Monday, October 14, 2013

The unethical art fair

In the past I've often discussed and given examples of two unfortunate entities of the visual arts world: the unethical art dealer/gallerist and the unethical artist.

In the decade since I've been doing DC Art News I've given plenty of examples of both, usually culled from not only my own experience, but also from the experiences of fellow artists and art dealers.

There are other members of the unethical side of the art world, as there are in any profession: writers, critics, even collectors, but the explosion of the art fair scene has given birth to a whole new set of deviants from decency and moral ethic behavior.

Enter the unethical art fair.

This is an offshoot of the unethical dealer, as many art fairs' origins are the result of an art dealer or gallerist making the decision to organize one. Many good established art fairs, such as Pulse and the Affordable Art Fairs, for example, are good, ethical fairs owned by the same person: a British gallery owner with a savvy business drive. Seattle gallery owners practically invented the hotel art fair, and Aqua has the well-earned reputation as being the "world's best hotel art fair."

The explosion of "satellite art fairs" in cities such as Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) week, or Basel during Art Basel Week, coupled with the realization that many galleries now sell the majority of their art at fairs and not at gallery shows, plus the rising costs of rent in many markets, have yielded the unfortunate fact that many art dealers close their physical spaces and focus their attention on art fairs worldwide.

This December during ABMB week, there will be 26 or so art fairs throughout the Greater Miami area (plus countless other art events, openings, parties, etc.).

Most of those fairs are ethical fairs, hoping to come to the world's biggest visual arts dance. Most of participants in them will lose money, as participating in an art fair is a financially terrifying process to most galleries.

Booth prices at established fairs range from $7,000 or so up to upwards of $100,000 dollars. Hotel fairs are a little less, but then again, in my opinion there remains really one worthwhile hotel fair at ABMB: Aqua. The others still struggle to both establish a presence and to attract collectors. Aqua was purchased last year from the Seattle gallerists who created it, and because it is now owned by the same outfit that does Art Miami (in my opinion the best American art fair there is), CONTEXT, Art Wynwood, etc., it will probably expand its reputation as the best hotel art fair in the world.

The unethical art fair's model exploits the galleries' desire to be in Miami, or London, or Basel during the dance. It also exploits their inexperience with art fairs, lack of information on what is a "good fair" and a "bad fair" as we'll as embellished stories of the halcyon days of art fairs, when anything and everything that a gallery hung on a wall... sold.

It is also the result of the still somewhat fierce competition for acceptance into some of the key art fairs.

While I suspect that this brutal economy, coupled with a return to more traditional art collecting focus on the part of major collectors, and large financial art fair disasters for some galleries, have decreased the competition for acceptance into top notch art fairs such as Art Miami, Pulse, NADA, etc., they are still highly competitive and still more galleries apply than are accepted. It is the most basic rule of supply and demand. There are more galleries wanting to do these top art fairs than there are spaces available in them.

A whole "lower" tier of art fairs exist to cater to the newer galleries and the "rejects" from the "top of the food chain" art fairs. Some, like Scope, used to be top tier themselves, but Scope seems to be caught in a downward spiral caused, I suspect, by a combination of a once heavy-handed curatorial hand, plus a desperate desire to continue to achieve economic goals associated with healthier economic art times.

Others are fairs that last a year or two and disappear from the scene. Some get such bad reputations that they cease to exist, only to be reincarnated under different names, seeking to entice a whole new crew of inexperienced victims.

There is one easy two-part metric to gauge an art fair. The first part is to find out how long have they been around. That is not to say that a "new" fair is risky at all times. In fact, two of the newer Miami art fairs (CONTEXT and The Miami Project), immediately established solid reputations for both fairs on their first year.

But a new fair has more to deal with in order to achieve success, which nearly always means attracting collectors' (and their purses') attention. No matter how much critical attention a fair gets, if the dealers consistently lose money, chances are that they won't come back to that fair. Don't get me wrong! Critical attention is important, and a key part of gathering the crucial seminal collector interest, but if you are a small, independent galley that just dropped $10,000 for a booth, plus another $5,000 for flights, hotel, car rental, art shipping and food, and you sell nothing, chances are that you're not coming back to that fair or to Miami, ever.

Part two of the metric is to see how many dealers return each year to the same fair. If a significant number of galleries return to the same fair each year, that usually means that they did OK at that fair. Fairs which have whole new rosters of art dealers each year, and little to none returning galleries, are fairs where the dealers are not selling artwork.

Point of order: every art fair, no matter how good, always has a number of dealers that do very well, some that break even and many who lose money; every fair.

None of the above discussions really clarify the "unethical fair"... Yet.

But in my opinion, the following facts all contribute to make an art fair unethical and to be avoided at all costs (pun intended):

- A fair that is organized by the same outfit every year or so with a different name because of legal or other issues associated with its previous name(s).

- A fair that caters and seeks and accepts any and all applicants - including the known predatory online dealers that exploit artists by offering them (at significant costs) exhibition at the fair. Most art fair organizers know who the predatory dealers are (artists and ethical dealers "out" them). If, in spite of this knowledge they still sell the predators a booth, then they are themselves contributing to the exploitation of the artists.

- A fair which starts as a "galleries only" fair and then (as not enough gallery applications are received) opens the process to individual artists, so that in the end dealers and galleries are mixed with individual artists. With the notable exception of (e)merge, which was designed from the start to couple art dealers with unrepresented artists, the mixture of individual artists and art galleries at the same fair seldom succeeds. This is generally due to the spectacular lack of business acumen and selling experience that most artists have (not all), and the disastrous "discounting" orgies that happen on Sundays when artists realize that the fair is almost over and they haven't sold squat.

For the last several years, around October, I get emails from (usually) DMV artists who are thinking of doing an art fair in Miami and have been approached by an outfit which is organizing a fair in Miami. In almost every case I try to talk them out of it. Instead I advise them to visit Miami during the fairs, see a lot of them, and talk to people. I try to talk them out of the significant personal financial risk of doing an art fair on the fly.

In almost every case, the artist does it anyway. Later, in Miami, they often swing by whatever fair I am in... Their long, sad faces adding more evidence to my empirical data gathering on this subject.

Next: Enter the unethical artist and the art fairs.