Art Fair (VR)

We Live in the Era of Art Fairs

Amy Gahyun Lee | December 20, 2018

It was in 2005 that the art magazine Art + Auction described the contemporary art world as “the age of the art fair.” Maybe it was believed so, since they wouldn’t have been able to imagine at that time that art fairs would expand and make such remarkable progress as they have today. There were only a few contemporary art fairs in the beginning; Cologne Art Market, which is well known as the first art fair (established in 1967), and Art Basel (started in 1970) by three Basel gallerists, Ernst Beyeler, Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt. In 1976, FIAC released its first edition at the old Bastille station in Paris, and ARCOmadrid made its debut in 1982 in the mood of the democratic transformation of Spain.

In the early 2000s when people believed that they were living in “the age of the art fair,” there were only 60 to 70 art fairs worldwide. The number grew steeply in the next decade and reached an estimated 260 according to the Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report 2018. No one is sure of the exact number of art fairs that were actually there, as some of the small art fairs, including the artist-run fairs in smaller regions, were not included in this number.

Art Basel 03 | 1972, General Impression. Photo by Kurt Wyss, © Art Basel

We now live in the true sense of “the age of the art fair.” Like that of Expressionism, the art fair has transformed and evolved in every way and the scale of the business of fairs has expanded over the past decades. Galleries, including private dealers, make almost half of their sales these days at art fairs and participate in an average of five fairs each year (Art Basel Art Market Report 2018). Art enthusiasts and professionals fly around the globe and check out fair after fair to experience the very contemporary moment of the present art scene, and gallerists are making it a part of their lives to pack their luggage and travel from city to city to participate in the art fairs. To sum up, the art fair is a symbolic movement that represents the floating, drifting contemporary art industry.

It was common that art fairs generally developed their business in the regionality of their place of birth and the locations’ history. However, over the past few years, mega art fairs have expanded their business beyond geographic boundaries and they have sought out eligible cities across the world, grafting their original fair identities onto the spirit of these new destinations. TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair), an infamous and unmissable art event in Europe became well-known when its eminent, distinguished fine art presentation expanded their business to the United States, stating that the move is “consistent with TEFAF’s overall strategy to build a global brand,” and launched two additional bi-annual art fairs in New York in 2016; TEFAF New York Fall mainly focusing on “fine and decorative arts from antiquity to 1920” and TEFAF New York Spring, with a focus on modern and contemporary art and design.

TEFAF New York Fall 2018. © TEFAF

But business foresight had Art Basel starting art fairs in the U.S. before TEFAF. Already from an early stage, the art fair was well aware of the importance of the fair’s international growth, and with the increase of the number of dealers playing mainly in the American art market, in December 2002, it launched its first edition in Miami Beach with 180 exhibitors. In 2013, the fair expanded to Asia in response to the growth of the Asian art market, acquiring Art HK (established in 2008), and transforming it into the Asian edition of Art Basel. Since 2016, the fair has been working on the Art Basel Cities project and collaborating with various cities around the world. Standing back from the commercial art fair format, the project concentrates more on connecting the international art world with local cultural projects and amplifying the local, and ultimately, international art scene.

There are both bright and dark sides to leading the art fairs’ global expansion. Some may perceive this to be a kind of invasion of the stronger encroaching on the local market, but others, as most market players agree, believe that it revitalizes the local art market through infusing a new atmosphere into the cities. Checking out emerging artists at the satellite art fairs during the main art fair season is a must for fairgoers and the qualified exhibitions presented by galleries and museums in the cities always gratify all art fair travelers coming from all corners of the world.

