Art 101

Everything You Need to Know About Art Fairs (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Everything You Need to Know About Art Fairs (But Were Afraid to Ask)
Good question!

Does the thought of having to navigate your way through a giant art fair all by your lonesome sound pointedly unfair? Are you completely at a loss as to where to go, how to buy tickets, or, most importantly, what to wear? If you saw a work you liked, would you know how—or when—to buy it? Uh... never even heard of an art fair before? Well, fear not: we at Artspace have created a handy go-to guide that will answer all your pertinent questions so you'll know when to go, what to see, and how to make the most of these decadent souks.

What is an art fair?

Good question! On the most basic level, an art fair is a trade show—i.e. a place for people in the art business, from dealers and art advisors to collectors and curators, to kibbutz and make deals. But fairs are also sumptuous visual emporiums that are open to the public, and exhibitors tend to pepper the events with dazzling, spectacular pieces to delight crowds and capture the imagination of photographers. There's a reason why fairs like the Armory Show and the Art Show call themselves "shows."

Art fairs are crowded and huge and confusing. Do I really need to go?

Well, that depends. If you want to stay abreast of the latest work being make by the most prominent artists of the day, and the most cutting-edge art trends from around the world, then the answer is yes—there's simply no substitute for wading through the miles of aisles at these things and taking in all of the art. If you are more interested in engaging with only the highest-quality contemporary art, then the answer is no. But in that case you should just wait for the newest art to go through the curatorial/critical editing process that sifts the good from the bad and eventually plants it in a museum, which can take years. By which time, if you wanted to buy something, you'd probably be out of luck.

If you have limited time, how do you decide which fair to attend?

If time isn’t on your side—and let’s be honest, only art professionals can afford to devote days on end to art fairs—your best bet may be to stick to the biggest events, and you'll know which these are because the slate of fair festivities is usually referred to as their "week" (à la Armory Week, Frieze Week, or Art Basel Miami Beach Week). Not only do these fairs attract the most prominent galleries and dealers displaying works by artists you’ll know, but the larger fairs will also have more booths period, meaning you’ll get to see more art for your buck. However, if you'd rather find less expensive work by experimental or offbeat artists, you might prefer the serendipitous pleasures of browsing the smaller satellite fairs.

Do you need to buy your ticket in advance?

You shouldn’t worry about having to buy a ticket in advance if you plan on visiting the fairs after they open to the general public. If you’d like to walk through a fair during special preview hours or attend a special VIP event, however, the only way for you to do so may be to purchase your tickets ahead of time.

What does a VIP ticket get you?

Access. Doled out by fairs on an increasingly exclusive basis to a small pool of collectors and art insiders, these Willy Wonka-esque passes gain you entree to a number of the kind of fancy amenities that make many ordinary people see the art world as something akin to the court of Louis IV. If you're at the highest echelon of the art elite (and yes, even VIP cards have different strata of VIP-ness) you can get a private car at your beck and call, very early admission to the fair, and an open door to various extra-special events around the city, from posh parties to tours of collectors' homes and artists' studios. If you're at the lowest level, you still get the opportunity to browse artworks in a preview setting unencumbered by the hoi polloi, sip champagne (traditionally from the hilariously ill-named vintner Ruinart), engage in perfunctory small talk with other well-heeled art enthusiasts, and—best of all—get to see some of the most outrageous fashion ensembles you've ever seen. 

Is there a best day to visit the fair?

Well, if you’re a VIP looking to buy a major work by one of the world's hottest artists, you want to have your nose pressed against the fair's doors in the sweaty minutes before the VIP opening. (Or even beforehand: in a story that has become legend, the private dealer Philippe Ségalot once hired a Hollywood makeup artist to fly to Art Basel and disguise him as a bespectacled gallerist, complete with fake exhibitor pass, so he could sneak into the fair days before the VIP vernissage.) Works at fairs are often purchased by enterprising collectors far in advance, however, so no matter what you do, what you see isn’t always what you can get. If you're just looking to browse, stop in anytime, though it should go without saying that weekend afternoons will be more than a little crowded.

You said "vernissage." What's that mean?

That's the snooty name for a VIP opening. It comes from the French word for "varnishing," and originated in a practice that London's Royal Academy of Arts instituted in 1809 of reserving the day before a show's official opening for artists to come in and add a final layer of varnish to their paintings—and allowing art professionals to preview the works at the same time. Today you won't find much varnishing of oil paintings at vernissages, which are typically exclusive previews of art fairs and auctions.

What’s the best approach to navigating an art fair and making sure you see everything you want to?

Three words: proper prior planning. The best way to make sure you don't miss anything is to consult the exhibitor list online or in the fair catalogue and head straight to your favorite galleries first—or if you want to drill down even further, ask to get on these galleries' mailing lists so that they will send you information about what they're bringing in advance of the fair. Then, when you get to the fair, immediately grab a map of the floor plan (they're readily available) and use a pen to mark down your itinerary, while leaving yourself the leeway to call audibles on the fly. 

What celebrities, if any, should you expect to see?

While you shouldn't count on seeing too many celebrity artists around—Chuck Close famously likened the experience of bringing an artist to an art fair to "taking a cow on a guided tour of a slaughterhouse"—as the worlds of art, pop culture, and fashion increasingly collide (and art collecting becomes more of a status-marker) it shouldn't be hard to pick out a few stars from among the throngs of art viewers. Previous megawatt sightings include Jay-Z and Beyonce at Art Basel Miami Beach, Brad Pitt at Art Basel (he bought a $1 million Neo Rauch), Paul Rudd and Björk at the Armory Show, and John McEnroe at the Art Show.

