What’s Wrong With Art? Art Fairs Appealing To The Masses

Tabish Khan loves art and visits hundreds of exhibitions a year. But every now and then he comes across something in the art world that doesn’t make sense.

An art fair at Olympia in full flow
An art fair at Olympia in full flow

The title of this post may seem bizarre, after all art critics are part of ‘the masses’ when it comes to art fairs – because the prime target for art fairs is serious collectors. Am I asking art fairs to be less interesting? Not quite, but it is something I’m struggling to understand.

It’s collectors who really decide whether an art fair is a success. It doesn’t matter how many people come through the door and whether there is wide selection of galleries, if there is a lack of serious sales then the fair is categorised as a failure – after all Art14 had 31,000 visitors and was still deemed commercially unsuccessful, with a resulting change in fair director.

So if this is the case, why do art fairs hold lots of talks that aren’t aimed solely at collectors, put on curated exhibitions and spend a lot of money on advertising in the general (and not art specialist) media? This makes sense for fairs like the Affordable Art Fair and The Other Art Fair as the ‘average person’ is their target market and they need to ensure they attract them into the fair.

But for middle market fairs such as Art15, London Art Fair and Photo London it’s less obvious. Even Frieze advertises on the Underground, and considering they have special VIP taxi shuttles from Mayfair it seems unlikely the big collectors will suddenly realise that Frieze is in town while travelling on the District Line – plus I’m sure they have assistants organising their diaries for them.

It’s a question worth considering as a large influx of visitors does make for a crowded atmosphere where it’s harder to view the art, which isn’t ideal for prospective purchasers.

Now some of you may be thinking it’s about selling more tickets, but in truth the art world is awash with free tickets and the real money is made by the art fair selling stands to galleries. Maybe it’s about numbers for the close of fair press release, but I don’t think anybody is naive enough to think that visitor numbers equate to sales figures. Even press coverage isn’t a primary goal as management of press is often an afterthought at many fairs – plus by the time a review is written the fair will be almost over.

One possibility is that visitors with serious money, who aren’t art collectors yet, suddenly become interested and make their first purchases at an art fair – I’d be interested to know how often this happens. This is my best guess, because after all an art fair is ultimately about making money and if there wasn’t a return on investment on an activity then they wouldn’t be doing it.

For now, I think I shall remain slightly confused by it all, but if you work at an art fair or have another theory then let us know in the comments to continue the discussion.

About Tabish Khan

Art Critic for both FAD and Londonist. See as many exhibitions as possible and write reviews, opinion pieces and a weekly top 5 for FAD.