Even Art Lovers Are Exhausted Trying to Keep Up With the Fairs

  • Shows are sprouting up across the globe; 52 in October alone
  • Dealers, collectors question if overload has become too much

Frieze London art fair in Regent's Park.

Source: Linda Nylind

There’s an art fair every day this month -- for collectors who have the stamina to hop from Seoul to Santiago, Budapest to Buenos Aires, Moscow to Manila.

Art fairs have been sprouting across the globe, with 269 in 2015 compared with 105 a decade earlier, according to a report by The Art Newspaper and Momart. ArtBinder, which produces an app used by galleries, is tracking 52 fairs in October alone. Some of the biggest fairs are opening as the market is contracting, forcing collectors and dealers to evaluate how they allocate their time and money.

“It doesn’t allow any breathing room -- not for the galleries, not for the collectors, not for the artists,” said Abigail Asher, a New York art adviser. “People are groaning under the weight of so many fairs a year.”

Major Test

The first major test takes place this week in London where Frieze Week, the biggest concentration of art events in Europe, includes nine fairs. Next up is Paris, with a group of fairs centered on the main event known as FIAC. The European Fine Art Foundation, or TEFAF, which operates a prestigious fair in the Netherlands, is holding its first New York edition, overlapping a portion of FIAC.

The stakes are high. Like the broader art market, sales at fairs expanded -- about 50 percent since 2010 -- but fell slightly from the 2014 peak to $12.7 billion last year, according to an annual report by TEFAF. Fair sales account for 20 percent of the global art trade. For many galleries, these shows represent at least 40 percent of sales.

Frieze London, whose 14th edition opens Wednesday in Regent’s Park, showcases more than 160 international contemporary-art galleries. The event’s younger sister, Frieze Masters, focuses on historic art. Last year, the two fairs drew 105,000 visitors.

Marathon Week

“My week is looking more like a marathon,” said Alain Servais, a Brussels-based collector and independent investment banker, who travels to about 20 art events annually. “Frieze is filling up my diary day and night.”

Servais, like other collectors, will juggle fair openings, visits to private collections, receptions at galleries and museums as well as dinners and parties that last late into the night.

There are also auctions and their receptions. Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips collectively are offering as much as 175.2 million pounds ($199 million) of works during Frieze Week.

Buyer Fatigue

“Too many art fairs coupled with too many auctions can cause buyer fatigue,” said Larry Wasser, a Toronto-based collector who has attended as many as 12 fairs a year and is scaling back to six. “It just feels like you are on a treadmill and it’s going faster than your feet.”

Art fairs have supplanted galleries as the starting point for new collectors and provide networking opportunities for the stalwarts. Fair organizers often offer perks for big spenders, from free flights to hotel rooms and lavish meals. Connecting with new clients is the most cited challenge for galleries, according to the TEFAF report, so fairs have become a hunting ground.

The costs can be significant for dealers. ViennaContemporary, a regional fair in September, charges as much as 25,000 euros ($28,000) for booths, depending on the size. At Art Basel Miami Beach, the largest contemporary art fair in the U.S., booths range from $10,000 for a smaller space focusing on one artist to as much as $100,000 in the main section.

The largest players, such as David Zwirner Gallery, have the capacity to add to their calendars. Zwirner, which is based in New York and London, is participating in 19 fairs this year, up from seven in 2010, according to the website. At least two members of Zwirner’s 19-person sales team attend each fair, according to a spokeswoman.

“We’ve come to see the fairs as a wonderful vehicle to develop new clients,” said Kristine Bell, a senior partner at the gallery. “It does make a big difference to come to the hometowns of these collectors.”

Zwirner is planning to open a Hong Kong branch and has added two Shanghai fairs this November, Bell said.

Stretched Thin

Smaller galleries that only have two or three full-time staffers can be stretched thin.

“I am trying to be careful about how we extend ourselves,” said Rachel Uffner, the owner of a gallery named after her in New York that has two other full-time employees. She is participating in the Sunday Art Fair during Frieze Week, one of three fairs this year, down from five last year.

Some collectors are skipping the frenzy altogether. Wasser, the Toronto collector and a board member of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, timed his latest trip to New York while an art fair was going on in Chicago. He said he viewed higher quality art in galleries and had more personal interaction with dealers than on previous trips for fairs and auctions.

“My wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘That was the best four days in New York we spent in a long time,’” he said.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.