Art Fairs

The artist’s survival guide to art fairs

Posted June 12th, 2012

Art Fairs


Love it or loathe it, a big fair is an opportunity to embrace the visual noise, critique the commercialism—and sell work.

The American painter Chuck Close once expressed a memorable view of art fairs. “I think that, for an artist to go to an art fair, it’s like taking a cow on a guided tour of a slaughterhouse,” he told New York magazine in 2007. “You know that sort of thing goes on, but you don’t want to see it.”

Ben Luke for The Art Newspaper: “Although Close is not alone in his disdain, an American dealer who asked not to be named perhaps sums up the majority view. “Most of the artists I work with aren’t so interested in admitting that they want to show at fairs,” he says. “But, of course, in the end, everyone appreciates what can come with it, in the form of press, further exhibition opportunities and cash.”

Some artists take an even more positive view, however. The Scandinavian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset relish the art-fair stage, and have made a habit of creating show-stopping works exploiting the conditions of the events. As Elmgreen says, the artists are curious about human behaviour, “and since we are in the art world, it is obvious for us to ask the question: ‘Why do people in the art world behave the way they do?’”

At Frieze Art Fair in 2005, the pair created an exact replica of their Berlin dealer Martin Klosterfelde’s booth, asking the gallery’s other artists to make duplicates of each work, cutting Klosterfelde’s hair and then creating a wig for a doppelganger who wore identical glasses and clothes. The double knew nothing about the value of the works, so “he was selling the works for horrendous prices”, Elmgreen says. “But the scary thing was that a big part of the audience didn’t even notice—that is the attention span of art-fair-goers in general.”

But the pair’s enjoyment of fairs goes beyond the lampooning of art-world quirks and vanities. “We think it is important to show the crowd of people who come that there are things for sale other than classic sculpture and oil paintings or photographs. We almost feel it is our duty to show that it is possible in a highly commercial context to introduce installation works, or things that have more of a message, rather than just working with pure aesthetics,” Elmgreen says. “And in that way, we find our role at art fairs important, because if only really upfront commercial works were shown in the art-fair context, then it would be a pity.”

He feels it is pointless to dismiss fairs. “You have to contribute from your standpoint instead of just turning your back on it,” he says. “You have to deal with the reality that there are far more people who will see your work in an art fair than if you do a gallery show today.”

Can an artist gain more control of fairs’ conditions? “It’s very often up to the artists themselves,” Elmgreen says. “If you allow your dealer just to show something from the store, which they hang beside something that is absolutely meaningless in relation to your work, then you’re just lazy.”

Read on at he Art Newspaper

Also read The Starving Artist’s Survival Guide