Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mathematics and the art fair model

Much has been written about the phenomenon of art fairs as the new salons of the 21st century, as magnets where galleries congregate and collectors and curators, and celebrities, 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 galleries at the fairs. My own experience in doing art fairs for the last ten years confirms this fact - I have my own positive empirical evidence, most recently with the great Context Art Miami fair for the past two years.

Here in the DMV, we've had our own taste of a major "Miami style art fair" with artDC in 2007 - and that fair was a major failure, as that basic fair model didn't work in the Greater Washington area, which historically has a well documented degree of apathy when it comes to actually buying art or getting the main stream press interested... or the immense reluctance that suburbanites have in driving to DC over the weekend to parking-challenged areas.

Subsequently to that epic art fair failure, the (e)merge art fair - a hotel variation of the "art fair inside a huge building/tent" model, where the fair is held in a hotel (in this case the Capitol Skyline Hotel) - has had more success

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 more others think they 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 routinely attracts about 150,000 visitors in the Miami area.

Immediately the clueless sap esso tutto who have never been to one of these top-of-the-line outdoor art festivals 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, art center managers, art critics, artists, etc.

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

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

Locally in our area, there are several of these exceptional fine arts outdoor festivals: The Northern Virginia Fine Arts Festival attracts around 30,000 people; the Bethesda Fine Arts Festival, and the Bethesda Row Arts Festival also attract those numbers of people and are all highly competitive.

Consider the median income in either Bethesda ($185K) or Reston ($105K), and what you get out of it is a lot of people with a lot of disposable income. As a whole, the DMV itself has a median household income of around $90K - that ranks highest among the U.S.'s 25 most populous metro areas.

Art price tags at these local fairs range from $100 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... and have probably never heard of Art Base Miami Beach.

If Mohammed won't come to the mountain gallery, then bring the gallery to Mohammed (don't kill me radical "non-Islamic" Islamonazis).

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 outdoor arts festival and set aside a whole section for independent commercial fine arts galleries? 

Or even better: create an outdoor gallery-only fair with one of those huge tents like they do in Miami? But somewhere in the DMV with plenty of parking and/or Metro Access?

Because the entry price point is a substantial fraction of what it costs to sign up for a gallery art fair such as the 26 or so fairs during Art Basel Miami Beach week, 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 $2000 for the weekend, which (for an additional fee) 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.

Another option: Align with the Smithsonian Institution and set up a giant tent on the National Mall. We all know of at least a dozen other fairs - none of them art - that do this on a regular basis on the Mall.

The Washington Art Fair on the National Mall!

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 30,000 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 thousand potential new clients?

You do the math: 1% of 1% of 30,000 people is 3 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.

Comments welcomed.