Fair's fair - they're turning the upmarket art world upside down
Two weeks ago at the opening of the annual fair of the Art Dealers Association of America in New York, Martha Stewart told a television crew that she thought three huge urns by Ai Weiwei, one of the godfathers of Chinese conceptual art, were 'very beautiful'.
'I'm going to China next week,' said Middle America's TV homemaker. 'And this is whetting my appetite.'
Martha Stewart and conceptual Chinese art? What's going on here? The answer is the brave new world of the art fair - huge warehouse events that serve as one-stop shops for jet-setting collectors, like trade shows with fashion sense. They're driven by lots of money, with 10- and 20-year-old paintings often being sold for millions at auction, amid regular coverage by mainstream media such as Time.
Perhaps art fairs are simply another sign of a commercial backlash against the politically correct biennials of the 1990s - a bubble waiting to burst. But for now, they're turning the art world on its ear.
Even outside traditional art hubs, fairs are booming. The first Gulf Art Fair was held in Dubai last week (see report page 8) with plenty of hype. Next month there will be art fairs in Cologne, Brussels and Chicago. And the granddaddy of them all, Art Basel, which is the world's largest, takes place in June.
But to get an idea of what's happening now, the big fairs in New York City were telling. Seven were held simultaneously, including the established Armory Show and the younger Scope, with art ranging from highbrow to no-brow and everything in between.
'If you're talking about the general public, they feel too intimidated to enter a gallery,' says Armory Show director Katelijne De Backer. 'But [at art fairs], people don't get that feeling.'
Scope president and artist Alexis Hubshman senses a new niche. 'We're filling a vacuum.'
And the great whooshing sound of it filling is money. Many gallery owners now talk about a 'new breed of collector' - particularly cash-flush 'hedge-fund guys who know nothing about art'. But, of course, they'll deny that they ever sell to these 'idiots who are ruining the market'.
New York gallery owner Jack Shainman says art fairs, riding high on a new spirit of market democracy, are starting to encroach on museums and even biennials. 'People are saying they're better than biennials because they give you a complete sampling of all the new work without any politics,' he says.
How does he personally feel about the fairs - he sells at two a year and depends on them for regular income boosts? 'Let's just put it this way,' Shainman says. 'If all the fairs went away tomorrow, I really wouldn't be upset about it.'
The money may be nice, but the tradeoff for gallery owners like Shainman is that they feel increasingly controlled. Giovanni Garcia-French, of the Project gallery in New York, says the trend has increased volatility among young artists, which he likens to 'pop groups'.
'Sometimes people will just read a magazine article about an artist and call asking to buy work sight unseen,' says Garcia-French. 'But these artists just make a splash and then they fade away.'
He blames the increasingly overt commercial focus of fairs and the art market, in general. 'We shouldn't be against it, but we are,' he says. 'In the long run, I don't think it's really good for art.'
Hubshman says fairs are 'slowly taking away resources from museums. Artists can be busy preparing projects specifically for fairs, and don't have time to make works for museum and biennial shows.
'I don't want to say this with too much edge to it, but blueblood museums maybe need a little shake-up.'