Tafterjournal n. 74 - agosto 2014

Contemporary art fairs as new forms of cultural consumption and urban experience


Rubrica: Reti creative

Parole chiave: , , , , ,

Contemporary art fairs are commercial exhibitions where art dealers meet up over the course of several days at a specific event. Nowadays they are held around the world, offering attendees the opportunity to experience in just a few days what otherwise would only be possible by travelling across countries, or all over the world, visiting the contemporary art gallery districts. Besides, the artworks on exhibition in the most renowned art fairs like Art Basel (Basel, Miami, Hong Kong), Fiac (Paris) or Frieze (London), are in no way second rate – both in terms of quantity and quality – when compared to the artworks sold in the leading auction houses or shown in contemporary art museums. On the other hand, most of the other art fairs are usually considered trade shows, which represent the majority of the secondary art market compared to the more up-market art organizations. The expressions “curated” and “not curated” reveals the differences occurring between the high-level content art fairs and the big secondary market ones.


Yet, it is still certain that all contemporary art fairs – both “curated” and “not curated” – which show the financial compromise of the symbolic value of art, have been often categorized as “art supermarkets.”


Several art market studies have largely analysed how the “curated” contemporary art fairs have contributed to speeding up this financial system. Although it has always been more difficult to gauge the potential of art fairs to create somewhat wide-ranging, local or international cultural networks, it is certain that art fairs have been experiencing a real worldwide boom for the past two decades.


This study has selected some key aspects of the contemporary art fairs expansion, focusing on their historical background and on contemporary globalization aspects of the art system. While exploring the art fairs territory, the contemporary art system often finds common grounds with attitudes observed in more-encompassing cultural and creative industries. Art fairs, as many other cultural industry events, such as music and cinema festivals or fashion weeks, share the “show – spectacle” notion in the public culture. Within this context, some analogies can be made as regards the common networking necessities of these industries, but it is also worth highlighting the emergence of art fairs effectiveness in enhancing the contemporary arts and the consumption of creative products.


Rules of art fairs within the creative and cultural industries

It was during the 70s when the “cultural industries” first emerged as part of academic discussions alongside “art history” debates, and when the economic and social approach started to meet the cultural and artistic ones. Within this context, it could be argued that cultural events such as contemporary art fairs, which have their roots in the same era, have been merging with many other different functions related to the cultural industry. As part of the development of the cultural industries, in over forty years of contemporary art fair history, the specific goal to speed up the art market has created new purposes and values. In recent years, a conscious approach within the different cultural industry systems has been applied; it is focused on human creativity, information and innovation as strategic resources for the economic development of all countries.(1)


Of course, art fairs are very much a product of the contemporary art territory and its specific rules and practices, but it is also crucial to see them within the context of many common trends in the cultural and creative management fields in order to understand the current situation of the art fair boom over the last decade.


The cultural and creative industries, especially in the digital age, draw attention to the increase, both in quantity and in quality, of private enterprises aiming to network internationally, creating specific internal synergies. When considering these industry behaviours, it can be observed how the most frequent practices adopted by sectors such as art, design, fashion or music, frequently share common backgrounds in the production, communication and experience of culture. Other behaviours take a more critical or traditional point of view, such as the information related to a spectrum of cultural and artistic knowledge as well as its physical elements. Is this case, looking at the future and the conservation of a specific spectrum of culture, such as contemporary art and its symbolic values, policies find their place in-between tradition and innovation.


In addition to this entertainment-based tradition within cultural experiences, the current economic trends in the creative and cultural industries can also be applied to the contemporary art system. Internationalization process, globalization trends, production and marketing orientation, new affiliate networks, and certainly, entertainment and information, have contributed to the creation of internal synergies and to a larger complexity of many cultural and creative systems that go beyond their own specific traditions.(2) .


Last but not least, these cultural and creative behaviours have always been critical in changing and segmenting public demands for fresh content and new concepts, based on the need to experience cutting-edge trends. This interconnection between such public demand and the cultural offer directly descends from the need to turn the cultural consumption into entertainment, which is indeed a legacy of the Debordian notion of “Society of the Spectacle” (1967), whose evolution finds place within the current urban culture of the Urban Entertainment Centres.(3)


As matter of fact, some organisations contribute to increase the visibility of all the above-mentioned elements, especially through unique and dynamic moments in the shape of cultural events like music and cinema festivals, fashion-weeks, awards and celebrations and, of course, art fairs. These cultural organizations, besides promoting the latest trends within each industry, reach not only the professional public, but also draw the interest and the admiration of the general public. These are one of those rare moments in which the stakeholders of one cultural and creative industry meet the general public in a context which can be addressed from different angles: business, information, networking or cultural consumption.


