A Modest Proposal: Break the Art Fair

Frieze New York art fair in 2017. Photo: Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

As a system, art fairs are like America: They’re broken and no one knows how to fix them. Like America, they also benefit those at the very top more than anyone else, and this gap is only growing. Like America, the art world is preoccupied by spectacle — which means nonstop art fairs, biennials, and other blowouts. Yet the place where new art comes from, where it is seen for free and where almost all the risk and innovation takes place — medium and smaller galleries – are ever pressured by rising art fair costs, shrinking attendance and business at the gallery itself, rents, and overhead. This art-fair industrial complex makes it next to impossible for any medium/small gallery to take a chance on bringing unknown or lower-priced artists to art fairs without risking major financial losses. Meanwhile high-end galleries clean up without showing much, if anything, that’s risky or innovative.

Look at the basic cost for doing this week’s Frieze New York.
A large booth costs $125,000. A gallery can sometimes pay another $15,000 to $18,000 to build out the booth. On-site handling costs can run another $5,000. One dealer told me he paid $350 to have an electric socket installed at the Armory Show. If you’re a local space you don’t have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for long-distance shipping, travel, and hotel costs for staff. Still, even a local gallery pays about $5,000 to get the art packed and shipped to and from Frieze; for those traveling from abroad, or those American galleries traveling to art fairs in London or Hong Kong, of course the cost is much higher. Never mind that these galleries are double-staffing at the fair and for their New York galleries at the same time.

Many people will object, “Yes, but galleries make lots of money at fairs.” The big ones almost always do. The smaller ones can too if the fair costs aren’t too high, and/or if they get lucky or have a good year. But, as you move away from the upper-crust galleries sales can be scanty. Know that when galleries do sell a work of art they split half or more of the sale-price with the artist. (In some cases, it’s said that top-end artists can get as much as 80 percent of the sales price.) So any gallery with a large booth at Frieze is probably counting on at least $350,000 in sales, just to break even. If a gallery does sell less-known or less-expensive work the dealer is still all but guaranteed to take a major loss.

I accept that one often does find work we don’t know at fairs, that it’s wonderful for newer galleries to be seen at big fairs, and that you can have fun at them when you’re not feeling alienated or worn out from it all. Even so, the large art fairs (Frieze London and New York and Basel everywhere) turn everything into roadkill — including attendees. First-time fairgoers often have a hard time getting past a half-dozen booths before burning out. Old hands tend to know how to “skim” a bit better — but that isn’t good for the art, either!

Everyone talks about these problems. Notably, of late, the harrowingly honest, brilliantly incisive ArtNet interview with Team Gallery’s Jose Freire — one of the better art dealers of the last 22 years, a gallerist whose taste is razor-sharp and extremely difficult for some (me included). Since 2001 Freire has done 78 art fairs so he knows whereof he speaks. He says “we’re in the end game” phase of art fairs …“money can’t corrupt the art world any more than it already has … I haven’t met a new person in Basel in at least ten years.” Whether he’s talking about the aesthetic emptiness of fairs or a broken business model he surmises that you can now miss an art fair and by “scrolling through Instagram you will know the same thing.” All this strikes me as about right. Meanwhile local gallerists have to travel halfway around the world to participate in fairs to maybe meet a curator who works less than a mile from the gallery but who now does much of his/her gallery-looking en masse at art fairs. We’re all busy these days, I know, but curators ignoring local galleries should be fired; ditto directors not making certain that curators regularly visit local galleries. Freire observes that curators who formerly did look for new work at art fairs are now there mainly “to walk their trustees around.”

So what about the claim that an art fair can make half-a-year’s gallery operating expense in a single weekend? Freire counters, “Fairs accounted for this gallery’s biggest financial loses.” At fairs you’re seeing businesses in the balance. Freire says he might expect to make $35,000 in profit for a booth that costs $200,000 after fees, fabrication, packing, shipping, travel expenses, staffing, and entertainment; and if a work doesn’t sell at a fair “the value is gone, burned,” he says, since the work will have been seen and known not to have sold. This is a rotten system.

None of this applies to megagalleries or to many of the larger galleries. For these galleries the system may be exhausting but it’s working fine. Indeed, when I asked one high-flyer about doing fewer fairs she said, “Yes, we’ve cut back to only 11 this year.” Attend the opening day of any fair and you’ll see why the big galleries like this system. Their booths are buzzing with gaggles of well-shod people you don’t recognize and celebrities with entourages. You’re seeing a shinier parallel art world acted out before your eyes. You can safely assume that, whenever you show up, most of the big-ticket items in these booths — the works by Warhol, Koons, Murakami, Basquiat, Stingel, De Kooning, et al — have been sold almost immediately. The action is so fast that now some of these dealers arrive on private planes, schmooze the clients, make a killing, and fly out. Like hired killers, you never really see them; they blend in, do their business, and disappear into the night.

