Issue 23 June-August 1995 RSS

Who is the Fairest of Them All?


An art fair poll

The art fair is the most frequented and beleaguered event manufactured by the art world. Hundreds of phones, desks and pitches are transported into a grand arena, colliding amidst miles and miles of artificial walls, studded with artworks. The fair is where art meets commerce and commerce wears a public face. The image of dealers as snake oil salesmen, dragging suitcases of art around the world, may be embroidered on the fabric of the fair, but art fairs can be a thing of beauty, a hundred backrooms, their doors magically open, where viewers can see odds and ends, resale gems and duds, as well as the art of the deal. In 1992, gallerists who were locked out of the Cologne art fair devised the Unfair, where young galleries could show their artists as a group in an old factory building. Alternative fairs and Hotel fairs have since sprung up in Amsterdam, Stockholm, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. On the occasion of the 1995 Gramercy International in New York, we asked dealers, artists, critics, curators and consultants to respond to the following questions in order to chart the industry’s relationship with the roadshow called the art fair.

What role does the art fair play in the current economic climate?

James Meyer (art historian) - The goal of the art fair, as it has emerged in the past 40 years, has been the creation of new clienteles for contemporary art. Much like a county fair, the art fair attempts to attract customers from beyond the immediate locality. Unfortunately, the success of these ventures is limited. In the end it’s the villagers themselves who are most involved; people from outside don’t think about it much (if they’ve heard about it at all). In other words, the art fair is parochial.

Pat Hearn (gallerist) - The art fair is simply an effort to move the product in whatever way possible.

Thea Westreich (private art advisor) - The art fair is a very commodious and easy way to go around and see a lot of different kinds of work. From a perfectly commercial standpoint, as an art advisor I have a love/hate relationship with art fairs and auctions. A lot of collectors who are extremely lazy rely on these events, using them like a department store. And that’s both good and bad; good because they pay attention and bad because they don’t look during the rest of the year when really wonderful things are offered to them. They think that if they go to a fair they’ll see everything on the art market and that they’re getting a full-scale offering.

Ronald Jones (artist) - It depends on which fair. Some are vanity fairs and some are serious barometers for the art world - Basel, for example. Basel is like a futures market. People go there to predict what the future art market’s going to be, whereas the Gramercy is more like the New York Auto show. For the smaller galleries, the Hotel fairs offer more exposure per square inch than any other venue.

Clarissa Dalrymple (private dealer) - I think that the art fairs have more than survived. I think they’re really important these days in broadening communications. The disadvantage is that you’re given very little space and you can’t have inventory to show more of a particular artist. I think the real future might be on a TV sales channel, where you can phone in.

Heike Kempken (organiser, Unfair, Cologne and Phoenix Hotel art fair, San Francisco) - Art fairs are for salesmen to reach thousands of people in a very short time. For an artist, it is less interesting, because these fairs are only about the Quick Money. Most galleries show parts of their storage rooms, pulling out what is hip at the moment, or what can be raised in price.

What is the difference between the smaller Unfair and Hotel fairs and the larger Hall-style fairs?

Christian Nagel (gallerist) - The audience is much bigger at large fairs, and often less educated about art.

David Zwirner (gallerist) - You ultimately get a much more serious audience at the larger fairs. I think the small hotel fairs are a curiosity. People are nosy and they want to find something new, but the more serious exchange, in my experience, happens at larger fairs. You see more curators there and I think you also have more of a dialogue with new collectors at the larger fairs.

Pat Hearn - The smaller fairs are cheaper to participate in, the bathroom is not a quarter mile away, and the furniture is more comfortable.

Antonio Homem (gallerist, Sonnabend gallery) - I think that the fair at the Gramercy is a rather nice idea. I don’t know how well it explains and shows the work of an artist, but it has a nice kind of feeling and it is certainly trying to bring to people’s attention things they may not be familiar with. I find it more pleasant than any other art fair. However, because the work is shown in a small room, dealers tend to bring the same kinds of things - there are lots of small works - and in the end everything tends to look a bit unified. I don’t know exactly how much you learn at the end. Normally you go to fairs and you see lots of things you’ve seen elsewhere and generally they look much less good (unless you saw them before in a really terrible place). After all, fairs are places with no ceiling and no walls and lots of things dangling from above. It’s so depressing; you really are seeing the art as if it had been left in some kind of deposit. The two most acceptable fair situations I’ve seen were the two in New York: The Armory - it is fairly small, very civilised, very manicured and things do look well; and The Gramercy which is completely the opposite.

Jack Hanley (gallerist) - In the 80s, the major fairs seemed to concern themselves with the resale of works of art that were in demand as name-brand types of commodity. I see the function of the smaller Unfair and Hotel fairs as quite different. One interesting aspect is the possibility of showing installation and younger artists. In this way it functions as an information exchange, rather like the conventions that other businesses organise. I think the other function is that these economically modest projects help to move art world attention away from the elitist and product-oriented approach to art.

Steve Henry (gallerist, Margo Leavin Gallery) - Maid service, room service, cable TV.

Gary Kornblau (editor/publisher, Art Issues) - In the small Hotel fairs, dealers do not have to look at one another all day long, which is why they generally like them more.

