Saturday, February 10, 2007


Much has been written about the rather newish phenomenom of art fairs as the new salons of the 21st century, as magnets where galleries congregate and collectors and curators and the illuminati go to see and buy art. Furthermore, anecdotal figures from the major fairs seem to confirm that a lot of artwork is being sold by some galleries at the fairs. My own experience with them confirms this fact.

Soon the District will have its own taste of its first major "art fair" with the upcoming artDC, and we will see if the model works in the Greater Washington area, which historically has a certain degree of apathy when it comes to actually buying art.

And yet... an idea that I have been mulling in my head for years now keeps bugging me.

Stick with me here.

There's another "world" out there of fine art fairs that, because of the curious high brow attitude of the "high art" cabal, never really gets any attention from the art media, etc.

These are the outdoor art fairs that some of us know well, and many of us think we know well even though they've actually never been to any of the good ones. I am talking about the outdoor art festivals that get ranked as the top ones by Sunshine Artist magazine, fairs such as the Cherry Creek Arts Festival in Denver, or the Ann Arbor Arts Festival (actually four separate art fairs that draw over half a million visitors), and of course, the Coconut Grove Arts Festival in Miami, which will attract about 150,000 visitors next weekend in Miami.

Immediately the clueless sap esso tutto who have never been to one of these will think and imagine what they visualize as an outdoor art market: dried flowers, teddy bears and watercolors of barns. Don't get me wrong, there are thousands and thousands of these type "art" fairs around as well - but those are NOT the ones that I am talking about.

I am talking about the cream of the Sunshine Artist Top 200 list. These are shows where only original art, not reproductions, are allowed, and photography has very severe rules (must be done by the photographer, limited editions only, signed, archival processes only, etc.). These shows are highly competitive to get in (they're juried), and usually offer quite a lot of money in prizes for the artists. The jurors vary from museum curators (people like Terrie Sultan, Jonathan Binstock, and other local museum curators have in the past juried some of them).

I guess I'm saying that there's some curatorial legitimacy to them as well, for the elitista amongst you.

But the destination to which I am driving here is attendance.

Hundreds of thousands.

Locally in our area, there are only two good ones of these fine arts outdoor festivals: The Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival attracts around 80,000 people, and the Bethesda Fine Arts Festival, which is still growing, but already attracts around 40,000 people to the two-day event.

Consider the median income in either Bethesda or Reston, and what you get out of it is a lot of disposable income.

Art price tags at these two local fairs range from $200 to $20,000. So there's a somewhat comparable universe of prices to the DC area gallery market, as an example.

And I submit that a lot of the people who attend one of these outdoor fine art festivals do not have the "formation," as a Communist would say, to dare set foot in a white cube gallery.

If Mohammed won't come to the gallery, then bring the gallery to Mohammed.

So here's the issue that has been brewing in my head:

All of these huge and highly successful outdoor arts festivals (as far as I know) only allow individual artists to sell their work at the fairs. Why doesn't an enterprising fair organizer go one step further and add a whole new angle to the arts festival and set aside a whole section for independent commercial fine arts galleries?

Because the entry price point is a substantial fraction of what it costs to sign up for a gallery art fair like Art Basel Miami, or Scope, or even AAF, the financial mathematics of this idea make sense to both sides of the equation.

For fair organizers, they could offer the gallery a basic price tag of $1500 for the weekend, which would include a 10 feet by 20 feet double tent and display equipment. Or, and this is a big or, the organizer, in order to attract the art galleries, could offer them zero entry fee and instead a 10% commission on all sales. This may get a little sticky in the monitoring of sales and unreported sales by art dealers who lack ethics and scruples, so a flat fee is probably the best and easiest idea.

For the gallery it would offer them an opportunity to expose their artwork to possibly thousands of new potential collectors, exposing most of them, for the first time, to an art gallery.

It's all in the numbers.

No art gallery that I know gets 80,000 visitors a year, much less in a weekend. Would any of them turn down an opportunity, for a reasonable amount of money (much, much less than it costs them to advertise in an art magazine that will only reach a few hundred people in their local area), to expose themselves to a few hundred thousand people?

You do the math: 1% of 1% of 80,000 people is 8 new sales over a weekend. Not even to mention the possible future sales of new people who become exposed to the gallery at the festival, and start attending openings: new blood collectors.

I would do it.

Now let's see some enterprising art fair organizer run with this.