AN ART FAIR PRIMER with Ilana Vardy
Art fairs have evolved into one of the premier arenas where galleries (and their artists) can transition from local or regional favorites to national or international players. Fairs provide unique opportunities for galleries everywhere to come together and introduce their best stuff to art world notables who count-- dealers, collectors, curators, agents, critics, and the like. There are other options for ascendency to be sure, but the face-to-face gallery-to-gallery honcho-to-honcho convocation of a major art fair is tough to top. Plus when it comes to visual art, hardly anything beats firsthand viewings, chat-ups with accomplished artists, and informed assessments from pros in the know-- all of which flourish in profusion at major art fairs. With a good fair typically attracting 20,000-40,000 or more international visitors, exhibitors can easily see more potential clients in several days than they do at their galleries in a year. The upshot? Art fairs are indispensable for anyone who aspires to play the art game at the highest levels as prospects for advancement abound.
But for a participating gallery, taking full advantage of an art fair is considerably more complicated than festooning the booth with art and waiting for something to happen. Believe it or not, having a successful art fair depends at least as much on endurance, attitude and advance planning as it does on the logistics of the fair itself. Galleries new to fairs often don't understand their responsibilities in this regard. They think all they have to do is set up and sit there with their art and leave the rest to the promoters when in truth, they're the ones who had better engage the public-- or else.
Even more important than the gallery as entity is the gallery owner or gallerist (yes it's pretentious, but I'll use it) and staff, the potential true stars of the show. According to Ilana Vardy who has directed art fairs for nearly twenty years including Art Chicago, Art Miami, Art DC and Chicago Contemporary and Classic, fairgoers gravitate toward dealers who are thrilled to be there and who demonstrate passion about what they're doing. So that's directive #1-- owners and staff have to be good with the public in order to make an art fair work. No art sells itself; someone has to step up and sell it, and being entertaining in the process certainly doesn't hurt. I know I know-- you're skin's probably crawling at the thought. But that's the way it is, love it or leave it. Certain gallery owners just plain don't belong at art fairs, Vardy adds, because they're so miserable while there. They absolutely hate every minute of it, and you know what? When the public senses a gallerist would rather be somewhere else than manning the booth, they'll avoid that booth in droves. Fairgoers appreciate warm welcomes and affable banter. It's that simple and no more complicated.
According to Vardy, people are less intimidated around art fairs than they are at individual galleries. They feel like they can approach anybody in any booth and ask whatever they want. So dealers have to be involved, excited, present, and prepared to answer boatloads of questions-- often the same questions, and often uninformed-- over and over and over again; they can't just sit there and ignore people or lose patience. That's the way the game gets played in art fair land. and the way galleries get new clients. Prospective buyers who aren't familiar with particular galleries, for instance, but who like what they see, tend to whip out their wallets and buy ONLY after they've been engaged and seduced by the gallerists.
Several additional quick pointers for exhibitors:
* Never prejudge based on the way someone looks. Anyone can turn out to be a buyer.
* One of the worst things an exhibitor can do is to sit in the booth with their head buried in a newspaper or magazine. Nobody talks to dealers who look like they're not interested in talking.
* Attitude and endurance are everything (and that goes for the fair organizers too). Participants have to be involved with the process from beginning to end in order to make a fair successful. Sure, those long hours are grueling, but the event only lasts a couple of days-- a quick intense sprint, not a marathon. Keeping that in mind makes the ordeal more bearable.
First time exhibitors should be aware that repetition is an important part of art fair protocol. Galleries usually have to exhibit at a particular fair at least three years or so in order to get a footing and attract significant numbers of potential buyers. Serious collectors appreciate repeat appearances because not only does being there year after year contribute to building trust, but it also differentiates established committed galleries from here today gone tomorrow dabblers. The truth is that many buyers are reluctant to spend big bucks with galleries they don't know or have never heard of, no matter how scintillating the art, so each successive appearance makes the probability of sales that much greater.