Thea Westreich - The Gramercy can’t be compared with the ADA (Art Dealers Association of America) and The Cologne art fair can’t be compared to Chicago. They’re as different as galleries right now. They all have a different function and they all have a role to play. The Gramercy is clearly a very user-friendly opportunity. People who don’t normally feel empowered can go there and buy things without selling the house, the car and the kids. The Basel Art Fair tends to be very international, very over the top in terms of ‘the best of art’. They are all different and their success and/or appropriateness to the market depends on the intention of the fair.

Heike Kempken - In the very beginning, the idea of the Unfair was to reach as many people as possible for less money than the commercial fairs and to create a new spirit, a situation for critique and discussion. Now these fairs are no different from any other fair.

Clarissa Dalrymple - The thing that you lose in the Hotel fair is the variety. I love the really big art fairs because usually you find extraordinary things, 19th century things, strange photographs from other times. There’s a historical survey, which can be really fascinating. I’ve always thought that contemporary art at an art fair was pretty boring. Most people don’t make a great deal of money at a small fair, but they come into broader contact with the world: instead of sitting in your gallery, slightly removed, you’ve got this instant plunge from microcosm to macrocosm.

Is the art fair the new curatorial space?

Gavin Brown (gallerist) - No, but it’s dressing itself up to be.

Richard Flood (curator, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis) - Only insofar as it creates a mood; however, unlike a museum, the mood is without programmatic credibility.

Maureen Paley (gallerist, Interim Art) - I see it as an infomercial rather than a curatorial space (which is often at odds with the work that is being shown).

James Meyer - The art fair does not flatter work. It’s the equivalent of a gay bar at 4am after the lights have been turned on: what once looked fetching has lost its appeal. Things by diverse artists are cluttered together in hotel rooms and shoddy booths. Initially, the step out of the ‘white cube’ seems refreshing, yet this impression quickly fades. Critical work, frankly auratic stuff - everything looks the same yet slightly different, as if one had entered a warehouse loaded up with McCollum Surrogates. Now, to be reminded of the dull market mechanics of the art world is never a bad thing, and, within the context of the fair, amusing (e.g. a Joel Shapiro placed on a sagging bed). But in coming to this realisation, as one has so often before, one comes to feel a certain distaste for the activity of looking at, and writing about, art. One wonders why one got involved in this venture to begin with.

Christian Phillip Mueller (artist) ? These curatorial attempts by the galleries are rather ridiculous - covering the walls with canvas, trying to avoid all the loud patterns of the hotel.

Gary Kornblau - Art alters spaces - only foolish Marxists still think that spaces alter art.

What is the most memorable thing you’ve seen in an art fair?

Richard Flood - The Queen of Spain.

David Zwirner - Ernst Beyler’s booth at Basel where he showed Georg Baselitz, and Jason Rhoades’ installation at the first Unfair in Cologne.

Pat Hearn - The Florentine Stettheim salon, with informal lectures on her life at Jeffrey Deitch and videos by Alex at 303, both at the Gramercy.

Ronald Jones - I liked David Zwirner’s showing of Picabia in a hotel room at this year’s Gramercy - it fitted historically.

Andrea Rosen (gallerist) - At Jay Jopling’s booth in the first Unfair, Damien Hirst hired twin sisters to sit and knit under two identical spot paintings.

Carol Squiers (critic) - at The AIPAD (photography fair) French Modernist and Surrealist pictures from the 30s by lesser-known photographers. You rarely see that work exhibited in this country.

Larry Rinder (curator, University Art Museum, Berkeley) - A closed, green Duchamp Boîte at the San Francisco Phoenix Hotel art fair.

Antonio Homem - At art fairs one is always passing by very remarkable works with complete indifference, totally dulled by the experience. My problem with art fairs is that I always leave in total confusion. It all goes before my eyes too fast.

Maureen Paley - Damien Hirst’s twins at the first Unfair, and Colin de Land’s stand at Art Cologne, 1990.

James Meyer - For me, a memorable spectacle was watching collectors try on Andrea Zittel’s dresses at last year’s Gramercy.

Thea Westreich - The Jan Krugier at the Chicago art fair a number of years ago looked like a museum. It was just chock-a-block full of A+ works of modern art, Picasso, Balthus, Giacometti. It was just a staggering thing to see. It would be hard to forget David Zwirner’s Franz West/Jason Rhoades booth last year at The Gramercy. I loved the way West made use of usable objects and it was kind of paradigmatic of the fair itself.

Steve Henry - The pool at the Phoenix Hotel, SF; the Marlboro Man at the Chateau Marmont, LA; the bar at the Gramercy, NY.

Jack Hanley - The Brigid Polk installation at Vincent Fremont’s room at the Gramercy. Also, Carsten Höller’s show (an amazingly romantic story of teaching birds to sing) in the Cologne Fair with Ars Futura.

Clarissa Dalrymple - A Jasper Johns painting at Vivian Horan at The Armory, 1995. She had several things that I had only seen in books.

Jutta Koether (critic) - Works by Pierre Klossowski at Christine König’s booth at the Cologne art fair, 1994. It gave me a perverse pleasure because his work only became what it is - and that is a lot for me - through not working within the system (galleries, art fairs etc.)

Christian Phillip Mueller ? A couple of years ago in Cologne, Sylvie Fleury made a table of ‘Egoiste’ perfume boxes. She prepared a whole stack for Daniel Buchholz and in the morning most of the perfumes were missing, because the cleaning women had taken them away. They were the only objects at the fair which had any use value for them.

Collier Schorr

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Issue 23 cover

First published in
Issue 23, June-August 1995

by Collier Schorr

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