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Everything You Need to Know About Art Fairs (But Are Too Afraid to Ask)

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Everything You Need to Know About Art Fairs (But Are Too Afraid to Ask)
Art Stage Singapore 2013 (Courtesy Art Stage Singapore)

Does the mere thought of navigating your way through a huge art fair give you a headache, like the idea of working through Christmas shopping crowds over lunch? Well fear not, this article presents a handy guide, simple pointers to answer all your questions (yes even the silliest ones), so you’ll know what to see, where to go and what to expect.

 What is an art fair?

At the basic fundamental level, an art fair is a trade show – this is a place for people in the art business to come together and make deals. Such activity involves and attracts galleries, dealers, advisors, collectors and curators, museum directors, artists and cultural enthusiasts.

Art Fairs are huge, crowded and confusing. How do I make sense of it? 

I admit, sometimes a big international fair like Art Basel Hong Kong or Frieze in London feels a bit like an art zoo or circus, and honestly that’s why it’s so much fun. You get to see the craziest, most outrageous and occasionally some of the best art made in contemporary times. For tips on how to survive an art fair, refer to my other post “Top 5 Tips to Enjoy an Art Fair”. To be honest, it’s no different from visiting a great art museum, treat the never-ending aisles as museum spaces and soon you’ll get the hang of it.

What else is happening besides the fair?

Plenty is going on within the fair grounds, usually there are guided tours and outreach programmes (talks, panel discussions, forums). Beyond the exhibition venues, there are private events, pop-ups, shuttle services, museum shows, exhibition openings and plenty of parties!  For more info on what’s happening during Art Week, check out www.artweek.sg  or pick up your free copy of the Art Week Guide with I-S Magazine.

Do I need to buy a special ticket? How do I get a VIP pass?

 The fair is open to public on most days; you can purchase a ticket at the counter and enjoy family discounts (where applicable).

 If you are a regular client who buys art, or somebody who knows somebody who does, or maybe your company decided to sponsor the event - you may get your hands on a VIP pass. There are certainly privileges to enjoy - you get to attend the Vernissage evening, preview hours (before it opens to public) or attend special VIP events with free booze!

In a nutshell, a VIP card gives you Exclusivity and Access, something that separates the art elite from the ‘peasants’ (no offense!)

What does ‘Vernissage’ mean?

This is a hoity poity name for a VIP opening, comes from the French word for “vanishing” and originated in a practice that London’s Royal Academy of Arts instituted in 1809 of reserving the day before a show’s official opening for artists to come in and add a final layer of varnish to their paintings – and allowing art professionals to preview the works at the same time.

Art Stage Singapore 2014 Set For Jan 16-19
Indonesian Pavilion at Art Stage 2013 (Courtesy Blouin Artinfo)

Can I see everything in 2 hours?

The answer is NO, and if you can, it means you’re not looking hard enough. The best way to make sure you don’t miss anything is to PLAN AHEAD. Study the art fair guide, mark out the artists or galleries you want to visit and draw out the route on the fair map. 

What do the different coloured dots mean? And why do I keep seeing similar things in different art fairs?

The dealer will place red or orange dots next to works to indicate that they have been sold.  Sometimes, different galleries will use other colours such as yellow or green to indicate that the works are ‘put on hold or reserved’, this means the works are still available or under negotiation.

 Trending is a phenomenon that hasn’t escaped the art market. At any given moment, there will be a handful of artists who enjoy the spotlight in the art world; we call them the ‘market darlings’ – and this could be attributed to an exceptional museum show, exhibition, gallery show, biennale work or record auction sale that has set the art world abuzz. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of these artists, and dealers are scrambling to put that artist work on their stands.

What is a reserve? Can I approach a gallery about buying art, even if I don’t intend to? Can I ask for a discount?

 The first and last days of an art fair are typically the busiest as the galleries are frantically closing deals. Unless you are serious about buying something, best to approach the gallery during the rest of the days. Some collectors argue that galleries may give a friendlier price on the last day, but it does not guarantee that the work you like is still available! If it is a work by a popular artist, I would advise to move quickly, snap it up while it’s hot!

 Putting something on ‘reserve’ is a similar idea to booking a table at a restaurant, but it does denote a semi-commitment on your end. Depending on the popularity of the work, the more desirable it is in the market, the shorter the reserve time. Generally dealers will give you a couple of days to decide but if a more aggressive client comes knocking, the work could go to the next person in line if you take too long to respond.

 The good news is, asking for discounts at an art fair is not unusual practice. Ironically, if you are a high-end, established and experienced collector, you may enjoy favourable discounts from galleries, who are keen to place their artist in your collection. If you are a new collector starting out, you still may get to enjoy discounts but not as significant as the veteran collectors. Public institutions like museums are also likely to receive a discount, because it is in the gallery’s interest to place their artists’ work in major, visible, public collections that will ultimately raise the artist’s profile and perceived market value over time.

What’s next?

Now you’re ready to embrace the Art Fair experience – remember to wear comfy shoes, plan your route, grab a bite, take lots of pictures and have fun! Follow these steps and I promise you’ll be far from fair-tigue! 

 


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