The Price of Art Fairs: 4 Case Studies Illuminate the Cost of Doing Business in the New Art Economy

The Price of Art Fairs: 4 Case Studies Illuminate the Cost of Doing Business in the New Art Economy
(Illustration by ARTINFO)

Walking around the Armory Show two weeks ago, visitors were likely much more concerned with the price of the artworks than the price of the booths in which they were displayed. For art dealers, however, the cost of art fairs is the source of almost daily stress. (Or at least, it is for those working with a budget slightly smaller than the Gagosians and the David Zwirners of the world.) Dealers must routinely contend with the scary reality of paying a large amount of money with no guarantee they will make any of it back. "Fairs are so scary, such a gamble, as all the costs are up front," said one New York gallerist, who admitted to losing sleep in the days before she does an art fair.

Now that more and more fairs are popping up around the world, galleries have begun to participate in several a season — or even several at a time. The burden this places on businesses has only become greater, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. "It's great visibility on one hand, and you have to do them because everyone else is," said one Upper East Side dealer, "but it gets expensive." According to Clare McAndrew's "The Role of Art & Antique Dealers: An Added Value," a recent research paper based on a survey of global art and antique dealers, the average gallery makes 28 percent of its total sales outside its home market. Armory Show managing director Noah Horowitz estimated that art fairs play an even bigger role, telling the ArtTactic podcast that fairs can account for as much as 80 percent of a gallery's total business. 


To get a sense of what it really costs to participate in these events, ARTINFO asked four galleries to break down what they spent on different Armory Week fairs. (All four asked to remain anonymous because galleries are discouraged by fair organizers from disclosing specific booth prices, which can vary based on the gallery.) It is worth pointing out that these examples are not representative of the entire field, but rather case studies. For one thing, ambitious fairs sometimes give steep discounts to major galleries in exchange for the cachet of having their name on the roster. (Rumors circulated during Armory Week that the Armory Show lured back galleries like David Zwirner and Greene Naftali by offering them special deals — a tactic that only serves to widen the gap between the very top galleries and the rest of the art business.)

Furthermore, sources say that compared to other major fairs, Armory Week can be less expensive, both because booth prices are a bit lower and because many participating galleries are already based in New York, eliminating the cost of flights, additional shipping, and accommodations. (Art Basel Miami Beach, by contrast, can cost a gallery over $100,000 for a large booth and other associated costs.) Still, the idea that a gallery would even participate in a local art fair is a relatively new phenomenon (why participate in a fair around the corner from your storefront gallery?), a development that underscores the ever-increasing centrality of such events to the way art is bought and sold.

One surprising trend to come out of these case studies is the hefty cost of producing new work for an art fair, an expense that two out of four galleries we surveyed noted as a large portion of their budget. The fact that galleries are commissioning works especially for the fairs is a testament to both the pressure they feel to display the freshest works as well as the sheer amount of artworks galleries are required to bring to market today: They must plan not only seasonal exhibitions but also seasonal art fair presentations. (One dealer who produced new work for her booth said she simply ran out of work by one of her artists before the fair began, and had no choice but to commission more.) 

The bottom line, then, is this: galleries have to have some serious cash flow to afford a booth at any of the major art fairs. And even if they make a profit, as most of the dealers we talked to did, participation remains a double-edged sword: it is both a professional obligation and a large financial risk. 

The Armory Show, Solo Project, New York Gallery:

Booth price, plus the cost of installing Internet, lights, and outlets: $14,000
Equipment rental (video monitors, etc.): $1,000
Extra staff and installation help: $1,000
Local transport: $500
Cost to produce new work for the fair: $4,000
Insurance: $0 — fair participation covered in regular insurance fees
Total: $20,500
Profit? “Very modest.”

The Armory Show, Pier 92, American Gallery (Non-New York):

Booth price, plus Internet and other affiliated costs like insurance: $23,000
Production of new work for fair (includes commissioning sculptures as well as framing and printing new work): $20,000
Hotel rooms: $2,500
Staffing the booth: $600
Flights: $540
Taxi, tips, misc. cash: $800
Shipping: $10,000
Food: $2,000
Total: $59,440
Profit? Yes

ADAA, New York Gallery:

Booth price: $30,000
Shipping and crating: $10,000
Installation cost, extra staff, materials, and transportation: $10,000
Total: $50,000
Profit? Yes

Independent, International Gallery:

Booth price, plus the cost of installing Internet, lights, and outlets: $13,500
Crating/Packing/Shipping of artwork (from gallery or location of the artist) to the fair and back: $9,500
Equipment (video monitors, etc.): $1,000
Hotel rooms: $4,000 (for two people)
Staffing the booth: $500 (for one intern)
Flights: $3,000 
Per diem (including transporation, food etc.): $2,000
Dinner with artists/guests: $1,000 (one event)
Local transport to/from hotel: $200
Insurance: $75 
Total: $34,775
Profit? "Sales figure not available yet."