Art Basel Cities House in Buenos Aires. Photo by Mani Gatto, © Art Basel
Autorreconstrucción: To Insist, to Insist, to Insist..., Abraham Cruzvillegas, Art Basel Miami Beach 2018 © Art Basel

Victoria Siddall, Director of Frieze Fairs stated about the Los Angeles fair (due to be released in February next year) that “Frieze Los Angeles will be at the heart of a dynamic week during which international collectors, curators and artists will come together to engage with and appreciate the city and everything that makes it great.” The fair announced that 70 of the local and international contemporary galleries, which have been selected and honorably invited by a committee of peers, have put their names on the list and are very much ready to meet people coming from all around the world to experience the city of Los Angeles. Frieze Projects, which will create “an artificial New York City within Los Angeles” with various outdoor sculptures by such artists including Lisa Anne Auerbach, Sarah Cain, Catharine Czudej, Karon Davis, Cayetano Ferrer, Hannah Greely, Patrick Jackson and Babara Kruger, Paul McCarthy, Kori Newkirk, and also Tino Sehgal, will be an event which you cannot pass up during the first edition of Frieze Los Angeles. It’s time to make a checklist for Los Angeles. Pack your bags. (https://frieze.com/article/announcing-frieze-projects-los-angeles)

Art fairs have evolved and transformed in a very short period of time. It has certainly achieved quantitative expansion and hasn’t missed qualitative growth in relationships with other figures in the art industry. Being faithful to its original role of being dedicated to the market, it has developed itself as a platform which absorbs the core functions of other institutions in order to interconnect all people including art critics, collectors, enthusiasts, curators and museum directors under one roof, all in one shot. What makes an art fair successful? Qualified galleries are, of course, a must, as are collectors with a keen eye for art. But above all else, a platform that can effectively support the collectors and the galleries are crucial in realizing success for an art fair. Nowadays art fairs provide well-planned education, curation programs, and other entertaining elements to collectors along with their general commercial presentations, inducing the collectors to stay longer at the fairs, establishing good relationships with the galleries, and eventually encouraging them to make purchases. The main role of art fairs is no longer to simply make a venue for galleries for their businesses. It has transformed to “creating a stage” for both the galleries and the collectors so that the fairs can establish a very contemporary scene of art together with them.

It is another important factor for the fairs to read the subtle changes in the contemporary art world. No one in the scene would deny that a new generation of collectors is emerging in the art world over the last couple of years, and that they have brought a new atmosphere through buying and appreciating artworks. At the Talking Galleries Barcelona Symposium in 2015, Art Basel Global Director Marc Spiegler pointed out that “the old model of gallerists is increasingly given short shrift by a new generation of high net worth individuals. The relative lack of metaphorical velvet rope at art fairs in comparison to galleries means that fairs are an attractive proposition, not just for new collectors but for the general public with an interest in contemporary art.”

OMR, Art Basel Miami Beach 2017. © Art Basel

These young collectors who have established the new flow in the art world are very enthusiastic at acquiring information and know the power and the importance of networking. They are very well connected on and off-line to exchange their ideas and experience and to support today’s art industry in their own way by enjoying their new status as art collectors and supporters. They do not really prefer to check individual galleries, and instead, would rather like to be in “the scene” where they can be entertained in one place. They are very pleased with experiencing the art fair itself and enjoy sharing their experience with others. It may be their way of maximizing their feelings of ownership. It is increasingly critical for art fairs to read the needs of the new inflow of young collectors and to provide them with an environment to be immersed in art.


“As far as young art collectors are concerned I believe Frieze is doing its part to educate and create a dialogue between the art world and the public by offering guided tours that unpack the finer points of what is entailed in acquiring contemporary art.”
– Loring Randolph, Frieze Artistic Director of the Americas


Galleries nowadays prefer to be exhibited at art fairs around the world and expand the business to widen their client base like a packman, rather than being confined to one physical space. It shows that the current form for art fairs as a platform to connect all the figures in the contemporary art world performs very well by satisfying the people’s desire to conduct business through socializing and entertaining. But soon, art fairs will have to consider a new frame to satisfy future generations that will drive the market instead of us. Everything in the art world changes very quickly and people always wish to discover a new type of art fair platform in a new realm where they can create a new history of art. What do you expect to experience at the art fair in the future? We may experience another “connection” that would be established beyond the “physicality limitation” with a new group of people who will create a new legacy. Who knows?

Frieze London 2018

Regent Park, London

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