Melanie Gerlis is one of the UK’s leading art journalists. Across a career that has seen her working for The Art Newspaper and the Financial Times, she has become known for her incisive, accurate, expert art market analysis. She has also written books, including ‘Art as an Investment? A Survey of Comparative Assets’ and her latest, ‘The Art Fair Story: A Rollercoaster Ride’, both published by Lund Humphries. With a huge wealth of knowledge about the history of art fairs, we asked her what the state of play is, and where the future lies.
So what inspired you to write a book about art fairs, what's so interesting about them?
There are plenty of books about the history of museums, auction houses, and the art market in general but nothing that charts the rise of art fairs. They had become such a dominant part of my working life since I started in the art world in 2005 and seemed both the perfect proxy for the market as a whole and to have contributed to the huge growth of the contemporary market in particular. The truth is too that once the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and there were no more art fairs to go to, I had enough time to write a book! It made me wonder what else we could all achieve if art fairs were to disappear from the schedule...
Why do you think art fairs have managed to become such a dominant force in the art market?
I think there was a genuine need to widen the reach of contemporary art—don’t forget that museums and even auction houses had very little that was really new to see. Making art viewing and buying more convenient became more necessary once the characteristics of art buyers changed. Previous generations came to art collecting much later in life, almost as a retirement hobby, so had more time to walk around all the galleries, visit museums and really educate themselves. After the Second World War, wealth began gradually—then very suddenly—to belong to a younger, working generation who had less time and moved around a lot more. Art fairs also benefited from the growth of the aspirational and experiential economy. People love to travel to interesting places, see new things, and post the experience on their social media feeds.
Are art fairs a threat to the traditional gallery model?
I call art fairs the ‘frenemy’ (friend and enemy) of galleries because they kept their model alive and threatened it at the same time. Art galleries are very very small businesses—even today’s so-called ‘mega galleries’ have a staff of only a few hundred. They needed art fairs to create a bigger, broader offering, especially while as the auction houses grew more global and dominant. In the years building up to the pandemic, galleries were reporting that, on average, nearly 50% of their turnover came from art fairs, which is a very compelling amount! But they are very expensive to do, take gallerists out of their bricks-and-mortar spaces—designed to make the art look at its best—and do not fit in well with an increasingly ecological mindset. Building a temporary space for a few days, to which people fly around the world, is not good for the planet.
How are younger, smaller galleries affected by art fairs?
It is the smaller galleries that are most at risk from an art fair—they are make or break. If a young gallery gets selected to be in a fair such as Frieze or Art Basel, they immediately join an elite club. But they can only afford a loss leader for so long. Fundamentally the numbers don’t add up. If you are selling work priced below $10,000 and have to pay $50,000 just for a booth—never mind your travel, accommodation, entertaining clients in town, and keeping up the rent on your empty gallery—you are going to have to think twice.
How did the pandemic affect the present and future of art fairs?
Pre-pandemic there were already grumbles about the cost and exhaustion of doing fairs. This came from the collectors too – they realised that they could just as easily, and probably more happily, sit on a yacht and buy a work from a jpeg during an art fair. So fairs had become marketing exercises, rather than direct sales platforms. Exhibitors—who bring in the bulk of an art fair’s revenue—were already beginning to rethink and the major fairs had to come up with strategies that helped the smaller galleries keep on their circuit. The pandemic just squeezed ten years in to two. Without fairs, galleries had no choice but to develop their digital presence, something that they had been painfully slow to do. They also realised that there were some benefits of doing fairs—in particular, for all of us, their ability to bring so many people in the art system into one place around one time. It accelerates conversations and activity—many a museum show has come about because of a few people bumping into each other on an art fair floor.
Major art fairs have recently been bought out by huge investment firms - what's happening there?
Art fairs naturally appeal to the media and entertainment industry—so Frieze is now majority owned by Endeavor, a huge talent agency, and Art Basel has sold nearly half of its business to Lupa Systems, an investment vehicle run by James Murdoch, which has also backed Vice Media and the Tribeca Film Festival. Fairs are not huge money spinners on their own, but their brands, and the business they can attract around each event are compelling to owners who want a trophy asset that brings lots more people into the fold. If fairs want to keep competing on a global scale, they need owners with the funds and the reach to support them.
Is there a danger of fairs becoming homogenised? I'm referring to ArtBasel kicking FIAC out of the Grand Palais in Paris. Are we at risk of there just being two big art fair players, and is that a bad thing?
Yes and no. I think that the fairs that thrive will be the big players—Fiac should have survived, but seems to have been caught out at a weak moment. But I don’t think the inevitable homogenisation is necessarily a bad thing. We did not need 365 art fairs a year—if we have half a dozen ‘must-see’ events, that’s enough! It leaves breathing room for alternatives, whether more locally-based gallery events, highly specialised fairs, a swathe of digital developments and even more physical galleries. One definite phenomenon since the pandemic is the sheer number of galleries opening more spaces around a more decentralised art world, which I think is potentially exciting.
What do you think the future of art fairs is?
Fairs still have a purpose and are still the most effective way to gather the market together and sell art en masse. But their temporary events will be a less dominant part of the art market eco system. There is more choice now. If fairs are smart, they will inject themselves into the new choices, and to a certain extent this is happening already—notably Frieze opening a small gallery hub in London. Everywhere now, collectors, galleries, curators, artists and enthusiasts have more choice about how they consume art.