“I’ve seen seven art fairs in the space of four days, so the ‘current state of the art world’ is making my brain explode,” I told grad students at Rutgers recently, when asked to assess the contemporary field of fine art. Not that art fairs should necessarily affect our ability to see art, the issue is just that they increasingly do. Certainly the fact that the Armory Show raised its entrance fee 33% and nobody said a word speaks to the value people place on shopping. Let’s keep in mind that the already steep $20 MoMA admission is now $10 cheaper than a $30 day pass at this fair.
Three years ago, when MoMA first increased its entrance fee, critics claimed the expansion would be lost to lower-income classes due to the prohibitive price. Sadly, no such debate transpired when the Armory hiked its rates, presumably because commercial enterprises claim no responsibility in making salable art available to the public. This isn’t to say they don’t, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that this year’s increase in admission was a calculated decision to thin non-buyers from the giant crowds experienced in 2007. After all, the move facilitates sales, benefiting everyone involved but the poor.
The whittling away of the public’s ability to view art, however, doesn’t stop here. One aspect of art fair dominance I have yet to see addressed by critics is the fact that every time a series of works is exhibited for the first time at an art fair, its sale shrinks the public viewing time, while charging us for something we’d have previously seen for free. Sure, this art may be seen again on the secondary market or in exhibition, but tracking down a complete suite of works that may have been sold to a number of different clients often requires more resources than a space has at its disposal.
Unfortunately, as gallery locations around the city become more diffuse, even if the market bottoms out, fairs may retain their importance to the art community. This will lead to a lot more “fairs = head explosions” as we attempt see as much art as humanly possible, before it disappears into the hands of collectors.