Art Fair Fallout: Fewer Gallery Shows


Art dealers have been prolonging their gallery exhibitions, partly as a result of busy art fair schedules, dealers have told A.i.A. While a four-week run for gallery shows has for decades been the norm, five- and six-week exhibitions are becoming more frequent.

Factors contributing to this shift include demands on staff time and pressure on inventory resulting from art fair participation, as well as declining gallery attendance.

“For better or worse, it’s a bit like the iTunes syndrome,” says New York art consultant Wendy Cromwell. “We used to go to galleries to buy albums. Now you can just go to a fair and buy one song.”

Trade shows such as the Basel fairs, the Armory, Frieze and FIAC have become an increasingly important part of art galleries’ calendars and business models. Mega-gallery David Zwirner participated in no fewer than 13 of these commercial roundups in 2012. And they are costly outings: the priciest booths at Frieze New York, the 2012 Gotham debut of a London stalwart, cost over $80,000.

Not all dealers are feeling the pinch. Large galleries like Pace and Gagosian continue to schedule a dozen exhibitions per year. But several dealers in conversation noted the shift, especially affecting smaller businesses.

“We’ve done five- or six-week shows since I opened my gallery in 2010,” says New York dealer Cristin Tierney. “It’s partly a result of art fair schedules, as well as the demands of going to my artists’ museum shows and other travel.”

Bethanie Brady, of New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, says that the gallery has thus far maintained a traditional four-week run, but is considering extending some of its shows: “Particularly in the fall, we may choose to keep shows on view for an extra week because it’s such a busy season. The art fairs have a lot to do with that.” Frieze London and FIAC take place in October, Paris Photo in November, and Art Basel Miami Beach in December.

Fair participation can directly affect details like exhibition opening dates, Brady added. “If you have an opening every four or five weeks, that often puts the opening in the middle of Frieze or FIAC,” she said. “And when you have a modest-sized staff, you have to put your resources where they are most effective.”

Several sources speculated that a shortage of inventory may also contribute. New York-based painter Enoc Perez, who shows at Acquavella Galleries, is skeptical. “People say they feel bad for artists, that they are forced to overproduce,” he says. “You’re not forced to do anything. It’s up to an artist what leaves the studio.”

“My priority has always been gallery shows,” Perez says. “That’s where you can formulate a complete thought.”

But even Perez sees the distinctions between gallery shows and fairs blurring. “Now we have solo shows at art fairs, which require the same kind of thought. At the beginning it felt like work you sent to art fairs didn’t count,” he said. “Now everything counts.”

Dealers also cite reduced traffic at art galleries.

“It’s partly about the challenge of simply getting people in to the gallery,” Tierney notes, saying, “an extra week or two might allow some people to see the show who would otherwise miss it.”

“This shift is partly a reflection of the fact that fewer people are going to gallery shows,” says Cromwell, “and instead going to art fairs to find new works by artists they follow.”

When L.A. stalwart Margo Leavin announced in August 2012 that she would close her gallery after more than four decades, she laid it partly at the door of art fairs, saying that buyers are “not seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions,” she told the L.A. Times, adding, “To produce works for an art fair is just not what our artists do.”

In a more positive light, Tierney described the longer shows as “an opportunity to do something more curatorial. The gallery is not just about selling any more. That’s what the fairs are for.”

But she conceded that the calendar change is partly due to resources spread thin.

“You want every show to be a great show,” Tierney says, “but doing that every four weeks in this environment is tough to pull off.”

Photo: Frieze New York 2012. Courtesy of Graham Carlow/ Frieze