‘Is it worth it?’ The high stakes that small and medium galleries face in major art fairs

Posted on May - 9 - 2018

Courtesy Resnicow

Courtesy Resnicow

This year’s Frieze in New York was endured under tropical and heated conditions that some say altered sales of the event, driving collectors to leave the balmy tent. However, there was an overall hot topic discussed among galleries and dealers that also heated the atmosphere, and this was concerned with the biased economics of art fairs.

Although fair commentators and reviews rave about staggering figures reached by sales attained mostly by big galleries, smaller and mid-size dealers are, in most cases, the ones least benefited in these lavish affairs. It becomes a paradox when dealers are aware of the high stakes and uncertainties of participating in a mainstream fair, where a booth can amount to a considerable investment. In the midst’s of doubts, dealers have to exude confidence, edge and a carefree attitude that appeals to potential collectors. Unfortunately, nobody wants to buy from a nervous and overly eager dealer, whose gallery lacks the proper pedigree.

The people behind Frieze and other major fairs are aware of this situation, and changes are being seen in the lowering costs per square foot in different areas, such as the Focus section in Frieze, directed at new galleries where spaces were 30 percent less this year. However, important fairs like Frieze are always a gamble for small and medium-sized galleries. The fairs, high-priced booths, plus additional overspending in overhead, including costs of shipping, handlings and insurance, make their investment excessive with a possibility of not seeing financial returns.

As the middle market, contracts, small and medium-sized galleries are confronted with a critical reality. On the one hand, as physical visits to galleries decrease, fairs represent an excellent opportunity to showcase their best works and artists to an overwhelming number of fairgoers, potentially making most of their yearly sales in a couple of days, and simultaneously boosting or retaining their reputation. However, as more prominent galleries are better equipped to handle losses and withstand financial blows, small and medium galleries face harder times and may not recover as quickly or even at all from weak sales at a fair.

Courtesy Conde Nast Traveler

So, what future lies ahead for these galleries? With the growing popularity of art fairs around the world, these galleries can’t afford to be outside of the international loop. There are many suggestions as to what a possible and inclusive proposition could be. These dealers could shift their efforts to participate in more affordable and less mainstream fairs, to lower costs. Also, some suggest that more significant galleries could offer a subsidy for smaller players since the whole ecology of the art world needs variety to feed a healthier market. Additionally, smaller galleries could join up and support each other to collectively further their situation in fairs.

As many options are being proposed, one thing is clear: some changes have to be made to survive the competitive and capitalist model of fairs. These shifts could be interesting to watch in the upcoming years as well as other strategies that galleries are adopting to adjust to the changing times.

By: Gabriela Martinez de la Hoz