Trends Fairs Analysis USA

Are art fairs good business?

A proliferation of fairs, spiralling costs, yet dealers are keener than ever to participate

Between the Armory Show in March and Frieze New York, now opening its third annual event on Randall’s Island (9-12 May), the city’s spring fair season has never been more crowded. Over the past three months, a dozen art fairs will have set up shop around New York and some dealers, complaining of declining gallery attendance, are scrambling to participate in as many as possible.

David Zwirner gallery, which exhibits at around 15 international fairs a year, has signed up for four of the spring New York fairs: Frieze, the Armory Show, the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) Art Show, and the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (Aipad) Show. The London and Berlin-based gallery Spruth Magers showed work at the Independent and the Armory Show in March and is currently participating in Frieze New York. Meanwhile, the New York dealers Marianne Boesky and Sean Kelly have both opted to participate in the Armory Show, Frieze and the ADAA Art Show.

“New York is the capital of the art world and if there is a very high-quality event taking place in the city, we want to support it and be a part of it,” Kelly says. It costs him $65,000-$75,000 to participate at each of the Frieze and Armory shows, and $30,000-$50,000 for the ADAA Art Show, including booth fees, staffing and transportation.

While the fair circuit may be routine for powerhouse dealers such as Zwirner and Kelly, a number of small and medium-size galleries are also upping their participation this year. “This is probably the first time we’ve done so many in a season,” says Wendy Olsoff, the co-owner of PPOW Gallery in Chelsea. This spring, PPOW signed up for five fairs in New York: the Armory Show, the ADAA Art Show, Aipad, Moving Image and, for the first time, Frieze. It costs the gallery $120,000 to do the five fairs, not including shipping or fabricating works. But there is a business case for doing them.

“Our space isn’t that big here so it allows us to expand, and a lot of people come to town for the fairs who don’t necessarily come to Chelsea,” Olsoff says. Plus, each event has a distinct character. AIPAD gave her gallery the chance to contextualise work by the Dutch photographer Ellen Kooi within the medium’s history. The small booths at ADAA lent themselves to a solo presentation by gallery artist Martha Wilson. Moving Image, a fair that PPOW helped found, gave Olsoff an opportunity to show an experimental 1993 short by filmmaker Tessa Hughes-Freeland.

Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco returned to the Armory this year and is now also doing Frieze for the first time. She says: “I do not see it as a risk because, regardless of sales, the fairs in New York provide opportunities for us to introduce and expose artists to a new audience. Prior to the fair dates we reach out to collectors and curators to ensure they are aware of and interested in the artist’s practice.” Silverman’s booth rental is $13,000 at Armory, and $10,000 at Frieze. She would need to bring in around $50,000 in sales to break even. “Of course there are also many other costs to consider. Although the Armory is more expensive, we always do well and hope the same is said for Frieze.”

“There are many art markets, and the proliferation of fairs is evidence of that,” says the president of the Association of Professional Art Advisors, Wendy Cromwell. “Look at how someone like Marianne Boesky captures markets that don’t cross-pollinate. She can do three fairs at once because she’s part of that many different art markets.” Cromwell cites Boesky’s representation of both the blue-chip minimalist Frank Stella and Russian newcomer Kon Trubkovich.

Declining gallery attendance may also be pushing galleries to participate in fairs. “I constantly hear dealers complaining that no one goes to their shows anymore,” Kelly says.

“It used to be that Saturdays would be wildly busy at the gallery—like opening day at an art fair,” says the New York dealer Yancey Richardson. “It’s not really like that now.” The number of Americans who visited an art gallery or museum dropped by about 9% between 2008 and 2012, according to a National Endowment for the Arts study released last year.

Now, Richardson says she’s more likely to see some of her clients at fairs than at the gallery, “so if I want to introduce them to a new artist or body of work, I bring it there.”

But some galleries see reason to resist the increasingly event-driven art economy. Kelly says he aims to limit the income derived at art fairs to 20% to 30% of the gallery’s gross revenue. “Otherwise it’ll put the gallery at risk.”

The demands of participating in art fairs and hosting monthly gallery exhibitions is too much for some dealers. Small and medium-size galleries may also not have the resources to staff simultaneous events. This year, Richardson had to temporarily rehire a former employee to work at the gallery while she divided her full-time staff between the booths at the concurrently running Armory Show, AIPAD and ADAA Art Show.

The New York gallery Tierney Gardarin participated in Expo Chicago and Untitled in Miami Beach in 2013, but decided against the New York fairs this spring to focus on an exhibition by the Brazilian artist Geraldo de Barros, which opened at the gallery earlier this week. “We are finding it increasingly necessary to balance the pressure to do art fairs against the curatorial imperative that is the focus of any good gallery,” says co-owner Cristin Tierney. “While we recognise the realities of today’s art market, we still believe in the importance of art historical context, and the need to emphasise the intellectual and cultural value of art over and above its commercial value.”

Artists, too, may feel the burden of the mounting “fair creep”, as Richardson calls it. More and more, artists are charged with creating new commissions for fairs. PPOW assembled a six-person team to move a new installation by Sarah Oppenheimer from her studio directly to the gallery’s booth at Frieze New York, while the portraitist Kehinde Wiley painted a new series for Sean Kelly’s booth at the ADAA Art Show in March.

But some see a change on the horizon. “We have reached a saturation point to some extent,” Kelly says. The number of dealers clamouring to participate in fairs may be on the rise, but the collector base appears to be waning, he says, estimating that three years ago about 5% of his clientele did not attend art fairs, whereas that number seems to have risen to around 10% today.

“They say: ‘We’re over all the parties, we don’t need to be seen.’ It’s a small but increasing number who don’t buy at fairs anymore. Every dog has its day and this one’s slipping.”

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