One afternoon in the late 1990s, the great curator Kasper König, with whom I was working at Portikus in Frankfurt, told me that he was going to Art Cologne. Having only recently entered the art world, I had never heard of Art Cologne, or any art fair for that matter, so I asked him what it was all about. He replied: ‘Many galleries come together in the convention centre, where they each hang a number of artworks by different artists in small white boxes. It’s like a bazaar. You get to see lot of art, collectors come and buy works, and you meet artists and dealers.’
To an idealistic 22-year-old, this was seriously shocking! I couldn’t conceive how it might possibly look or work. I imagined it was vulgar and something I wanted nothing to do with. Yet it also sounded alluring in its crudeness, a place an ambitious young curator like me might go to make contacts and see all the major art-world players first hand. I couldn’t make it to the opening of Art Cologne, but early on Friday afternoon I left Frankfurt by train and spent the weekend at the fair, looking at every single work on view. I was incredibly nervous, but also distinctly enthused.
Now, almost 20 years later, art fairs are everywhere: one could realistically visit one every week of the year. In the last two weeks alone, fairs in Milan, Brussels, Lima, and São Paulo have opened their doors to the public, and I find myself idly wondering exactly where all the artworks are coming from, and what effect this accelerated production is having on art making.
While I initially thought of art fairs as ugly in their commerciality, over the years I came to see them as beneficial resources for research, especially when their outlook became increasingly global – they began to show more work from, say, Asia or Latin America at fairs outside of those regions. I have also become quite obsessed with regional fairs that present less well known galleries; where one can find artists from places like Paraguay or Bolivia, New Zealand or South Africa, Bangladesh or the Philippines, and make real discoveries.
I’ve witnessed fairs becoming more than just places to buy art. They’ve become increasingly good places to network. They now host conferences, talks and film programs, and commissioning large-scale sculptures and installations. Museums and galleries schedule their best shows to coincide with their local fair. This year, for example, sees the phenomenal solo exhibition by Rodney McMillan at the Studio Museum in Harlem. One presentation I cannot wait to see at this year’s Frieze Talks is writer Eileen Myles’s keynote address, appropriately titled ‘What A Poet Might Be Doing Here’. Another highlight: an homage to Daniel Newburg Gallery by Maurizio Cattelan, who is temporarily coming out of retirement to pay tribute to the gallery that gave him his first solo exhibition in the US in 1994 by restaging that very show.
Over the past 20 years I have visited more art fairs than I want to remember. They blur together in my mind as a massive collage of white boxes containing colourful objects. Yet, I also acknowledge that if I had not stumbled across certain artworks at art fairs, and if I had not met with certain curators, artists or patrons at this fair or that, many of my exhibitions would not have been the way they were.
I have never purchased a single work of art from a fair for a museum, but that said, missing the key fairs each year would be like missing a Champions League final between Real Madrid and Manchester United. In other words, it would be impossible. I still find them strange, but they fulfil a very real purpose for people like me who are pathologically curious and want to see, explore and discover new art over and over and over again. It is a bit like Groundhog Day, but way better.