Be aware, though, that art fairs are not only about making sales. One of the primary reasons to exhibit at fairs is to observe and interact with other galleries and network with fellow professionals. Many galleries, says Ilana Vardy, go through entire fairs without ever meeting their neighbors-- not even those next to them or across the way. Knowing what colleagues are up to not only contributes to a gallerist's knowledge base and overview of the art world, but cultivating relationships with fellow dealers can ultimately lead to joint shows, sales, cross-promotion of artists, and much more. In this sense, art fair participation becomes an integral part of a gallery's advertising budget as well as their marketing budget because a fair provides a superb platform for national and international hobnobbing and PR. For example, if a gallery lands a show for one of their artists at a museum because of who they meet and get along famously with, even though they may sell nothing, that makes it a pretty successful fair. So exhibitors should never judge an outcome based on sales alone or focus solely on selling to the exclusion of all else.
Most importantly, galleries should have realistic expectations. They shouldn't necessarily bank on huge profits, but rather on strengthening relationships and meeting lots of interesting people, including potential buyers, some of whom may take weeks or even months to decide whether or not to buy. Focusing efforts on making slow and steady progress is far better than a strike-it-rich war plan, and frees up galleries to pursue associations and alliances that have the potential to play out profitably over time.
Knowing how to work the crowds at an art fair is certainly important, but so is booth design and strategy. To begin with, less is generally more. A well-curated booth tends to have plenty of white space, strong work, and presents a cohesive cull of art and artists where every piece is there for a reason, hopefully contributing to a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. A unified presentation is essential, plus the gallerist has to be able to explain it effectively to ordinary everyday affluents who have ample discretionary capital to spend on art (assuming they like what they see. and hear). Keeping it simple, direct and easy to understand-- visually as well as verbally-- is key. There's plenty of time to get deep and complicated with anyone who wants to know more, but wisdom dictates resisting that urge unless asked. It's rarely productive for gallerists to leave potential buyers in the dust of their knowledge.
OK. Now let's get technical. At the opening or entrance to a booth or the point where fairgoers first make eye contact as they walk the aisles, a gallery should present an artwork that's dramatic, impactful, and will entice people into the space. This "standout" art should be chosen specifically to attract new people, not those who already know the gallery-- new people. A gallery's core clientele will show up regardless of what's on display, so they should not waste precious acreage worrying about the regulars. It's drumming up new business that counts.
For example, let's say a gallery specializes in art that's not necessarily well known, somewhat out of the mainstream, or subtle and not all that impressive from a visual perspective. It's important to bring that art to the fair, of course, and to include it in the repertoire, but it's much more important to feature art that makes people stop and stare, that appeals to a wider range of interests, and magnetizes fairgoers into the booth. Ilana Vardy notes that a gallery can always introduce potential new clients to their specialties later, once they're in the booth, but that's the key-- getting them there in the first place. And if getting them there involves showing art that's somewhat over the top or not necessarily a gallery specialty, so be it. After all, that's why galleries exhibit at art fairs-- to attract new customers, not to maintain old ones, and making that happen means making the booth compelling. Get too esoteric or crammed up with art or have no readily identifiable direction, and people will walk right past.
Speaking of bad booth design, some galleries think that if they show a little bit of everything, that'll maximize their chances of making sales. But what happens is exactly the opposite. A booth hung floor to ceiling with everything a gallery represents looks more like a flea market or second hand store than an art gallery, and not only confuses viewers, but the clutter also tends to devalue the art from an aesthetic perspective. Galleries that want to take everything should build closet spaces into their booths and keep the stock there. Clean walls and open floor space are most conducive to selling art. Too much art is a visual assault-- it overwhelms people and scares them away.
In addition to designing the interior of their booth, a gallery must also be aware of the overall layout of the fair and of their positioning in that fair as a whole. They have to know where the majority of the traffic will be coming from and establish a site line, based on the depth and length of the booth, of what wall or floor space people will see first. That's where the most prominent impact art goes and where the easy-access main entrance to the booth should be. This art should have its own walls or pedestals, be positioned to be seen by the maximum amount of traffic, and be the first things people see as they approach the booth (and the sooner they see it, the better). Plus there should be no doubt in anyone's mind which gallery that art belongs to. There is so much visual stimulation at a fair, a gallery has to do everything possible to carve out their territory, dramatize their space, and persuade people to come inside. Ilana Varney even suggests that a gallery build a scale model of their booth in advance of the fair and experiment with positioning various works of art to see how they'll look-- similar to an architectural model-- and adds that one thing a gallery should never do is close themselves off or make entry difficult. Fairgoers tend to avoid booths when they have to contort to get in or feel like they might be trapped once there.
