I was taken aback recently when one dealer blithely said “18” after I asked how many fairs he had attended in the past year. That is one fair every three weeks. Even in this event-driven economy, I shuddered at the thought of the logistics involved in maintaining such a schedule, let alone the physical toll on the dealer.
Many dealers say they have no choice. A presence at fairs also serves as a sort of de facto marketing strategy, more pricey than advertising, but also offering more immediate returns. Fairs are not only the places where galleries find new clients, but also increasingly the venues where longtime customers choose to buy. Dealers find themselves engaged in a relentless cycle: investing in a new fair, necessitating a search for new sales and new clients to cover the costs, and thus seeking for a new market through yet another fair. The financial risk of such a strategy should not be underestimated.
Ultimately, however, such concerns are for dealers to weigh for themselves. I am more worried about the ripple effect such frenetic activity is having on the overall market.
The market for art is definitely growing, especially sales of contemporary work from an expanding set of producers. One consequence of recent globalization is that every country, and seemingly every city, has some sort of contemporary art scene. And thanks largely to fairs, works from all of those scenes appear in a similarly proliferating number of regional “art capitals.” But before blindly praising this variety of offerings, we need to ask if that growth is sustainable. What is driving it? Is it a reflection of increased demand or merely increased supply?
Today’s art world mind-set seems to be that supply leads the way: If you hang it on the wall and shine a spotlight on it, people will buy it. Given the frequent talk of scarcity of quality product in the Old Masters or Impressionist categories—or even among some of today’s top artists—it may seem strange to think of the art world as a supply-side economy, but in many ways that’s what the contemporary art market has become. The more art galleries, fairs, and auction houses supply, the more, they believe, they can sell.
On a happy note, online art sales platforms have lowered the social and economic barriers and largely eliminated geographic impediments to buying art, and therefore have been successful to a degree in introducing art acquisition to a wider range of consumers. Some fairs, too, have created fun, new opportunities to buy. But building genuinely committed new communities of collectors requires sustained effort, not just a smorgasbord of parties one week a year.
I am not convinced that simply pushing more and more art out there will build a sustainable market. Supply can never really drive demand over the long term, and not at the price points we see for so much contemporary work. Let’s not forget, nobody needs art.