The multitude of art fairs highlights a multi-speed market


The global figures show phenomenal Art Market growth: +1,700% since the year 2000 in terms of Fine Art auction turnover, with Contemporary art as the market’s principal driver. However, the extraordinary expansion is not evenly spread across the market… as we saw at the various different art fairs recently hosted in Paris.

The FIAC’s results were generally good with a constant stream of visitors generating 72,500 admissions over four days. Although the affluence is slightly lower than the previous year (nearly 74,000 visitors), the exhibitors posted satisfactory sales. The 45th edition of the FIAC featured 195 international galleries (with 27 countries represented). As its name implies (FIAC for International Contemporary Art Fair), the fair has a decidedly ‘international’ policy. However its claim to contemporariness is somewhat mitigated by its presentation of a greater number of firmly established artists than ‘recent discoveries’. Many of the galleries displayed a distinct aversion to risk, presenting works by blue-chip artists. Among the many 20th century masterpieces at the FIAC, we saw some remarkable paintings by Francis PICABIA (at Nahmad and Michael Werner) whose secondary market is particularly buoyant at the moment (price index up +368% since 2000), and some superb ‘classics’ by Stael, Picasso, Dubuffet, Fontana, Klein and Joan Miro… all profitable choices. In some respects this is not surprising since participation in the FIAC represents an significant financial commitment. The Templon Gallery, for example, chose to feature a major sculpture by Joan MIRO, L’oiseau lunaire, echoing the ongoing retrospective of the artist at the Grand Palais, i.e. right next door to the FIAC! The work was apparently acquired for $6.8 million.

With access to the FIAC being so expensive, particularly for young galleries who represent the spearhead of Contemporary art (a small stand costs about $30,000), it may be time for certain fairs to reposition their offer in favour of more prospective galleries… or at least towards professionals supporting established artists in need of international recognition? As the dust settles on an extremely busy week in Paris, certain market players are showing signs of openness to some sort of rebalancing. A few weeks ago, the organizers of Art Basel (Switzerland) and the Frieze (L.A.) announced their willingness to introduce a sliding price scale so that less powerful emerging galleries pay less than major galleries. Last spring at a conference in Berlin, gallery owner David Zwirner proposed that the major galleries should subsidize the smaller ones at art fairs. But should they offer support in the form of economic assistance? And are fair directors on the right track by proposing to adapt the prices of stands according to the economic weight of their customers? It might be better to explore other more collaborative policies whereby, for example, the most powerful galleries dedicate part of their stand to a young gallery. In short a collaborative approach could be a good way of ensuring that emerging galleries get greater exposure at the world’s leading art fairs.

The fragile Off ecosystem…

While the aisles of the FIAC were full, the crowds at the Off fairs in Paris were much thinner. Indeed, it seems the satellite events may only benefit very little from the ‘FIAC effect’, and this may be because there is simply too much to take in. The city’s programming is indeed rich and diversified, but it is probably too dense. Difficult to imagine that an artistic advisor or a seasoned collector will find the time and the motivation to wade through everything on offer after digesting the nearly 3,000 artists at the FIAC. Visitors, professionals and collectors not gifted with supernatural ubiquity simply cannot see everything. In response to the problem of sheer volume, a number of events have tried to reposition themselves (The YIA became the “Paris Contemporary Art Show”, the Outsider Art Fair moved to Atelier Richelieu, etc.) to enhance their attractiveness. But these modifications may have been insufficient. That said… we were impressed by a new Off fair entitled Bienvenue that has adopted a very original format and strategy. Although it operates a careful selection of galleries, the fair offers free entry (vs. 38 euros for the Fiac), remains open for two weeks and, above all, uses an open and mixed space format in which visitors can address any of the galleries concerning any of the works on display.

Bienvenue’s interesting ‘alternative’ offer is a calculated decision, with its director Olivier Robert acutely aware that lots of galleries have not recovered from having over-invested in fairs in the past. Many have gone out of business after working too many fairs. They include provincial galleries, but also Parisian galleries struggling with the capital’s rising rents. The modest galleries are trying to resist, even if that means making some compromises: some even rent out their premises between exhibitions in order to balance their budgets. If you stroll through the Marais district in Paris, you can see almost as many For Rent signs and Pop-up galleries as there are actual exhibitions in progress…