If you're up for a bit of art, but want some entertainment with it, would you go to a gallery — or would you be better off at a fair? These days, contemporary art fairs are coining it over their more sober rivals in the art world. And it's not just pickled sharks and unmade beds: antique fairs are also booming, as are Old Master expositions.
More than 50 per cent of the world's art trade now takes place at fairs. In London, the temporary awnings now represent serious competition to the entire cloistered business of the capital's 800 art galleries. London art dealer Matthew Flowers, who runs the Flowers galleries in London (Cork Street and Hoxton, natch) and New York admits that 60 to 70 per cent of his business now takes place at fairs. Perhaps one of the reasons is that, as their name implies, they signal democratic fun as well as serious business, spawning not just ever more fairs, but a new kind of tourism.
Lacking the perception that you need to be well-informed, as well as well-heeled, art fairs are arenas where people can chatter and mingle amid über-modish cultural offerings, namely visual art. You don't need to buy a painting; you don't even need to know about paintings. And no one will look down at you if all you want to do is wander around without looking at anything much in particular, sipping a smoothie. Or a glass of bubbly.
Fairs are open and eager to show you their wares. At the grandmaster of them all, The European Fine Art Fair (aka TEFAF) in Maastricht, you can wander through halls decorated with 74,000 tulips checking out everything from snuffboxes and Byzantine icons, to Charles II perfume burners and French 18th-century furniture. Think of the V&A, but with red dots by the exhibits. When I went one year, there was a Rembrandt for sale. Just sitting there. In a rather lovely frame. I think the asking price began with a 20.
Seeing what the private market has to offer at the Aladdin's cave that is Maastricht is an extraordinary opportunity, and a bit of a privilege, even if more than 80,000 people flock there each year. (Not everyone arrives by private jet, though a fair few do.) The art on show produces a frisson that nationally owned art within the public arena just does not share. One expects to see a Becket chasse (a small jewelled medieval box that once contained the relics of the English martyr Thomas à Becket) at the British Museum. But seeing it in a glass case at Maastricht — where, incidentally the world's great museums go to buy, as well as its wealthiest collectors — with a £12 million price tag swinging from its enamelled lid, is a fundamentally different experience. This is not a piece of national iconography, it is a private indulgence. Not to mention something you'll probably never set eyes on again, because next week it will be in some unnamed private collector's home — or perhaps vault.
Of course, one of the definitions of art is that it is a private luxury. Its recent incarnation as a nationally subsidised 'treat' for publicly funded galleries is at most 200 years old. By contrast, since the time of the Greeks and the Egyptians, art has been a thing to be bought, sold, collected and treasured by the rich and powerful. The modern art fair has very ancient antecedents indeed.
However, now that tourism is such a prevailing global business, cities are under a uniquely modern pressure to either acquire an art fair, or if they already have one, make sure it does a bit better than anyone else's. Successful art fairs attract the shopping gold standard, by which I mean thousands of reasonably well-off people in their downtime. They represent rich pickings for a whole range of secondary enterprises (hotels, restaurants, taxis, theatres), and their recent success has unsurprisingly led to locations all over the world fighting to become the most voguish site in the art-fair calendar.