An arts festival or art fair is a festival that focuses on the visual arts, but which may also focus on other arts. Arts festivals in the visual arts are called exhibitions. Artists' participation in the most important such exhibitions (such as the Venice Biennale or Art 41 Basel) is by invitation, and these exhibitions are organized by internationally recognized curators. These curators are chosen by a committee of peers.
An art fair is always on the must-do list of the ARTKABINETT social network of fine art collectors. This week, many independent collector members are visiting Art Basel, Scope, Design Miami and all the other exciting art events held in Switzerland. Throughout the year, the Kabinett Calendar offers a roster of these collector happenings.
These international exhibitions must be distinguished from art fairs which are market-oriented gatherings of art dealers and their wares, which have recently emerged as among the most important art-world venues for contemporary art in the present-day super-heated art market.
Probably the two oldest festivals specifically geared to the arts are as follows. First the Three Choirs Festival in the West of England was established as a "yearly musical assembly" by 1719. Second, the Norfolk and Norwich Festiva (shown right)l first took place in 1772.
By contrast, trade fairs -- established gatherings of sellers and vendors -- go well back into ancient times and were typically located at convergences of transportation routes; sea ports, rivers, camel routes. By 1000, Bruges and Ghent held regular trade fairs behind castle walls, signaling a tentative return of economic life to western Europe after the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire.
Nowadays, art fairs are a strange hybrid of arts festival, trade fair, souk and 19th-century salon. They are, at least in bulk, a recent phenomenon. Before art fairs began to multiply, there were just the auction houses and the dealers, who saw their task as building an artist's career as much as selling product.
But when the art boom took off roughly 20 years ago, auctioneers Sotheby's and Christie's started marketing art directly to collectors. Sidelined dealers countered by forging selling partnerships with dealers in other nations, giving their artists international exposure. At the same time came a rising number of art fairs. The so-called grand tour began, a circuit of events often meant to give dealer exhibitions the same urgency or party vibe as auctions.
In 1993, at the breakthrough Gramercy Hotel fair (shown left), dealers simply sat in their hotel rooms, entertained guests, and sold art hanging from shower-curtain rods or spread out on the beds. The hallways were choked with collectors. Dealer Gavin Brown famously sold Damien Hirsts for a few thousand dollars apiece.
In December 2001, Art Basel opened a satellite fair in Miami, now held annually. At the time, it was difficult to sell great art in Florida; today, collectors hold off bidding at the big fall auctions to shop at the hugely successful event and its blistering 25 satellite fairs. In the intervening years, art lovers found more places to shop and dealers, who are the primary supporters of artists, reclaimed power.
But now the sheer volume of work shown at fairs -- by 900 artists at some -- argues for art-fair fatigue and against connoisseurship. "It's great to be able to see, say, a whole lot of young figurative painters at Basel, but the next step is to grade them: 'This one's hot, this one's not,'" says Mr. Glimcher.
"You can begin to see things in a bleak 'stock portfolio' light. And the dealers, we see you coming, and we begin to show you things in that light." He advises that collectors at an art fair let "art wash over them, instead of comparing; it's a different way to look at it."
Meanwhile, the real world is starting to intrude on the art-fair party circuit. BMW, which for years has ferried scores of Art Basel VIPs gratis from paintings to parties, has canceled its service and sponsorship this year; people close to the fair cite the escalating cost of gasoline.
The bottom line for art fairs is finally a bottom line. They exist to sell art and to display a dealer's curatorial vision. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as collectors realize they offer a highly edited, repetitive, even trendy, snapshot of the current art market -- not of art history.
courtesy, Alexandra Peers WSJ