Art Market 101: What Is An Art Fair?

Morons (LA Edition, white) by BanksyMorons (LA Edition, white) © Banksy, 2007
Florence Whittaker

Florence Whittaker, Urban Art Specialist & Sales Director[email protected]

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A large-scale event that sees all the different elements of the contemporary art world come together, for some the art fair is a controversial institution.

Started by dealers as a means of competing with auction houses, art fairs were designed to amass a global audience within a single place, and are the epicentres of art business.

In recent years, and despite their divisive nature, art fairs have become increasingly popular: between 2011 and 2015 almost 8 million people attended art fairs across the world.

Art fairs are worth a lot, too: in 2015, estimated total art fair sales totalled $12.7 billion.

In this article, we take you through the basics of the art fair, and what they can mean for buying and selling art today.

What is an art fair?

Art fairs connect buyers, galleries, dealers, and people who simply wish to see art. But they do more than just sell art.

Art fairs are centres of art commerce that enable punters to see lots of different works by different artists, all under one roof. Individual booths, each attached to a gallery or individual artist, form mini galleries within one enormous exhibition space.

Events that afford industry insiders and members of the public exclusive access to all goings-on in the contemporary art world, art fairs are enjoyed by everybody from museum directors and international dealers to humble art fans and tourists.

When they first appeared in the 1960s, international art fairs resembled trade shows, often referred to as 'trade fairs'. Widely acknowledged as the first international art fair of its kind, Art Cologne began in 1967, closely followed by Art Brussels (1968) and Art Basel (1970). Each of these fairs have since continued to run annually.

Art Basel began in 1970, setting the art world abuzz and later creating the go-to format for the best art fairs the world over.

Similarly large, market-defining art fairs include Frieze London (began 2003), Art Basel Miami Beach (began 2002), and FIAC, Paris (began in 1974).

Why are they important to the art market?

Art fairs bring the entire art market into one place. Usually one massive exhibition centre, to be exact.

Uniting buyers, sellers, independent artists, art galleries, and curators, these events - jam packed with art professionals - are a cornerstone of the contemporary art ecosystem. And we're not just talking about business.

While providing a forum for the buying and selling of artworks - imagine a huge covered market, selling art as opposed to vegetables - the strength of art fairs is due not only to their convenience: art fairs can give huge insight into current demand for the works of the given artist, and provide some indication of where art trends are headed.

International cultural dialogue is key, too. Art fairs, which typically last several days, enable art dealers and exhibiting galleries to meet present and future clients, as well as other dealers and gallerists from around the world, with whom they can exchange ideas and moot future collaborations.

In sum, the exchange that art fairs facilitates allows for a more 'complete' sense of what is happening in the art market - and this can benefit everybody.

Should I buy art from an art fair?

Not your typical trade show, the art fair is a great place for buying art.

Great venues for investors who wish to get a visible - and tangible - sense of current trends in the art market, art fairs are also the perfect place to see - and buy - the work of artists who are on the rise.

Showcasing hotly tipped talents from around the world, art fairs can enable investors to get ahead of the market and secure significant returns on their investment.

Art fairs are in person events that can provide the perfect environment for networking. Interested in an artwork? Simply go up to the fair booth of a dealer or gallery and introduce yourself.

From there, galleries and dealers will be able to offer hands-on advice. Be sure to ask plenty of questions - even those uncomfortable ones about prices: don't be shy!

But watch out: spending day after day at an art fair can induce a phenomenon that many have dubbed 'fair-tigue'. Don't feel the need to take everything in at once: relax and take your time.

Can I find prints and multiples at an art fair?

Large-scale art fairs cater principally to selling original artworks; but with lots of different art fairs out there, many also host a variety of prints and multiples.

London Original Print Fair and Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair, for example, are two UK-based art fairs that deal exclusively in prints and multiples.

London's longest-running original print art fair, London Original Print Fair was founded in 1985 and until 2021 took place annually at London's Royal Academy. In 2023, the fair will move to the galleries of Somerset House and feature the work of artists including David Hockney, Grayson Perry, and Bridget Riley.

Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair takes place annually at London's Royal Arsenal and features the original fine art prints of over 500 emerging and established artists, including David Shrigley and Julian Opie.

Art Fairs in 2022-23

There are a variety of upcoming art fairs in 2022 and 2023. Big and small, there's something for everyone. Here are just a few:

StART Fair, London

Founded in 2014, StART Fair has been instrumental in supporting the work of lesser-known artists and communities, and local galleries.

Held annually at Kensington's Saatchi Gallery, the fair marks its return on 12-16 October 2022. Expect three floors of individually curated art projects, independent exhibitions, and gallery presentations.

Frieze London/Frieze Masters 2022

A household name in London and beyond, Frieze art fair will take place on 12-16 October 2022 this year.

Held in London's Regent's Park, the Frieze art fair is one of the English capital's standout cultural and arts events of the year. This year, a sister event will also take place in Seoul, South Korea, on the 2-5 September 2022.

Affordable Art Fair

One of the best international art fairs for smaller budgets, the Affordable Art Fair is returning to its established home at Battersea Park, London, on the 20-23 October 2022.

Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair

The largest original fine art print fair in the UK, Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair will be marking its return to the London Arsenal on the 3-6 November 2022 for what will be its 7th edition.

ARCO Madrid

A rising star in the art world, ARCO hosts its art shows in Madrid and Lisbon annually. This season, the Madrid edition will take place on February 22-26 2023.

London Original Print Fair

Gracing the galleries of London's Somerset House this 30 March - 2 April 2023 is the London Original Print Fair.

Art Basel 2023

The world's largest and most outrageous art fair, Art Basel, is taking place on the 15-20 June 2023.

The art fair experience par excellence, Art Basel describes itself as a 'temporary museum' that brings together around 250 selected galleries from around the world to present a whole range of modern and contemporary artworks of high quality.

Its partner event, Art Basel Hong Kong, is taking place on 23rd and 25th March 2023 and is a major player in the emerging Asian market.

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