But medium and small dealers are caught in this Catch-22.
Since big fairs are now one of the definitions of success, of being a player, smaller galleries compete to appear in them, even if they won’t make money doing so; not to be in them sometimes signifies weakness. But this pressure to participate (Keeping up With the Gagosians) makes it almost impossible to grow a gallery to the next level — all the energy and money is pumped into just keeping up. At the same time the bigger dealers love having the look of underground, hip, young galleries in the mix in because it allows collectors, artists, and even dealers to think of themselves as engaged in a big, messy, underground riot when in fact the whole business passes through a half-dozen corporate megagalleries and everything else is negligible window dressing. Indeed, art fairs have become like great malls curated to lure people in without focusing on business, employing a stagecraft of entertainments, fine foods, wine-tastings, valet parking, VIP lounges, lectures, performances, special prizes, and panel discussions that are mostly about the market or the ubiquity of art fairs and biennials — often paneled with a rotating few of the same 55 movers-and-shakers providing self-congratulatory self-flagellating gravitas to the traveling caravan. The camouflage of choice then is art fair as resort and mercantile Burning Man. It’s hard to say if smaller galleries could do fairs without the bigger galleries but my guess is that most bigger galleries, once they see a smaller fair picking up speed will want a piece of that action too. The smaller galleries may have more power than they think if they band together, make demands, put pressure back on the big art fairs rather than dancing exclusively to the art fair tune. The NADA and Independent fairs are now doing this nicely; more well-curated medium and small gallery fairs sprouting up might provide viable alternatives to these galleries paying gigantic costs for little return.

With all this in mind, I spoke to a number of part-owners, directors, and other functionaries of art fairs and asked whether art fairs can be fixed. All agree that things need fixing. The bad news is that I came away thinking that while I really like these people, they don’t really have the impulse to fix things because these are the things that work so well for them. Fairs as they are now aren’t broken, they say. I kept sputtering back, “They’re not broken for you yet.

Here was my boilerplate pitch. In a friendly huff, I said, “You’re killing the geese that laid the golden eggs!” and talked about how fairs are charging way too much for booths at fairs. Then I suggested cutting booth fees by as much as 40 percent. I don’t have to tell you the agog silence and wry smiles this met with. I suggested perhaps using the same sort of tax structure used in all Western democracies: Employ a graduated fee-schedule with the megagalleries paying more than other galleries. Especially because the current system benefits these galleries the most. Crickets and blinks.

I continued that the burden of profit should not fall exclusively on the backs of galleries as it does in the current system! The responsibility for profit should fall on the art fairs in the same measures it does in similar venues that present entertainment and performances. Carnegie Hall doesn’t charge Yo-Yo Ma exorbitant prices to perform there. Carnegie Hall pays him! Again, each proprietor looked at me like I was mad. They’re not evil and they love art as much as anyone, but they all know who’s in the driver’s seat and that if they lose galleries because of high fees that there are hundreds of others takers dying to get in.

I said that the procedures for gallery inclusion should be changed too. Now, galleries apply, filling out costly applications describing what they’re bringing to the fairs. These proposals then are judged by a jury of their peers. What goes unsaid is that there can be real conflicts of interest involved with jurors benefiting from the exclusion or inclusion of galleries that might exhibit some of the same artists as they do. Let alone longtime vendettas. Numerous middle-size and smaller gallerists have told me that their proposals were rejected for being “too boring.” I would argue that in the current jury system with mostly well-established dealers as jurors (along with fair owners), it’s possible that when it comes to interesting art fair ideas, the closer a juror is to the top of the pyramid, the less this established dealer might actually know what a good idea is and what’s happening on the ground!

I’m not alone in my squawking. In just the last weeks megagallerists David Zwirner, Marc Glimcher, Thaddaeus Ropac, Marc Payot (of Hauser & Wirth) and Almine Rech-Picasso have suggested that top-tier galleries “should pay higher prices to subsidize smaller galleries.” This is quite remarkable coming from those very top-tier galleries —perhaps they understand how much value there is in being surrounded by smaller and more dynamic colleagues, and how much their own success is squeezing out those very galleries. In response to this, my very good old friend Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel since 2012, talked the perfect art-fair owner talk. “We have no issue with the idea of trying to work more closely in terms of helping the younger galleries at the fair,” he said, “but the algorithm for figuring this out … is difficult to reach.” Then he talked about “square meters, transfer fees, and micro-financing for smaller galleries,” and concluded that the “real issue is cashflow because galleries that have a lot of successful artists often have the problem that they are funding a lot of museum and biennial shows and production costs.” Marc — talk about disconnect!

I’m not the art fair bogey man. I go to the opening day of local art fairs; I love seeing the art world under one roof, touching antennas; trying to catch up with this peripatetic world. Moreover I presume that the system is so stuck on success-breeding-success that Frieze’s announced expansion later this year into Los Angeles will meet with more eventual success. The Basels will rumble on — except maybe for Art Basel Miami Beach, which many hope will eventually be supplanted by something, anything. (Almost every gallerist I spoke voiced animus for Art Basel Miami Beach, one calling it “the seventh circle of hell.”) But all this is triumph-of-the-system talk. I conclude that since the system now benefits those at the top so well, let them pay for it!

Jerry Saltz: Break the Art Fair