Art fairs between culture, information, business and entertainment

The contemporary art world, with its strong theoretical spectrum and humanistic background, is also one of the last cultural industry sub-systems to have reluctantly adopted the financial and entertainment elements that are common within the overall cultural and creative industry. Actually, the strong symbolic values within the contemporary art production take certain distance from the industrial production mind-sets, while some organizations have been forced to develop and manage these financial aspects as life-support systems. However, when analysing the concept of “contemporary art system” as introduced by Lawrence Allowey (1972), Francesco Poli (2010: XI) refers to the rigid role schematisation within the art system as the main dividing factor between the cultural and economic functions. In fact, this complementary notion of the art world often brings the commercial structures of its system much closer to the cultural and creative industry policies than to its artistic and theoretical origins.


Auction houses, private galleries and art fairs are institutions that mirror the business-focused dimension of the contemporary art system. Although the older sales-focused institutions – auction houses and private galleries – are both products of the avant-garde art scene in France many years before the art fair debut, they have been able to develop in parallel within the art system. The development of private galleries has always been, and still is, a question of small and medium-sized enterprises. Meanwhile, auction houses have been developing certain monopolistic characteristics following the creation of big companies with foreign subsidiaries; often with a comprehensive offer of art works from all types of culture, period or country(4). As remarked by Don Thompson (2010: 185- 194), art dealers need some other competitive advantage against the glamour of the auction houses and the wealth. Some have found this with the attraction of the high-level art fairs.


From this point of view, art fairs are seen as a way to provide middle-sized enterprises – including art galleries – with new economic opportunities. Finally, the networking needs of art fairs, which are part of the cultural and creative industry goals, largely contribute to an important call to participation for many others: local and foreign cultural operators and key-personalities who have been previously unreachable within the art worlds.


Contemporary art fairs reproduce the art cosmos for all the attendance, both for professionals and amateurs, giving them the opportunity to keep updated about the latest trends, to enrich their knowledge and networking capacities, all in a specific venue and on a given date.


The spectacles-shows culture heritage from the Industrial Exhibitions

The character and distinguishing features of spectacle-shows can be traced back to the wide spread of Industrial Exhibitions during the XVIII and XIX centuries.


The cultural background, in which art fairs found their strong international and entertainment-oriented dispositions, has its root within the spectacle/shows culture developed by the Industrial Exhibitions. Those events, which at the time have best expressed middle-class industrial prominence in urban networking, cemented the entertainments and internationalization elements of the whole Cultural Industry.


First showing the development of techniques, then growing to include fine arts, Industrial Exhibitions not only contributed to maximizing the exhibition value of the products displayed, but also to building new relationships between the general public consumption of arts and techniques. Industrial Exhibitions won massive public acclaim and continued to evolve complex forms such as the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, or the London Great Exhibition of 1851. During their evolution, it became clear that such exhibitions provided an invaluable opportunity to enhance the local business and cultural activity. Consequently, many other cities like Munich (1854), Florence (1861) and Tokyo (1877), started to emulate some of these international and historic events but within a national frame, as a local valuable version but with limited repercussion. The key role of those exhibitions and their socio-cultural reflection as places where all the contemporary forms of modern entertainment are first experienced has been largely studied. Through these Industrial Exhibitions communication codes were shaped in the eyes of consumers. Urban culture evolved into a new form of employment and new activities like the Luna-Park, the Cinema or other events based on the spectacles/shows principles(5) . The current forms of urban entertainment, including more complex and democratic forms such as Urban Entertainment Centres, can be seen as the legacy of the Industrial Exhibitions.


Within the art universe, it is just in this Debordian “entertainment age,” when the Venice Biennale – the exhibition event par excellence in the art world – was born.


It is no surprise that the closing of the Biennale’s Sales Office (1968) took place after sixty years of increasing popularity. In fact, by the end of the 1960s, the student revolts and the coming of the “information age” pushed the Biennale’s organization to abandon all functions that did not shape cultural values.


Following the transition from the “spectacle age” to the “information age”, the contemporary art world renewed its ambition of prominence, financial return and cultural reach that had characterized the Industrial Exhibitions.


It is from this nexus that we witness the birth of the first art fairs like Art Cologne (Koln, 1967), Art Basel (Basel, 1970), Fiac (Paris, 1976), Artefiera (Bologne, 1974), which implemented the sales functions of the art system as soon as the Biennale’s Sales Office closed down in 1968. From this point of view, art fairs perfectly absorbed the legacy of the culture-entertainment-consumption-benefit paradigm.


From the “biennalization” trend of the 1980s and the 1990s to the current “fairalization”

Although many influential magazines and enterprises active in the art market such as Artfacts, Art Forum, ArtVista or Art Diary International provide information about the main art world fairs of the year, due to their unpredictable nature, it is still difficult to state the quantity rate of this global phenomenon. Thompson (2010: 185- 194) counted at least one hundred and fifty world-prestigious art fairs in 2008, and two hundred in 2010.


