Middle Ground #6: Fair Enough – Much Ado About Fairs

Essay / March 2022

Middle Ground #6: Fair Enough – Much Ado About Fairs
By Jacob Barnes

          I’m convinced that the sun having been out in London over the weekend is a key reason why today’s weather feels so dull. It’s perfectly pleasant, if overcast, but perhaps we have been given too sweet a taste of the nascent spring. However, those of us who try to be (at least loosely) on the art fair circuit will have been made acutely aware of our impending return indoors: with the Liste line-up announced last week and Frieze New York feeling like it’s now around the corner, it’s time to talk about fairs.

Those that know me know that I am, in general, neutral-negative on fairs. Oh, they’re fun, no doubt — who doesn’t love a bit of fanfare? They’re also a great snapshot of what’s happening in the art world at a given moment. Such is the very nature of fairs that gallerists are putting out what they think people want, and thus one can gauge, if even through a kind of mutually-affirming groupthink, who some of the artists of the moment are.

But they’re also fundamentally erasures of difference or nuance; they force a range of artworks and practices into a standardized exhibitional rubric that belies some of the very qualities about art we so fervently exalt, like its ability to comment on, reflect, or contrast a particular time or place. What’s more, they efface legitimate regional differences in favor of a shiny, smoothed-over globalism that isn’t really true. Yes, each major fair has its own particular flair, but when international galleries show some of the same artists regardless of location, it becomes easy to forget that London is not New York, is not Miami, is not Basel. Each city, even if embodied by an international class of collectors, deserves to have its  particularisms acknowledged. This all goes without mentioning the two major practical detractions from fairs: the immense financial costs that are associated with participating, as well as the disastrous ecological effects of lugging all of that art around the world.

The result, from my perspective, is a frustrating tug-of-war. On one hand, the ability to cast those on your roster as “important artists” to a broad market, if only by association, is not to be scoffed at. The position of a gallerist is ultimately that of a custodian, and significant ideological distaste can be set aside for that which is right for your artists.

However, with social media now factoring heavily into collectors’ discovery of new artists, along with the (relatively) newfound ability to conduct  a significant amount of business online, it begs the question of whether all this is altogether necessary. For those who have become mainstays of the fair circuit, it may appear like a key function of a gallery’s business model, but for those who have never taken part, the upside appears to be dwindling by the day.

I’m drawn to a kind of third way which may prove an effective middle ground: booth shares and a more local outlook. That is to say, I think galleries could use fairs as part of a broader arts ecosystem in a given city, while mitigating some of the significant drawbacks that come with showing art globally. With that said, the very purpose of the fair is called into question: if you’re in your city, why not just stay at home? Who are you hoping to reach that isn’t otherwise reachable?

Perhaps I’ve just made it more confusing for everyone. It wouldn’t be the first time. If anyone has any relevant insight or wants to chat about it, you know where to find me.

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