October 25: Art Fairs, FIAC

If you didn’t know before we went, the long line-ups and high ticket prices, not to mention the crowds inside, indicated that art fairs are a big deal.

In fact, in recent years, they have quite reshaped the art world.

Attendance is way up --  artvista.de, which tracks art fairs, reports about 10 million people visited art fairs in 2011.

Looking at the granddaddy of festivals, the Venice Biennale, le Figaro reports the 2011 edition logged a grand total of 440,000 visitors — which represented an 18 percent increase over 2009. This year’s festival has hit 400,000 already with three weeks yet to go. It had a new single-day attendance record of 7,331, according to artinfo.net. That’s a lot of people cramming into each booth!

And in six days, Art Basel attracted 86,000 visitors to Switzerland in June 2013.

It’s easy to see why they’ve become so huge. They represent unparalleled opportunities to meet many gallerists, artists, fellow collectors, and celebrities, depending on which ones you attend.

What’s interesting above and beyond the experience is how the fairs are changing the art selling business.

In 2012, dealers worldwide earned approximately 36% of sales through fairs, up 6% from 2010, according to a survey of 6,000 dealers by Arts Economics.

That’s the good news. What’s a bit tougher is the pressure it’s putting on galleries and artists, especially those with works in price ranges more accessible to the average collector.

First of all, consider the logistics. Galleries essentially have to go on the road, construct, decorate and curate a temporary gallery at great expense, send staff and pay for all their travel expenses, host parties for VIP collectors and more. With booth prices starting at around €40k, a big art fair can cost a big gallery upwards of €250k.

As you can imagine, this puts pressures on smaller galleries – they simply can’t afford to keep up. So while big galleries get bigger (sales for dealers with annual revenue exceeding €10m rose 55% in 2012), the small get smaller (those with annual revenue of less than €500k fell 17% in 2012).

Of course, fairs aren’t the only pressure. Galleries also cite rising rents, online sales, and auction houses starting to mediate one-to-one, not just one-to-many, sales. (Figures from Art Economics.)

For artists, this means more than ever there’s a scramble to produce on an art fair schedule, as opposed to by natural creative rhythms or for an annual exhibition or two.

~ With thanks to the New York Times.

city | art insider tips for visiting the fairs:

As an attendee, you will have an extraordinary opportunity to get fully immersed in the world of art and art collecting. It’s such a great way to refine your tastes, develop your collection strategy, and identify and/or purchase art. Set aside two or three days if you can to explore all facets of an art fair season, be it in Paris, Basel, Brussels, New York or Miami… it’s really art nirvana. Get ready!


Connect with your art advisor:

If you work with an advisor or consultant, he or she will be up-to-date on the plans for the fairs and can help you come up with a plan of attack and an itinerary. They can accompany you when you browse, help you make selections, access background research to help you make wise choices, and negotiate a fair price for you. 


Connect with your gallerists:

If you have a preferred gallery or galleries, or those where you’ve made purchases, find out where they’re going to be during the fairs. Most good galleries will send you invitations for special events, if not the fair itself, when you’ve made purchases through them. If you haven’t received anything in the mail, give them a call and let them know you plan to attend, as early as possible, before you’ve given away all their invites.


Plan to attend more than one fair:

We like to go to the biggest first to get inspired and attuned, then plan on attending the “off” fairs that run at the same time, for more reasonable purchasing opportunities. For example, in addition to FIAC, we went to Young International Artists, SLICK, Cutlog and ShowOFF, where there were many wonderful works at (more) reasonable prices.


Remember gallery night:

During the fair weeks, most galleries will participate in an evening of vernissages and general late-night openings, called "nocturnes." Check the fair schedule for information. In Paris, it’s usually the Thursday night of the shows. It's a good way to dive deeper into a single artist, as most fairs represent multiple artists in each booth.


Be prepared:

Buy your tickets online, in advance, to avoid the worst line-ups, if you’re lucky. Your advisor or consultant may do this for you.

On the day of, pack water, a sandwich and a snack for the larger fairs at Grand Palais. Wear comfortable shoes, and layer your clothing. Bring your camera or smart phone.


Study the map:

The biggest international galleries usually hold the choicest positions: near the entrance, on the corners, up a wider central laneway. Start there to see the headliners, then work outward toward the sides. Keep your eyes out for art books you may want to purchase, and any area for “up-and-coming” galleries, art award nominees etc.


Give yourself a task:

While novice collectors may be overwhelmed, you can keep yourself in check by watching for trends, learning to identify artists’ works and more. For example, at FIAC, we kept our eyes out for Anish Kapoors, Cindy Shermans, and paid attention to the groundswell of stellar artists coming onto the scene from China. It really helps to focus!


Keep track:

Snap photos (really, it’s usually allowed) of images you like, followed by the title card for the work to help you remember your favorites.


Ask questions:

Those nicely dressed people standing around looking bored and headachey? They’re gallery staff who are often exhausted from set-up,  jetlag and after-hours social requirements, but they are there to help you. Ask questions, prices, to see monographs by artists that interest you and more. A bilingual art advisor is be helpful at smaller fairs where not everyone is likely to speak English (well).


People watch:

See how others are responding to works of art, and try to understand why. It’s a good on-the-ground way to identify what’s trending in the world of collecting. Of course, it’s fun to people-watch in the sense of looking at the people – there are many many characters of life in attendance, and watching them interact with the art is plain fun.


Wear headphones:

If the constant buzz of the fair makes you feel woozy, try wearing discreet earbuds with some mellow music on for a period of time. It can settle you down enough to continue on.


Buy a catalogue

Full disclosure: we don’t buy one every year, but every few years we pick one up to have up-to-date information on our favourite galleries in an easy-to-reference book. They contain information about all the artists each gallery represents, but usually only one highlighted work from their booth is represented photographically. Make sure you buy it at the end of your visit, as they’re HEAVY. And you can get a bit of a discount if you purchase it in advance with your ticket.