As part of this recent wide spread of art fairs, one of their mayor global trends has been the appearance of these events in the new art hotspots. By far, these new points of interest are mainly located in Asia, Latin America and in the new emerging countries. These current explosion of the art fairs worldwide echoes and shows many common elements with the widespread explosion of Biennials in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Havana Biennial (Cuba, 1984), the Istanbul Biennial (Turkey, 1987), the Dakar Biennial (Senegal, 1992) and the Shanghai Biennale (China, 1996). The peripheral Biennales phenomenon, which has been called “biennalization,” has strongly linked the Biennale format expansion to its internationalization and globalization character.


Regarding this phenomenon, Arthur Danto is often quoted on his observations on the characteristics of a specific “intellectual utopia” of our days. His quote on the increasing number of Biennials around the world has been called “glimpse(s) of a transnational utopia”. By saying so, Danto highlighted how such Biennales proliferation frequently brought about a reaction against the original and unique Venice Biennale event dependency.(6)


From this point of view, the “biennalization” trend, although aiming to break the cultural uniformity imposed by Venice, also shows certain globalisation influences in formats and practices. Art fairs and Biennales share indeed some common values, as the intention to renew the public taste and boost cultural tourism. But the sales-focused function of art fairs, which is their prevailing nature, reflects a strong “functions diversification” of the art system. While Biennales lack to reveal such diversification, the art works presented in Venice could be considered “sold” as soon as they are chosen by one of the national pavilions(7).


It has been observed how, like the Biennales boom, historic art fairs such as Art Cologne (Koln), Art Basel (Basel), Arco (Madrid) and Frieze (London), have also witnessed the birth of other excellent quality art fairs in the new art world centres of interest. Art Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, SP-Arte in Brazil or the India Art Fair are some of these new events that, following global economic trends, have become the imprints of a globalized contemporary art world. As in the case of the increasing presence of biennales, the birth of new art fairs around the world brings about new and specific artistic, cultural and financial compromises. Displaying a diverse mix of those interests, cultural institutions such as the contemporary art fairs have been turning the consumption of creativity and culture into a global matter.


The socio-cultural legitimization of the “curated” art fairs

As introduced by Paco Barragan (2010: 48), the spirit of this “new fairlism,” after the last “biennalization” trends, shows the contemporary art system new answers and new necessities within a glimpse of more democratic relationships with the general public.


Behind this new art fairs global trend, there are often large corporations and influential art fair “brands,” which as part of their own growth strategies, have often sought the internationalization within the contemporary art market. On the other hand, younger art fairs, often on the periphery of the main art system centres, have learned the policies and inherited the legacies of older established art fairs.


The worldwide spread of the art fairs format, in fact, has certainly contributed to their fast socio-cultural legitimization. Furthermore, the contemporary art world has largely recognized art fairs as institutions that can appropriately represent themselves. It has been estimated that the top 10 world art fairs are able to attract around 600,000 visitors per year, an attendance that surpasses that of the 2013 Venice Biennale, and that gets near to the one of renowned events such as Dokumenta or Monumenta(8).


By analysing the well-renowned art fairs organizations, it is possible to observe how collectors and general public confidence on high-level critics and on all curators and professionals involved has been a key player in the new art fairs success. Experiences from the “curated” art fairs, highlighting real art content over financial interest, show the conviction that there are no respectable art fairs without innovated curatorial proposals and a professional selection committee in which experts such as art historians, critics, curators and dealers cooperate in order to offer high-level works on exhibitions.(9)


Such consciousness has played an important role in the foundation of Art Basel Miami, which can be considered as the first example of the internationalization of an existing art fair. It has been followed by many other examples that have reproduced ad hoc a climate of professional trust such as in the case of brand explosions like Frieze (London, New York) and Liste (Koln, Berlin). In this context, there are also other younger initiatives that have had the possibility to quickly reach a relevant position in the international art system. They have accounted for many relevant events around the world such as the Scope art fair (New York, Miami and Basel) founded in 2004, or Pulse (New York, Miami), which began in 2005, or Volta (Basel, New York) also founded in 2005.


The fast growth of art fairs in the last decades have questioned the relevance of big and older centres of attraction, like London, Paris or Basel, which have lost part of their monopoly vis-à-vis. Some of these new events have been exploiting new market territories like the new emerging countries, while others have been answering to the increasing democratic demand for urban entertainment and alternative cultural networks.


