Art Fairs Are Doomed. Here’s How to ‘Save’ Them

Frieze London, 2019. Courtesy Frieze; photograph: Linda Nylind

And save ourselves in the process

In the last week or so I’ve received two emails about art fairs: one inviting me to an online-only version of Frieze London and Frieze Masters – well, almost online-only, since the sculpture park is happening as usual and there’s a live-art strand in the West End – and another announcing that Art Basel Miami Beach was completely cancelled for 2020, with plans for a digital surrogate tbc. I may incline towards the curmudgeonly, but I nevertheless preferred the first email.

I hope Virtual Frieze works out. Specifically – and with sympathies to the victims of the fantasy I’m about to outline, namely smaller galleries that signed up to show in the big white tent this autumn – I would wish that what sold best there would be really expensive work by branded artists. That is, the kind of art that seemingly is selling best, where collectors are buying an investment rather than feeling the need to stand next to the artwork and sniff its aura: things like that ridiculous, cartoonish Alexander Calder sculpture that recently sold, through Hauser & Wirth’s website, for an eye-watering $15 million. Art Basel’s annulment might be the more persuasive sign of things to come. But in my reverie, once it’s demonstrated that lapis-lazuli-grade blue-chip is the only type of work that sells online, fairs stay intangible and become a home to ridiculously costly, alternative-currency stuff only: a near-invisible economy to the rest of us, like the boutique galleries currently popping up conveniently near to collectors’ homes in upstate New York.

Art Basel in Miami Beach 2019. Courtesy © Art Basel

If the tents folded, as it were, the artworld’s carbon footprint would reduce as a result, such that its denizens would finally be able collectively to point at something objectively good that contemporary art had achieved; we’d also be spared a fair bit of production-line eye pollution. But, additionally, I have non-ecological reasons for wishing fairs away, the main one being that I don’t like them. A critic at a fair is an irrelevance in any case, and since I generally have no filtering agenda when I’m there (I’m not a collector, or anything more than a very occasional curator) I drift around trying to look at everything and succumb to fair blindness – being unable to focus on any single piece of work – within about an hour. After that, I’m only alert to notable examples of plastic surgery and the whereabouts of the champagne trays, occasionally taking a photo of something in order to feel like I’m working. Meanwhile, and not unrelated to the aforementioned beverage trays, the opportunities to make a social faux pas are legion, particularly if you’re as dreadful at remembering faces and names as I am.

When, last October, I swept my mind clear of such thoughts and set out for Frieze London, I didn’t even make it inside. Pre-gaming in an artist’s studio during the afternoon, I took, as the Strokes put it, ‘too many varieties’ – some legal, others not – and when they combined unhappily a bit later on I spun out, hallucinating in Hyde Park for several hours and boring the kind-hearted friend who stayed to look after me with my theory that our taxi had crashed and we were both now dead. On another level, though, there are no accidents. My subconscious, smarter than I am, didn’t want to enter the tent. Fairs aren’t for me and my cohort and nor are they for artists: not the ones with work on the stand who, should they turn up, have to see how the sausage gets made, nor those without gallery representation who are hurtling around trying to get dealers to notice them at a moment when the only person the latter would less like to chat with is, well, an art critic. Yet some people do seem genuinely to enjoy the experience. The other day, an artist pal recalled a collector (of course) saying to him that what he really liked was the opportunity to see hundreds, if not thousands, of artworks in one day. To which I can only say, respectfully: what the fuck, dude.

Frieze London, 2019. Courtesy Frieze; photograph: Linda Nylind

In my multi-tiered fantasy this wouldn’t happen. Fairs would only exist for artworks over a certain price-point and wouldn’t exist offline, thus dissuading artists from overly commodifying their practice: once your work costs more than X, it disappears into a virtual netherworld of speculation. Meanwhile, if you wanted to buy, or see, work below that echelon, you’d have to schlep to physical galleries and experience the work in the nuanced manner that the artist intended, as used to be normal until an easier if less satisfying option replaced it. (Also, if it needs saying, there’s no pandemic in my dream.)

The longterm result of this realignment, which admittedly could be a bumpy ride for a while, might be the end of art fairs in any sense, given that it’s not much harder to look at several gallery websites rather than one art-fair website. Being old enough to remember the former paradigm, which seemed to work OK, I wouldn’t feel too much angst about that. Nothing is forever, even if after a couple of decades it can seem that way. In London, in the years prior to the first Frieze Art Fair – that is, before 2003 – there was just the London Art Fair, up in Islington. It was often terrible, stuffed with starchy work from the dodgier end of Cork Street (at best), but we’d usually go because there was nothing else, and have a laugh, and then we’d go back to seeing actual shows in galleries, leaving the moribund fair exhibitors to their parallel reality. Or we’d skip it entirely, and we wouldn’t have missed much. That was fine, and it could be fine again.

Updated 16 September 2020: Art Basel Miami plans to host online viewing rooms

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