What’s In an Art Fair? Shows, Exhibitions, and Fairs Around the World

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Image by annartist.

Art fairs generally require participants to pay an entry fee. Image by annartist.

France’s leading contemporary art fair, Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain (FIAC), opens in Los Angeles in April 2015, marking the first time in the fair’s history that it will occur outside the country.

Anny Shaw of The Art Newspaper reports that FIAC has been one of the major events in the international contemporary art scene since 1974; previously held only in Paris, under the soaring glass roof of the Grand Palais.

Now it’s going global with plans for FIAC events in St. Petersburg, Poland and Singapore. What makes FIAC an art fair– and why are art fairs in general so important to the arts community?

What are Art Fairs?

An art fair is an exhibition, usually of contemporary artists, or those still alive. Generally speaking, art fairs require that participants, either artists or art dealers, pay a fee to participate in the fair. Some fairs are even managed by a group of people called a jury, who require an entrance fee to even consider the work for the fair, and/or a space rental fee to participate if chosen.

The work at the art fair may be for sale although not always, but usually the artist or the art dealers only show saleable works at an art fair; as the intent is to pay off the participation fee and hopefully make some profit as well.

What is an Exhibition?

Unlike art fairs, an exhibition in any public or commercial gallery is a carefully curated display of works that support a specific theme in the hope to attract the interest of the public. A public gallery usually charges a fee to the general public to attend the exhibit, since the works usually come from the permanent collection or are on loan and the items are not for sale. A commercial gallery is exactly what the word ‘commercial’ implies: it makes its money from the sale of works on exhibit.

The defining point that distinguishes between art fair and art exhibit is the manner in which money transactions occur.

History of Art Exhibition

The exhibition of works of art, be it in a commercial or a non-commercial venue, has been a crucial part of the art market since the eighteenth-century. The Paris Salon, which opened to the public in 1737 and the Royal Academy in London, which opened to the public in 1769, became the keystone to the success of an artist. As art historians such as John Canaday point out, these exhibitions helped to establish the artist’s reputation and to determine the value (i.e. the selling prices) of his or her works.

Other institutions developed their own prestigious venues to promote local artists as well as to maintain a certain level of integrity in the type of art being created. These art fairs were primarily juried and the board of jurors were very strict as to what was acceptable and what was not. These exhibits raised the ire of not just the artists who were constantly striving to do something new and different and completely unique to their own artistic expression, but also to the critics of the day.

Critics at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, challenged such existing ‘art fairs’ for their regimented, stale view of art which resulted in many contemporary artists of the time being excluded. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Paris Salon caused such a furor that the artists and critics retaliated with an art fair of their own, the Salon des Refusés, of the exhibition of rejects.

According to John Canaday, one of the great art critics of this period, Émile Zola (1840-1902), was instrumental in spurring the movement of Refusés with his critical commentary on the almost farcical rejection of works by the Paris Salon. First opening in 1863, the Salon des Refusés showcased such artists as Édouard Manet (1832-1883), James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), and many others.

In 1903 another rebellious Parisian art group initiated the Salon d’Automne, which, according to art scholars like Canaday, was also as a reaction against the still very conservative policies of the Paris Salon. The Salon d’Automne quickly became the showcase of twentieth-century artists such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) as well as Emily Carr (1871-1945) and many others as detailed in several scholarly texts, including works by Canaday and Doris Shadbolt.

Contemporary Art Fairs Around the World

By the latter half of the twentieth-century, art fairs had become quite the fashion in Europe. According to Herzog Gűnter, the Cologne Art Fair, Art Cologne, sponsored by the Cologne Art Dealers Association, opened in 1967 as a trade fair for classic modern and contemporary art. Paris was losing its control of the international art market and West Germany was experiencing a fundamental revival in the arts and the radical public attitudes towards contemporary art. Art Cologne has grown substantially from its late 1960s roots, playing a decisive role in the development of the international art market.

Not without controversy, however. Art Cologne, now celebrating its 48th annual event, was initially known for its high admission standards. Gűnter Herzog explains that Dűsseldorf became its rival art fair, enabling less regarded galleries with the opportunity to meet with an international public. After a few years of rivalry, Basel interjected with an early summer art fair, the Basel Art Fair, and Dűsseldorf and Cologne merged their efforts.

The first American art fair was in 1976. Organized by the Felluss Gallery in Washington D.C., the Washington International Art Fair (fondly known as the ‘Wash Art’) experienced its own brew of controversy with a very conservative public who had very little appreciation for the concept of an international art fair and a contemporary art fair at that.

Global Art Fairs

So FIAC spreads its wings and goes global by establishing fairs in large communities around the world. Does that challenge the perception of an international art fair? The very name of a ‘big’ art fair suggests its location.

FIAC’s new global emphasis challenges the idea of traditional international art fairs, ensuring that artists and art experts watch its new inception very closely. If done poorly, the changes threaten to make art almost mass-produced or something serving hard-nosed commercialism of art rather than the intent of promoting original creativity and inspiring others to reach out and to appreciate its deeper meaning.

Contemporary Arts, Creativity

The idea of bringing together the contemporary arts, though not new, is a powerful statement of the creativity of our contemporaries. It’s not a concept that the art industry should mass produce. Although even artists need commercialism, art really isn’t about money and the making of large quantities of money. Neither should these art fairs be about mass commercialism.

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