You’ll be hearing a lot about what’s in them, but not much about why they exist in the first place.
By James Tarmy
The month of March inaugurates the spring art fair season, a combination of commerce, parties, and culture that attendees love to pretend to hate. Even though the fairs are explicitly designed for galleries to sell art, dealers complain about them whenever they get a chance.
For everyone else, the phenomenon can be a bit of a mystery. These art fairs often occupy prime real estate in the hearts of cities, yet have entry fees so high that most locals can’t attend.
Many of today’s biggest fairs were started in the 1970s: Art Basel, which runs from March 29-31 in Hong Kong, mostly sells 20th century and contemporary art; TEFAF, operating May 4-8 in New York, is better known for its antiques and old masters.
The scene at the 2018 gala preview of the Art Show in New York.Photographer: Benjamin Lozovsky/BFA.com
But it was only in the early 2000s that they really took off. “The reason that art fairs have become so important has to do with the shifting demographics of wealth,” says Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel. “Wealth is more and more in the hands of people who are working, rather than those who’ve inherited it.”
While previous generations might have had the time to travel the world looking for choice paintings and objets, current collectors “are actively building their fortunes,” Spiegler says. An art fair, with hundreds of galleries in a single space that’s in, or close to, collectors’ homes “allows patrons today to discover a lot of galleries and artists in a concentrated way.”
While some art fairs have become destinations—most collectors at Art Basel Miami Beach don’t live in Miami, and last year there seemed to be more people speaking German than English at the Frieze Art Fair in London—the fair, in its essence, is a venue for dealers to travel to customers.