it also had a great music scene, some interesting contemporary art collectors as well as a solid group of art dealers, eager to generate excitement within a limited time.  

It was followed by Art Basel which had a selection process and international galleries, making it even more prestigious. Something else makes Art Basel special, held only once per year, in June, it became the last hurrah of a long fair season before the summer holidays. It was then followed by FIAC in Paris in the 1970s then Art Chicago, ARCO Madrid and TEFAF Maastricht in the 1980s. By the end of the 1980 decade, New York joined, with the Art Show fair similar to TEFAF and then in the early 1990s what would become known as the Armory Show and Unfair one of the first alternative events.  

At the end of the 1980s and despite a crash in 1987, the market was booming again with stock market gain leading to what is seen as the golden age of the art fairs which would ng us back to the other side of the ocean in the UK. 2003 is the year that saw the inception of Frieze art fair, now one of the key players with fairs in London, NYC, LA and Seoul. Asia and the Middle East joined the frenzy between 2008 and 2011. Since then art fairs are global and we start reading about ‘fair fatigue’ and growing concern over the sustainability of the model due to exorbitant fees and how one bad fair could be a hole that would sink the boat. Then the world stopped, COVID hit and The Armory Show & Independent became the last fair before the world shut down like an oyster.  One after one, the plug was pulled on fairs around the world just as the high season would normally be blossoming. Some went online, people organised more local events, and gallery weekends became more popular. For galleries, online was definitely cost-saving and people from across the world could within a few clicks have access to their booth. Online also brought a little bit more transparency with pricing available more often than not. Treats to the traditional model are now emerging from left and right. And the wheel is turning again with fairs being brought back on the calendar. But as we learned in life only one thing is constant in life and it is change. What is the future of art fairs – it is hard to predict even with a crystal ball.  

evlyne Laurin
evlyne Laurin
From Creative Chaos Manager, a term she coined, she expanded her horizons as a Creative Legacy Advisor and Fine Art Appraiser. Her mission is to contribute to the arts and make as many artists succeed and flourish as possible. evlyne has the worst phobia of pigeons, loves the colour orange and sparkling water! Avid traveller and foodie, you can connect with her on LinkedIn or Instagram.