Book Review: From Roman Feria to Global Art Fair, From Grand Tour to Neo-liberal Biennial: On the Fairization of Biennials and the Biennalization of Art Fairs

ARTE Generali


The market for art publications during the pandemic has been slow, interrupted by the lack of book fairs, and probably also by a lack of opportunities for authors. However, as most people now have more time to read, it is worth picking up the new publication by Spanish art historian and curator Paco Barragán, an in-depth exploration of the most important sales platform for art in the contemporary market: the art fair.

Barragán has a longstanding interest in the topic, having already published a book about art fairs in 2008 (‘The Art Fair Age’ (Milan: Edizioni CHARTA)).  In 2020, however, his approach has become somewhat more cynical. But that makes reading his texts more entertaining for the reader. Conceived as an ‘essay’, as the author calls it, this volume is mainly available in Europe as an E-Book. It picks up from his earlier research and adds the contemporary, global biennial into a mix of interrogation and critical analysis. Under the extensive and slightly clumsy title ‘From Roman Feria to Global Art Fair, From Grand Tour to Neo-liberal Biennial: On the Fairization of Biennials and the Biennalization of Art Fairs’, the author not only delves into the history of both art fairs and biennials, but more importantly discusses their function and relevance in society today. Naturally, that story is largely a story about Europe: the Biennale in Venice, Documenta in Germany, art fairs in Cologne and Basel, as well as Arco Madrid, for example. Thereby, Barragán repeats the well-established claim that both the art fair and the curatorially framed contemporary biennial are children of a period of globalisation of a contemporary art world which has expanded dramatically in the realm of neoliberal capitalism. And without doubt both blockbuster exhibition formats have – before the current Coronavirus pandemic struck – engaged art afficionados around the world nearly all year round with often equal excitement.

Parts of the book might only be interesting to the historically minded. For those readers, despite the fact that not all the historical threads are woven together entirely convincingly, the book is a treasure trove of learning about the whole history of the art market, including the complexities of art production and art sales in a humorous and sharp-witted way. An added bonus is provided by the entertaining “artoons” created by New York-based Mexican artist Pablo Helguera, which interrupt the flow of text by engaging the eye and allowing reflection on the topics discussed.

The book is divided into two parts; an overview of the art fair followed by a section on the history and presence of the biennial as a new type of blockbuster exhibition. Insightful charts and maps help the reader to memorise some of the material further.  While the structure seems at times driven by a personal desire to shed light on specific overlooked fairs and biennials in the Hispanic and Latin world, this is certainly a narrative which has so far been widely overlooked. Broad sweeps through the past might make the academic reader twitch, but a more general audience can learn a lot from this well-researched but lightly presented essay. It does a good job of explaining how, for example, the idea of selling luxury items – including contemporary artworks in a fair context – is not as new as fair organisers often try to convince us, but also that the biennial as a concept is much more closely connected to the art market than some curators might want us to think. What the author had previously coined the ‘biennalization of art fairs’ or ‘the fairization of biennials’ still rings true. Both types of mass events have shaped our experience of culture and, for many people, dictated travel dairies all year round.

The book ends with a discussion of ‘global contemporary art’, the kind that is now being shown across the world in both art fairs and biennales, and asks questions of the reach and aesthetics of the types of art that attract this label. As Barragán admits, criticism of the global fair and the global biennial was becoming louder even before the pandemic of 2020 hit. For various reasons, people had become tired of the never-ending sameness that the English journalist Georgina Adam aptly called fairtigue. The pandemic has only served to sharpen the focus on those existing issues, and while it is too early to tell in which direction the wind will blow, many do predict the arrival of a new local art model, something which could benefit commercial and as non-commercial exhibition showcases alike in ways that might prove to be more meaningful and less frantic than before. But in any case, anybody who wants to use the partial confinement to one’s own four walls to not only dream about future art events but also to understand their mechanisms better would do well to pick up this book – before holding it to account in the real world.


Written by our ARTE Generali author Stephanie Dieckvoss, London


(Miami: Artpulse Editions, February, 2019) (by Paco Barragán, Arteditions: Miami 2020)