What, in god's name, is "art-fair bling"?

Have you ever walked around an art fair, rounded a corner, and found yourself face-to-face with a gigantic shiny sculpture that seems to have landed after journeying from a distant planet and has a crowd of people around it taking pictures of themselves posing with it? If so, my friend, you are already acquainted with this phenomenon. Other breeds of art-fair bling include collector bling (enormous and outrageously vulgar works, sometimes replete with dollar signs, that say things to the effect of "BIG MACHER" or "MONEY RULEZ"), porn-y bling (you'll know it when you see it), and conceptual bling (when a dealer buys a sizable booth and fills it with nothing other than, say, a pack of cigarettes dangling from a rotating metal rod). 

So what you're saying is that art fairs are vulgar.

Well, they certainly can be! But that's part of the fun.

Why do I keep seeing the same things everywhere?

As is the case with celebrities in every profession, artists who are having a market moment—thanks to an exceptional museum exhibition, gallery show, or record auction sale that has set the art world abuzz—will suddenly seem ubiquitous at art fairs as every dealer with access to one of their pieces puts it on prominent display. The fun part is to watch whether an artist you see everywhere one year is still as popular one or two years hence. 

How do you approach a dealer about buying art?

Unless you're serious about buying something, leave the booth staff alone for the first day. Sales are at their most intense in the first few hours of fair's opening, as galleries try to capitalize on the fast-paced nature of the event and pressure buyers into quick sales. (Placing a work on reserve to buy later—a common practice in all primary art sales—may not get you more than five minutes to make up your mind, if the dealer allows you to do it at all.) If you're ready and willing to enter the fray, though, be prepared to move quickly and assertively, as any hesitation could lose you the sale. 

What is a reserve exactly?

Similar to calling in to reserve a table at a restaurant, reserving a work with a dealer is something of a half-commitment. You're strongly considering buying the work, and the dealer or gallery will hold it for you for a limited time, but if you take too long to make up your mind (or shop around a little for better deals) then the work could go to the person next in line. While buyers can normally obtain reserves for multiple months without issue, they're less likely to get them at all during a fair's fast-paced buying and selling.

Is there a way to engage a dealer about the art, even if you don’t plan to buy? Or should you avoid doing this?

Most dealers (or booth staff) would be thrilled to tell you more about the artworks they have on display—and have probably already tabbed you as a non-potential buyer. Just try to make sure they aren’t in the middle of facilitating a sale, a.k.a. feverishly talking on their phones and/or typing on their phones. Again, this is best avoided during the vernissage.

Can you ask for a discount?

You certainly can. However, some irony is at play here: if you are the richest collector in the world, with the most established collection, you stand a far better chance of winning a significant discount than a new collector who is trying to begin buying art. Museum emissaries, too, will almost automatically receive a discount. The reason for this is that dealers are greatly incentivized to place work by their artists in major, highly visible collections, because that will over time raise the artists' profile—and, in turn, prices. If you're an average collector looking for bargains, however, you may be well served waiting until the fairs' later days, when booths are looking to sell off their remaining works to avoid shipping costs and the advantage in negotiations shifts to the side of the buyer. Just don't wait too long or else the work you want may be snapped up by someone with the same strategy—and slightly less patience. 

What do all these red dots mean?

Dealers will place red dots next to works to indicate that they have been sold. Unlike typical shopping experiences where you get to take the work home with you (though that can certainly be arranged), buyers aren't burdened with having to slog around with their purchases under their arms, as dealers prefer to keep their art arrangements intact through the remainder of the fair. Afterall, who wants to look at an empty booth?

Are you allowed to take pictures?

Of course! Take out your phone and snap away, and make sure to capture all the weird, peculiar sights and crazy artwork displays you can only find in these hodgepodges. (Though be warned: flash photography as fairs, as in museums, is generally discouraged because it can damage the art.)

How long should one expect to spend at each fair? 

While the fleetest of foot could easily take in one of the smaller fairs in under ten minutes—think of the famous Louvre scene in Godard's Bande à Part—but if you actually want to absorb what's on view and gather more than just a first impression, you should a lot yourself a comfortable amount of time to take everything in. You might not need more than 45 minutes to an hour to see absolutely everything at some of the smaller fairs, while the big fairs could take upwards of four to six hours, if not days to fully walk through. 

What should you wear to one of these things?

While most of the art professionals you'll see around you are usually decked out all in black (Margiela, preferably)—with the notable exception of colorful Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, who's known around the world for his bright monochrome suits—their somber, sartorial choices shouldn’t intimidate you into not wearing the most comfortable clothes possible. Art fairs are marathons, not sprints, so if you can't spend all day in those six-inch heels, better leave them at home.

Will there be food?

Fair directors have begun placing an increased emphasis on visitor experience in an effort to prevent dreaded bouts of "fair-tigue." Part of that mission, much to the gustatory delight of attendees, involves ramping up the food options on site. Both the Armory and the ADAA fairs, for example, have taken special care to make sure that there are plenty of delicious options available to make their fairs feasts of the stomachs as well as the eyes.

Will there be bathrooms?

Unlike some podunk county fairs where you might have to worry about encountering less than hospitable public restroom options, the art fairs’ grounds are by and large held in already established institutional buildings with perfectly fine bathroom options. The lines, on the other hand, may be far from acceptable.

Will there be alcohol?

Uh, yeah. What art event would be complete without alcohol? While booze will undoubtedly be served in some form or another at just about every art fair you attend, it might be wise to consult our handy guide on when to start drinking at art fairs to best decide whether that second stiff drink fits into your intoxication schedule. Bottoms up! As you can see from the above, you're going to need it.


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