The Art Fair is Alive and Thriving

As an avid art collector and fair goer, I was curious to experience Art Basel’s Hong Kong rendition given all the recent commentary about art fair fatigue, dilution and oversaturation. After partaking in the controlled pandemonium of Asia’s dominant art fair, my conclusion is that the art fair as a concept is resoundingly alive and well in certain parts of the world. Additionally, just observing the crowds and their actions provided interesting real time insights to understand a large and growing segment of the global art market. Upon reflection, it strikes me that the harsh criticisms and doomsday forecasts are being leveled by a small group of participants that have “been there done that” so many times that they are no longer the beneficiary of a system designed to expose and educate.

If you are someone – collector or gallerist – who regularly visits fairs in Basel, London, Miami, and New York, then I wholeheartedly agree the whole seemingly non-stop fair treadmill is becoming monotonous. However, from a 30,000-foot view I believe that assessment is shortsighted and myopic. If you are a new entrant to the art world, then the experience is likely thrilling, immensely educational and in all likelihood, a bit overwhelming. This is exactly the universe of people my untrained eye witnessed at Art Basel Hong Kong.

While the fair was packed with hordes of unfamiliar, virgin faces during the two “private days,” what really struck me was the scene the morning the fair opened to the general public. We arrived at the Hong Kong Convention Center at 11am to a line around the block and a sign “Public Access Sold Out.” I can’t ever recall an art fair being sold out to visitors that very well may be sprinkled with potential buyers. Despite the fact that this was being held in one of the most densely populated regions in the world, what does it say about the interest in contemporary art? The people standing in the sweltering heat to battle crowds looking at and maybe even acquiring a broad range of art were not experiencing art fair fatigue – they were experiencing art fair intrigue.

The reality of the mass of attendees – during both the private and public sessions – can be summarized by commentary echoed by several leading US-based galleries, “We have no idea who these attendees are and many of them are inquiring or even buying serious works of Western and European art. As a result, we have to take every one seriously.” It was also interesting to observe what seemed to be a difference in activity between primary and secondary works. From my perspective, it seemed there was considerably more interest in primary works than secondary works by even blue chip artists. Some gallerists surmised this was due to the lack of price transparency in the secondary markets and their aversion to being taken advantage of.

Fairs like Art Basel Hong Kong in emerging art markets are cultivating a large, wealthy, educated and potentially voracious collecting community. From this perspective, the conclusion that art fairs – at least in these markets – are on the downhill slope seems out of touch with reality. What Hong Kong reinforced for me is that the global contemporary art market is far from stagnant. If anything, the fact that global art fairs are nurturing a massive, well-endowed and sophisticated market of potentially serious collectors means that existing collectors will need to be smarter about collecting decisions and find ways to improve access. If Hong Kong is any indication, there is no question that certain art fairs are here to stay at a minimum for the foreseeable future. Maybe in time the Asian region will develop art fair fatigue, but my guess is that will only occur after they fundamentally change the global art market.