The art world is nothing like it was a decade ago. Here’s why.

Art Basel Miami Beach took place earlier this month – sadly I couldn’t be there in person – but it prompted me to sit down and ask myself: how have art fairs changed the art world? A lot is the short answer.

The globalization of the art market has led to an explosion of art fairs around the world in recent years. From Art Basel in Switzerland and Miami to the Frieze Art Fair in London, ARCO in Madrid, the India Art Fair in New Delhi and even Art Dubai in the UAE, most cosmopolitan cities are looking to put their stroke on the art-fair canvas – which can be a good thing.
As art investors and admirers know, the art market has done a 360 when it comes to how pieces are bought, moving from the traditional buy-a-piece-in-a-gallery model to people traveling the globe in search of hot new artists and great new pieces.

Not to mention the upsurge in online purchases – but that might be another blog for another day. With the above in mind, the classic art model – based on in-gallery buys – is influenced more and more by the economic model of art fairs. Today, major fairs play a vital role, often laying the foundation for artists and galleries to build their reputation and success on, from marketing and selling their work to making important contacts with the industry’s influencers – people who they may never otherwise get a chance to meet. Then there’s the incredible gateway that art fairs provide art critics, curators, collectors, directors, connoisseurs, students and even the artists themselves, offering all of these people the opportunity to come into direct contact with not only incredible pieces, but also the people who created them, as well as the men and women who distribute them, and – finally – the people who purchase them and hang them on their walls or – let’s be honest – store them in vaults, depending on the price of the piece. This is an ideal situation on a planet that’s increasingly globalized, one where people are in a hurry to see as much as they can as fast as they can, and who want to post a selfie with their favorite artwork on social media.

It’s not just the galleries and people involved in art that have been transformed by art fairs; art fairs themselves have changed too, moving from a traditional gallery-style offering to an events-based one that features live shows, live painting, talks, workshops and more. Gone are the days of whispers around framed canvases nailed high on white walls. Today people are talking around, about – and sometimes to – the artwork, interacting with it, and the people who created it, on myriad levels.

And art fairs are growing. According to TEFAF’s (The European Fine Art Foundation) macro-economic report released in March 2015, the art market was at its highest-ever recorded level of €51 billion in 2014, with people buying mostly from fairs and online. Sales by galleries at art fairs are on the up, too. In 2010, the percentage was around 30 percent, while in 2014, it was around 40 percent.
But there are a couple of downsides to art fairs. While their huge numbers can be positive for many established artists and galleries, they aren’t always good news for upcoming ones. Let’s talk about galleries first: the metamorphosis of the art industry presents a challenge for many galleries – both established and new – who have seen business fall due to myriad collectors opting to buy pieces from fairs instead of galleries. While many commercial galleries in the UK and Australia, for example, could count on local buyers a decade or so ago, today purchases are dominated by wealthy investors from Russia, China and the Middle East, for example.
While this can sometimes spell good business, it’s never really guaranteed business, because it’s unlikely that these people will take the time to get to know a city and its galleries, opting instead to make mass purchases in an art fair where they can see everything in one go. Most of the time, in-gallery purchases become a once-off thing. So if you’re a gallery without the means to attend an art fair, you could be in trouble.

Emerging artists can also sometimes suffer at the hands of art fairs as it can be tough for newer, younger artists to break into the bigger fairs, especially if the galleries that represent them have little means to exhibit there, or if they’re representing themselves. The latter is often a problem in and of itself as many of the bigger fairs won’t accept the works of artists on their own, preferring to deal with established galleries. Not only are art fairs incredibly selective about who they choose to exhibit, the fees to attend, rent space, insure pieces, pack and transport artworks and more, can be incredibly high. Most people – even those who aren’t involved in the art world – know that the price of a piece serves as a symbol of quality and talent. With this in mind, emerging artists may have a rough time being recognized.

Conspiracy theory alert: there are some industry pundits who believe that big events prefer expensive artists as the level of the fair is boosted, which in turn boosts profits. I’m not sure if that’s always the case, but it’s certainly something to think about.

To be fair, some of the bigger art fairs do dedicate sections to younger artists and galleries. Think Art Basel’s Statements, Frieze’s Frame and Focus, or The Armory Show’s Armory Presents in New York. Art Paris is also well known for unveiling aspects of the emerging art scene, and Art Stage Singapore boosts promising emerging art, artists and galleries too. The truth is, if you’re one of the lucky young artists to feature at an international art fair for whatever reason, the exposure you’re likely to get could catapult your career as art fairs are generally the first place that authentic international audiences will first see your work.
For me, the act of buying art is a positive one in and of itself. While the art industry has a way to go in some areas, it’s very positive in others. As supporters of art, it’s up to us to ensure the industry keeps progressing. The art will take care of the rest.

Not a gallery, artist or director, but just someone new to the art world looking to invest in a few pieces? I have some great tips for you, whether you choose to buy from an art fair, gallery, or from the artist him or herself.

  1. Look around
    When you buy at an art fair – or even in some galleries – there’s a lot to see. While that can be fabulous, it can also be overwhelming. Decide on the medium, size and style you’re looking for, and then shortlist from there. You’ll also want to consider your price range. Don’t be intimidated to ask how much something is.
  2. Talk to the artists
    Collecting contemporary art is hugely exciting because it’s likely that you’re discovering pieces by emerging artists who are probably still alive and whose designs are fresh and developing. So drop by and say hi to them. Find out who the artists are, what their CVs look like, who they’re represented by, what their accolades are. All of these details are actually incredibly important when placing a value on a work.
  3. Look at the bigger picture
    Investing in unusual pieces is courageous and admirable – as long as you genuinely love what you see. As with any industry, there are trends in the art world that soon become apparent if you take a quick walk around a fair or gallery. While buying into trends has its merits, opting for a unique piece could be worth it for you in the long run, both financially and personally. The main point is: buy what you love.
  4. Quality and materials are everything
    Pay attention to the workmanship of your piece before buying it. You want to make sure the finish is perfect, and that the actual piece has been crafted with high-quality materials. This will ensure the piece lasts longer. Not sure what you’re looking for? The gallery can share specifics about the construction and longevity of the work. Remember: the more you invest over time, the more you’ll learn about what you’re buying.
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