As for identifying individual works of art, labels are critical. Says Varney, they shouldn't be too large or compete with the art, but at the same time, should include as much information as possible-- answering all those basic questions that people typically ask-- including the price. Some gallerists think that people interested in particular works of art will ask the price, but that's not necessarily true. Not everyone is comfortable asking about prices; some people view it as a commitment to buy the art, while others simply prefer to keep to themselves and not engage in conversations until they're absolutely sure what they want. The more details a gallery provides about their art up front, the better. People appreciate a dealers who are generous with information more so than they do ones who force viewers to ask for every single shred.
Seeing as we've broached the topic of prices, Vardy warns galleries against artificially inflating them just for the duration of a fair or just so they can give "discounts" in case someone asks. For one thing, knowledgeable collectors know when someone's jacking up prices and will avoid those galleries (and tell their friends to avoid them as well). Pricing and selling art is not a game. If a gallery is going to discount a certain amount, they should establish that amount ahead of time, and be clear about what conditions might warrant it. They should also be able to explain clearly and concisely to any customer who asks why a price is what it is and what flexibility they may or may not have in terms of discounts. Waffling around about money is never good. Established dealers who've been in business for years typically have only one price no matter where they show their art-- especially when they exhibit artists who are represented by multiple galleries.
Regarding sold art, galleries need to know exactly what services a fair provides in terms of packing, shipping, handling and storage, and should be prepared to discuss and explain all options to anyone who asks. Having a sale unravel due to shipping concerns is never good. Many dealers solve the problem by taking sold art home with them and then shipping it to buyers from their galleries. Whatever the arrangements, galleries should cover the shipping costs unless buyers request special handling. They should also be prepared to install work at the homes or offices of buyers who live in the area of a fair. Being able to install art locally is a plus, not only in terms of convenience for the buyers, but also because this gives the gallery a chance to schmooze and to see what else those buyers collect.
As for the cost of art fair participation, a gallery should know in advance approximately how much extra expense they'll incur in addition to the price of the booth, such as fees for added walls, storage areas, lights, doors, showcases, labor, shipping, and so on. Read the fair contract in detail before signing it, and know what to expect in terms of total cash outlay. Add-ons should not be a surprise.
For you galleries thinking about exhibiting at art fairs, but who haven't yet taken the plunge, picking the right fair is essential for success and picking the wrong one can be disastrous. Often dealers don't know which fairs are appropriate for their galleries, reports Varney, and choosing wisely takes time and research. To begin with, a gallerist should visit whatever fair they're considering showing at before they sign on in order to see how it's run, who's in it, and what types of people attend. Interview participating galleries, preferably ones who've exhibited more than once, and find out how things go. Make sure the management and organizers treat the galleries well and are sensitive to their needs. The people who run a fair have to be concerned about the welfare of their exhibitors or else the fair won't work.
Gallerists must also make sure a fair is more or less of a match with their art. Dealers should never apply to fairs they know little or nothing about just to get in; make sure they're the right fairs first. For example, a bad match would be a cutting edge gallery setting up at a traditional fair; that simply won't work. And it's not only choosing the right fair but understanding the demographics of that fair. Who attends? Who buys? Where are they from? What do they collect? What types of galleries do really well there? What types of art sell well there? These are things that galleries don't necessarily divulge to their contemporaries, but they are things that the producers of a fair may be aware of, especially if they've been producing the fair for a while. At the very least, they know which kinds of galleries tend to thrive and which drop out. So speak with the fair management as well.
Also make sure a fair is well capitalized, established or respected or buzzworthy in some way, has the potential to attract adequate numbers of buyers, and has an advertising budget. And find out in advance where and how much they plan to advertise because publicity is critical. A fair that can't get warm bodies through the door is destined to fail (as will its exhibitors).
As for getting into a fair, galleries should research the politics in advance, and do their best to figure out why certain exhibitors get in while others don't. Most fairs have selection committees, usually consisting of peers, usually appointed by fair organizers. Galleries should do their best to find out who's on those committees and what the application process entails in order to get over on the competition. Exhibiting at an art fair is serious business, and when done right, can catapult a gallery from obscurity to stardom.
Ilana Vardy has directed art fairs for nearly twenty years including Art Chicago, Art Miami, Art DC, and Chicago Contemporary and Classic. She also consults with galleries and artists about various aspects of selecting and exhibiting at art fairs. Contact her at ilana.vardy(at)gmail.com
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