in Opinion | 12 APR 05
Featured in
Issue 90

View from the Bridge

Is the growing popularity of art fairs creating a culture of ‘spotting’ rather than ‘looking’?

in Opinion | 12 APR 05

There was a man I knew who drank too much. He was a collector who owned many beautiful things. That made him a regular at high-end dinners and receptions. His particular style of soddenness was an amiable befuddlement. When the smile went slack, his face suggested a baby, moments before falling asleep. Not infrequently he proceeded to do just that. He’s gone now, but I admired his taste and, so long as he was able to keep the conversation going, I enjoyed his company. One evening, after he had apparently ‘left the table’, he suddenly sat bolt upright and declared in a tone of deep satisfaction: ‘We are all here!’ He said it twice more, like an incantation to ward off evil spirits, then gently dozed off.
The other day I heard much the same phrase – ‘everybody was there!’ – voiced by a woman just returning from Art Basel Miami Beach. Although her pronouncement lacked my friend’s utter well-being, it nicely defined the same sociological category, the floating population of art worldlings that circles the globe attending events according to seasonal timetables stricter than any that dictate the migrations of birds or nomadic tribes. The cardinal points and minimum stays are now ingrained into the collective psyche of hardcore mavens by behaviour modification techniques that make liberal use of parties and aggressive marketing buzz: a day in Chicago and a day in Paris, three days in Basel, then two each in New York, Madrid, London and Miami.
I should have disagreed with the woman, since I had not been there, but such a demurrer would have sounded vain. Worse, it would have made explicit the fact that I had skipped what the real players moved mountains or crossed oceans to show up for. In years past, I too did the circuit. But circumstances have changed, and this encounter put me to thinking what I had missed, and by extension what many of the most avid and discriminating enthusiasts of modern and contemporary art miss when lack of time or money prohibits their going to these international trade extravaganzas. In fairness – no pun intended – it should be said that local audiences can be quite large, and the cost per curious head democratically affordable. For such through-the-turnstiles traffic these airlifted malls are like walk-in art magazines heavy on ad pages, and in places where the year-round gallery count is low they can be a welcome jolt of information.
Although mounted by dealers with fixed addresses, the fairs – like the ever-increasing incursions of the auction houses into the market for freshly minted art – signal the accelerating eclipse of the traditional gallery structure. Fairs are not really about looking: ‘spotting’ is the more accurate verb. In the mad scramble through the turnstiles – for high rollers with connections, jumping them ahead of the crush can be arranged – what matters is knowing where the hot booths are and how to pick out the trophy pieces and the bargains before others see them. Think sale day at Mall of America – or Britain, France, Spain and Switzerland – where the goods are priced up instead of down. Gone are the drawn-out courtship dances of dealers with collectors and collectors with works of art. The concentration of merchandise and compression of time has transformed ‘getting to know you’ into ‘love at first sight’, Chicken Ranch-style. (Excuse the provincial reference, but Chicken Ranch was the name of a Nevada brothel celebrated for its slap-and-tickle shamelessness.) And if, in the heat of passion, you mistakenly take home the one you flirt with, then the Renos of the art world – auction houses – can generally arrange a divorce.
Making light of all this is merely putting a publicly cheerful face on a phenomenon that prompts frowns among many involved in creating and servicing a system to which they have now become captives. After describing the juggernaut of Miami openings a hotshot curator I know wearily concluded, ‘But that is not what I got into this for’. She is not alone. Just ask dealers as they pack and repack their wares, hopeful that they will sell out but fearful that they will just break even, while privately wondering if their new hit-and-run clients even know what they are buying. Or ask the collectors (as distinct from speculators) who once relished the solitary pursuit of their prey but are now compelled to keep pace with the herd so as not to miss out.
But that motive – belonging – may finally be the reason the fairs have become so popular. Overall the art world is exponentially bigger than it was a decade ago. For all their sprawl and frenzy, the fairs represent not just one-stop shopping opportunities but, on opening night at least, a comparatively select community where one can count on meeting like-minded souls. Compared to the mass art audience that swarms museums about which patrons and cognoscenti formerly had proprietary feelings, the people attending the fairs are merely a crowd. ‘Our crowd’, my drunken friend might have said. For others like him there is comfort in the thought. But it is a crowd convened by aggravating want, and its size and appetites are growing. Everywhere you look, Stendhal’s ‘happy few’ has metastasized into a voracious, often surly many. Perhaps, behind his beaming grin my friend was already aware of this trend and secretly mourned the day when the guest list was smaller, the pace slower, crass displays of wealth rarer and a kind of social decorum reigned. Perhaps that is why he drank. Now off to ARCO and back to the Armory.