by Chiara Lewis
Art fairs are one of the premier ways for artists to promote their agendas and expand their audiences from local or regional favorites to national and international players. Fairs present unique opportunities for artists everywhere to come together and showcase their work to museums, galleries, dealers, collectors, curators, agents, consultants, and critics.
When it comes to visual art, hardly anything strikes as firsthand viewings, in-person consultations with knowledgeable professionals and accomplished artists, and apprised assessments from experts. With a top fair typically attracting 20,000-40,000 or more international art fans, exhibitors can easily see more potential clients in several days than they do by solely working with a gallery for a year. Art fairs are essential for anyone who aspires to play the art game at the highest levels, as opportunities for advancement abound.
However, for a participating artist, taking full advantage of all an art fair can offer is more complicated than merely filling the booth with art and waiting for something to happen. Holding a successful art fair depends at least as much on patience, character, and planning as it does on the logistics of the fair itself. Fairgoers gravitate toward artists and dealers who are excited to be there and who express a passion for their profession.
So what exactly does it take to be ready for an art fair?
1. Do your research
First, an artist should avoid wasting money by researching and visiting the art fair before booking a stand or participating alongside a gallery. Talking to artists who have exhibited their work before and finding out what the art fair is really like will give an artist insight on how it operates, and which stands and galleries attract the most visitors. Art fairs allow artists to build their network and assess their potential markets; therefore, locating the proper art fair is vital. There are two types of art fairs. Local art fairs frequently have an intimate feel and can be valuable sources for new buyers, allowing artists to build close relationships with potential clients.
Contrastingly, at larger art fairs, an artist is often unable to create personal relationships with buyers and the public due to a large number of visitors. Nevertheless, art fairs such as the Frieze London and Art Basel are internationally renowned and attract an annual influx of visitors from all over the globe, allowing an artist to expose his/her work to a diverse group of visitors and buyers. However, large art fairs, such as Art Basel, include only the most established galleries and artists.
Frieze London is similarly challenging to access; about 500 galleries apply each year for the fair, but only an average of 160 is accepted. Therefore, an emerging artist should apply to an art fair like Focus first, which is still affiliated with Frieze London, but showcases and accepts artists who have not yet risen in the international art market. Additionally, some US states have popular community-based annual events that might be beneficial to an artist’s career for a specific art market, such as the New York art market, or the Miami art market.
2. Create a budget
Second, an artist should consider creating a financial budget. Working out the costs of travel, renting a space, creating a unified presentation, and/or working with a gallery, are essential elements to consider in advance in order to approach the best quotes, suppliers, and representatives, and primarily to give an artist time to research other alternatives if needed. For example, large-scale art fairs are a big financial commitment. When applying to Art Basel, for instance, artists should examine the costs of transportation and shipping before making any commitments. Furthermore, international events, such as the Artexpo, organize several shows worldwide yearly. Most artists approach these events as ideal settings to showcase their art globally and disregard the overall cost. An artist must decide what art market he/she is trying to reach and what geographical locations are most beneficial to their objective. With a sufficient number of art fairs globally and nationally and little guidance, it is simple for an artist to lose track of his/her primary goal.
3. Read the contract. Then read it again.
Lastly, an artist should always read a contract before committing to anything, as organizers usually build in other financial commitments.
How does an artist successfully participate in an art fair, with or without a gallery?
4. Team up with an art gallery
The most straightforward method of securing presence at an art fair is through an art gallery. Most galleries do not include all of the artists they represent in the booths they purchase for the art fairs. Thus, since there is no guarantee, an artist with a gallery contract still has to convince the gallery to include his/her work. After that, although the gallery itself usually manages most of the planning, design, and strategy, an artist must collaborate with the gallery staff to provide information and be present for a smooth and unified presentation. A gallery must be able to create a well-curated booth with plenty of white space, regular work, and a cohesive collection of art and artists where each work is there for a reason, positively contributing to an overall impression that is greater than the quantity of the individual pieces. This way, a gallery can adequately demonstrate how everything belongs together to potential buyers and the public. Following a simple, direct, and easily understandable approach, visually and verbally, is necessary in order to sell artwork at an art fair, and that cannot be achieved without cooperation between a gallery and its artists.
However, as an emerging artist without gallery representation, the process is slightly different and more demanding. Most art fairs do allow artists to secure a space or a booth individually, yet typically there are limited spots and acceptance rates do decrease. Thus, being proactive with the process and signing up shortly after the application opens is vital in order to be admitted and obtain a booth. Furthermore, an artist signing up individually, rather than with a gallery, will have to pay a more considerable amount to participate in the art fair, such as travel, accommodations, and staff to assist with visitors and buyers.
Additionally, the space an artist selects to exhibit his/her work is crucial. To present work with a clear association with fine art, an artist should avoid being too close to crafting booths and food and drinks stalls. Fairs provide different spaces, from a simple booth to a table or a wooden stall. It is essential to find out beforehand what exactly the fair provides in order to know what to expect. Finding pictures of previous shows, possibly in the same location, will allow an artist to have a better idea of how the space will ultimately appear. That way, an artist will have plenty of time to prepare all the necessary items to design his/her booth strategically.
5. Have plenty of business cards ready
Other than the design of the booth and the artwork selected, it is essential for an artist to have sufficient business cards to distribute to any interested buyer who visits the space. Also, having a catalog from a recent exhibition will give interested viewers a chance to see an artist’s work in a broader context. The catalog should include a short artist statement about the work exhibited and an artist biography.
Another way to be a part of an art fair, although not all art fairs do provide this option, is through participation in competitions affiliated with the fair. The competitions are typically advertised months before the fair, and an artist should submit his/her work at one’s earliest convenience. The competitions often focus on a particular theme or region and might require an artist to create entirely new artworks or be selective with the artworks they submit. The advantage of participating in a competition, rather than just an art fair, is that an artist’s work does get sponsored even if not selected, thus providing secured exposure before paying any fees.
In summary, here are things that you should do to make the most of joining an art fair:
- Do your research
- Create a budget ready for travel, logistics, rent of the space, etc.
- Read the contract. Then read it again.
- Team up with an art gallery
- Have plenty of business cards ready
- Join competitions held within the art fair
Related article: How to Participate in an Art Fair
For all artists, art fairs are an excellent opportunity for networking, securing sales, and achieving national or international success. However, participating in an art fair, with or without a gallery, is not simple. An artist must make a conscious effort to stand out in the vast crowd among other talented, creative, and innovative artists. Nevertheless, hard work, character, connections, and great art will allow any artist to advance in the highly competitive, yet electrifying world of art through art fairs.
Chiara Lewis was born in New York City and raised in Italy from the age of 3. Surrounded by beauty, her love and appreciation for the arts grew tremendously. Since childhood, Chiara has been fascinated by the universe, the way human knowledge interacts with human curiosity, and the way music defines and relates to our lives, and fuses all of those aspects in her large-scale paintings. She began to express her passion for the Fine Arts through painting and drawing. These interests were cultivated during high school as an AP Art student and further developed at Georgetown University, where she is pursuing a double major in Studio Art and Cultural Anthropology. This summer, Chiara is working with Agora Gallery as a digital marketing intern.