Art Fairs—A Survival Guide

Well, that’s not whole truth. Art fairs can be lots of fun, too, but usually in an awful way. For instance, spotting the worst face lift, the most inappropriate outfit, the snootiest dealer, those are fun in a really awful way.

What’s not fun, though, is being too poor to buy anything. Or even being wealthy enough, but knowing that you’re probably paying twice as much as the dealer did. Finally, I mentioned the crowd, right? Seriously, if there should ever be a Kathie Lee and Hoda sanctioned ‘Ambush Makeover,’ it should probably be at one of these fairs. Modernism 2010 sticks out in my mind as one of the worst. (To the heavyset woman in the gold lamé leggings who’s not Beth Ditto? Just don’t.)

But let’s get back to the awfulness of art fairs. I’ll tell you a trade secret: Dealers rarely—if ever—display their best items at a fair. In fact, save for a small handful, maybe Art Basel (Switzerland, not Miami), Maastricht (an arts and antiques fair in the Netherlands) and maybe the Winter Antiques Show in New York, dealers are likely to keep the shit most people would actually really want to pay to see to themselves. Why? Money. A really great work of art is worth more the less it’s shopped around. Serious collectors pay for art and exclusivity.

But that’s not to say everything at an art fair is crap. Art fairs just serve a different purpose than the major auction houses or the private private market. No one goes to an art fair to purchase a Van Gogh, especially if we’re talking about a contemporary art fair like The Armory Show that’s happening right now until Sunday in New York City at Piers 92 and 94 between 52nd and 54th streets.

I have yet to make it to the fair myself (I have more satisfying things to do, like watch cat videos on the Internet), but I trust to give a pretty good rundown of what’s worth it to see and what’s worth it to go laugh at in this year’s selection of booths. I may or may not make it there this weekend depending on how many new cat videos pop up on Youtube. (I have my priorities straight.) And really, considering Artinfo’s No. 1 complaint of The Armory Show was the fair itself, I think the prospect of simply rewatching old cat videos might sound more enticing…

According to Artinfo, “The award for the worst feature of this year’s fair goes—drum roll, please—to The Armory Show itself. Tiny booths, too many exhibitors, and an anyone-who-can-pay attitude toward choosing galleries all made this year’s edition a grim, gray trade fair.” Yup, that sounds awful.

And just in case you don’t know, it costs dealers/galleries well into the five-figure range to secure a booth at a typical art fair. This could be a bargain if we’re talking about the best fairs, which are harder to get into than Harvard due to a heavily vetted selection process. But for a fair whose only selection process is an unbounced check, $25,000 (give or take) seems a little exorbitant to rent a space the size of a small living room for a week or so.

It’s true. Art fairs are more awful the less selective they are for both dealers and fair patrons (including both buyers and gawkers). Hell, if I’m going to pay $20 for an admission ticket, I’d like to know that the things I’m looking at have been heavily vetted, are rare and not third-tier. For both fair-goers and dealers, this goes back to exclusivity. The more selective and exclusive the fair, the more assured a viewer can be and, likewise, the higher prices a dealer is able to quote.

But, think about it, isn’t that awful too? The more reputable the fair, the less non-billionaires can actually afford to buy something? It’s a vicious circle jerk of nonsense, a lose-lose for what seems like everyone except the billionaires and those dealers who get lucky enough to sell to them. But then again, that’s the point. Art fairs aren’t museums; they’re one-stop shops for the super rich.

Moreover, art fairs aren’t even necessarily for those who love art; they’re for those who love the art market, which is a fascinating game, but an awful one nonetheless. Trust me, it’s no Settlers of Catan (#nerdswag).

Anyway, all of this isn’t to dissuade you from going. (Well, maybe, a little…) It’s just to give you fair warning about what to expect if you’ve never been. With the invention of the Internet, the upswing of auctions and more behind-the-scenes dealing, it often seems today’s art fairs are one Botox injection away from completely imploding, which means you might want to go ahead and get ‘er done now, lest you miss out on your chance to experience one of these shitshows first hand. If the answer is yes, here are some tips on how to get the most out of your experience and not come away a completely cynical bastard:

1) Unless you plan to buy, don’t go until the middle of the show. Not only do you avoid the gnarliness of opening weekend (opening night galas are a special kind of torture for the sane), but by the middle of the week, you’ll be able to observe what’s been selling and what hasn’t. This can add a bit of intrigue to your experience, especially if you’re an observer of the art market.

2) Don’t be afraid to talk to dealers, especially if you’re attending the fair in the middle of the week. You may not have an extra $1.5 million to spend on a De Staël (yet), but trust me, a dealer who’s been sitting and staring at his booth, which will begin to resemble a finely decorated jail cell three days in, will welcome the human interaction. Plus, most dealers love to talk about themselves and how great their eye is.

3) Avoid the last day of the show. The last day of the show is a rip-off. Many dealers have already counted all their proverbial chickens and have mentally checked out. At this point, they probably won’t want to talk to you unless you have your checkbook out. Also, sometimes the sold items may have been picked up, which sucks because these are often the more spectacular items at the fair. Some dealers prefer to quietly remove them the morning of the last day rather than wait until nightfall when everybody is packing up and leaving.

Finally, 4) Drink. That’s one of the greatest things about these fairs. There’s almost always a bar and you can walk around the fair with liquor—you can’t do that in a museum. Just try not to spill anything, unless of course, it’s on some big lady’s horrible gold lamé outfit. In that case, make sure it’s red wine and it stains.

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