Art fairs are here to stay. The bigger, more established fairs like Art Basel Miami have spawned a legion of satellite fairs. Some say these fairs exist just to make money off artists, and, true, artists often have to bear most of the costs. So is there an upside?
In the winter of 2012-13 I showed in two such fairs. I was solicited by the start-up fair SELECT which took place during Art Basel Miami. The alternative storefront space Art on Armitage invited me to show at SUPERMARKET 2013 in Stockholm, Sweden. Both fairs required money, work and planning. Are there benefits that make the effort worth the cost? Here’s a list of opportunities and lessons I experienced after going through a couple:
1. Art fairs are a lot like trade shows: network, nurture relationships, learn.
A commercial fair is a trade show. You are taking your work to market. Learn about your audience. It takes time to build your presence. Hone your organizational skills and talking points. Meet as many people as you can. Find out why they have come to the fair and what kind of art they collect. At an out-of-town fair you get to show—and possibly sell—your work to a new set of people.
2. Some of the best things that happen are intangible and unexpected.
At SELECT, my booth mates and I were interviewed on opening night for the Art Beat section of the The New York Times. Have your elevator speech ready. I reconnected with a dealer I showed with years ago—one whom I rarely see in Chicago. New locations allow for different conversations. This now-blue-chip dealer gave me feedback on my work and presentation and invited me to visit another fair where I encountered additional gallerists, artists and events. Talk with strangers. One person I met by chance was looking for artists for a video festival … and I had just finished a new video. It’s easier to share your materials after establishing a connection.
3. You can learn a lot by asking other gallerists and dealers about the artists they show.
Don’t shop your work to gallerists in other booths; they are there to show their artists. Do ask them to tell you about the work or artists they are featuring. Art fairs can be a better atmosphere in which to do this than in a gallery, where you might come off overly solicitous. If you are sincerely interested, dealers are usually happy to talk with you; they, too, are spending long hours in their booths. Think of this time as research. Check out other galleries that might be a good fit with your work. Take photos of work that you like as a visual reminder of why you took that business card.
4. Evaluating your art in an international context is a valuable experience.
Miami is irreverent, and the art is bold and exuberant. The international vibe has different priorities than at Chicago’s fair. Talks, lectures and seminars are a great way to broaden your horizons, learn the trends and determine where you might fit. Dealers bring their best work and I left feeling energized and wanting to step up my game.
5. Learn how artists run spaces in different cultures.
SELECT primarily exhibited emerging artists from different parts of the United States. Stockholm had a more grass-roots, diverse, intellectually stimulating environment with a global socio-political bent. Experimental, experiential projects were the norm there; talks focused on survival strategies, immigration and human rights. I met artists from Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Latvia, Sweden, New Zealand and Serbia. I learned about their cultures, support structures, funding sources, work/life issues and brainstormed ideas for exchange shows. Artists were more interested in creating new opportunities and sharing ideas than selling.
Now that I’ve discussed the opportunities, consider the realities of participating in these fairs.
1. Do your research before signing on.
Talk with other artists who have done similar fairs. Ask a questions and keep an email trail. A contract should spell out what each party is responsible for, including insurance. Room location is important. I signed on to SELECT only after securing a first-floor location close to the main door. Check in often with the organizers leading up to the event.
2. Showing at an art fair takes money, effort and planning.
Don’t do one if you cannot afford it; there is no guarantee you will make it back by selling your work. I asked four artists to join me in Miami. By splitting the costs and responsibilities, we put together a very professional booth and could afford to rent a condo instead of staying at a hotel (book early). Costs came to $2,800 each for the five-day show. Everyone had a day off to see some of the twenty-five-plus other fairs. We compared notes and revised strategies as we went along. The fair was fun with five, and the inevitable mishaps were much easier to handle. Stockholm cost less and had a central organizer but it still took time, work and money—about $1,500 each.
3. Art fairs are exhausting and overwhelming.
Try not to do too much each day, and expect to be tired. Trying to do too much creates burnout. Better to pace yourself when working, as you will talk to a lot of people each day. I focused on a small section of each show I went to so I had time to talk with people. Give yourself time to process your experiences.
4. Nothing is perfect.
The event may not be as promised. SELECT advertised itself as a cutting-edge fair, but I found it fairly conventional. If an organizer has promised something that does not materialize, have your contract or email trail handy and try to problem-solve. Don't lose unnecessary energy over minor disappointments. Look at each day as a learning experience.
5. Attitude matters.
You must immerse yourself in the experience in order to get anything out of it. Be willing to shift your perspective when things don't go right or do not meet your expectations. Unlike a gallery where a dealer sells for you, at an art fair you must engage people directly. It sounds simpler than it is, and it’s much more simple when you are excited about what you are doing—it permeates the situation and attracts people to you and your work.
SELECT and SUPERMARKET were educational experiences. For my outlay of money and energy, I came home with experiences and relationships to build on. Would I do these fairs again? No. (I was invited; without the invite, I would not have gone.) But each one did help me think about my work in slightly new ways and broadened my definitions of success. I did an installation at SELECT, which was a way to test an idea and gave me exposure outside my booth.
If you are an emerging artist and want to get an understanding of what’s out there from the exhibitor side, an art fair may be beneficial. Be realistic about what to expect. They are doubtful as career launchers, and for the mid-career or established artist, likely not necessary. Some of the benefits may be long term or a longer time in coming. With so many fairs, accept that there is competition for audiences. Just remember one of the core reasons that may explain the popularity of fairs: nothing beats face time for building relationships.
Ginny Sykes works in painting, performance, installation and film. She has completed over 40 public art works. Sykes taught for ten years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is completing her Masters at Loyola University.
Joe Mazza of Brave Lux