From art fairs to “art weeks:” satellite art fairs and unofficial surrounding events

In order to understand art fairs’ current situation from a global point of view, a regional and local perspective helps in establishing some degrees of market saturation and also in connecting art fairs with their specific urban reality. This is especially evident in the oldest and most established centres of the contemporary art market, like London, Paris, New York or Miami. From a regional perspective, there are also some key local trends supporting the worldwide boom experienced by art fairs in the past decades.


One of those trends can be observed through the proliferation of the so-called “satellite art fairs”. This expression, which has been wide used by the American press referring to the situation occurring in New York and Miami around a main art fair, consists of a large presence of new art fairs in some leading cities within the contemporary art system, all taking place alongside older and well-known art fairs.


In summary, these new art fairs represent the possibility to exploit the urban and cultural atmosphere created around a main and well-established art fair. Like in the case of Art Basel, Art Basel Miami, or Frieze, Fiac and Arco, the hosting cities – Basel, Miami, London, Paris and Madrid – have witnessed not only the birth of many alternative art fairs, but also collateral events related to contemporary art.


The “satellite art fairs” have, in fact, largely contributed to drawing the general public interest, as well as the collectors and professionals, by offering an alternative cultural content that goes beyond the focus on a main art fair. Nevertheless, most of these art fairs mainly represent an alternative offer of contemporary art compared to their high-level counterparts guaranteed by the main art fairs (10) . The development of new fairs has indeed incited the most established ones to change in their effort to update their own traditional structures. As a matter of fact, it has been in 1991 that Art Cologne has opened itself to new emergent art with the section “Förderprogramm für junge Künstler”, the current “New Positions” programme. Also in photography field, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its inventions, Art Basel has been the first art fair proposing with certain coherence photography within an art fair exhibition.


Many satellite art fairs have been aiming to offer hyper-specialized, easily consumed fresh contents thanks to their friendly programmes. Often focusing on marginal arts, such as video art, photography, emerging art or street-art, they often create new formats such as fairs based on solo-exhibitions, or hotel-room art fairs. All these formats presented by satellite art fairs seem to look for the individualization of new targets, in which alternative art fairs find their differentiating value.


During the last decade, new fair initiatives have had the possibility to attract investment or simply get in contact with cultural niches that would normally not be included in the high-level contemporary art network.


But the satellite art fairs are seen, furthermore, as complement to the cultural tourism promotion, creating in some cities around the world weeks of enormous cultural offer. This complementary cultural offer works thanks to the presence of alternative contents compared to the original art fairs, involving museums, private institutions and foundations. All these events, in the most relevant cases, contribute to the economic growth of the host city. This atmosphere has been known, and it publicizes itself, as “art weeks”. The art weeks working principles, in which the satellite art fairs had first played a key role, draw the attention to wider cultural systems that are aiming to rise alongside the official and high-quality contemporary art fairs.



While exploring art fair territory, the contemporary art system is often seen to be in touch with the mind-sets of the wider cultural and creative industry. That happens while art fairs hold many more values then the symbolic-exchange value of contemporary art. In the case of several major art fairs, fashion weeks, key music and cinema festivals, other well-renowned cultural events and un-official and satellite events, all can be considered new answers to the general public’s demand for cultural consumption.


Art fairs, however large or small they may be, as well as many other contemporary events in the creative and cultural industries, share this common “show – spectacle” culture.


However, the heritage of art fairs, which is in continuous development following both global and local trends, has been still not analysed. Also, their effectiveness in enhancing the contemporary arts and creativity concept of consumption is certainly alongside their financial nature. Just taking into consideration the other unpredictable necessities like networking, experience, innovation, information, it is possible to understand the contemporary art system as accepting the fairs not exclusively for their financial and spectacle values.


Furthermore, if financial wealth and high-quality content of the world’s most renowned art fairs are not second rate to artworks offered by the leading auction houses or contemporary art museums, some art fairs could be used, to read into the history of art movements, current tastes as well as significant works of critics and curators. However, this area remains to be fully explored.



For inspiring this work and many other considerations which have found place in my M.A. thesis in Contemporary Art History, thanks to Paco Barragán and his unique study on art fairs. For supporting this research and its multi-focus approaches, thanks to my supervisor Maria Antonietta Picone.


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(3) Barragán, P. The Art Fair Age, Milan, pp-25-37, 2010.
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(5) Picone Petrusa M., Le grandi esposizioni in Italia 1861-1911, Napoli, Liguri Editore, 1988, p.6-10.
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(9) Barragán, P. ibidem.
(10) Pedersen J., Moeran B., Negotiating Values in the Creative Industries Fairs, Festivals and Competitive Events, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 66-67.


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Art fairs calendar ArtVista: <www.artvista.de>
Art fairs calendar Art Forum: <www.artforum.com>
Art fairs calendar Art Facts: <www.artfacts.net>

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