Just as a king, in the political theology of the Middle Ages, had, like Christ himself, two bodies—a corpus naturale and a corpus mysticum—so today an ambitious art gallery has two manifestations in the world. One is a fixed location in a given city; the other, more elusive, can appear one day at a fair in Europe, only to vanish forty-eight hours later to make preparations for its reincarnation at the next fair in a different time zone or hemisphere.
The newest “next fair” is Frieze New York, which was held in early May on Randall’s Island, a tract of land in the East River more familiar to weekend athletes and summer music festival fans than gallery-goers. New York, of course, is not without art fairs. The most important one is the Armory Show, which has been held in recent years on a couple of Hudson River piers; but the scale and situation of the Armory Show have sown dissatisfaction among artists and gallery owners, which the publishers of frieze magazine—who have been running a successful fair in London since 2003—saw as an opportunity to pitch their tent in New York. Many of the galleries that touched down on Randall’s Island alighted to Art Hong Kong a few weeks later, just as some of them had surfaced a few weeks earlier at Art Brussels.
Presumably this globe-trotting is all to the benefit of the biggest galleries, which can now market their wares to an extent hardly possible before. Dealers with mid-level galleries are rueful at best. Maintaining the parallel organizational structure and staff to work the fairs can sap energy and boost overhead, but the dealers fear that skipping the fairs would only harm their own sales and reputations. Moreover, applications are usually vetted by a committee composed of prominent dealers, an arrangement meant to guarantee the quality of the galleries admitted; yet many dealers quietly resent being judged—and sometimes rejected—by colleagues who are also competitors. A risk, then, for the fairs is homogenization, because committee members may be more concerned with endorsing their own ideas about contemporary art than with ensuring that a broad view of its possibilities is represented.
Art wasn’t always marketed this way. The first contemporary fair was started as recently as 1967, when a group of galleries in Cologne seized on the concept as a way to reinvigorate the sluggish local market. Their success soon found imitators, most notably Art Basel, which started in 1970 and quickly surpassed Cologne as the pre-eminent contemporary fair, a crown it still wears. The success of fairs in small cities like Cologne and Basel raises the perennial question of whether New York needs fairs of its own. Isn’t the city, with its hundreds of galleries, an art fair in itself, nearly year-round? The question is surely relevant, but only for those of us who don’t look at art with our checkbooks. These days, it seems, collectors prefer to do their shopping at the fairs. It’s a lot more efficient, apparently, to find everything under one roof on the same day, like buying the week’s groceries at a supermarket on Saturday. The tail is wagging the dog. The fairs don’t exist to promote the galleries; the galleries exist to get into the fairs. In a book published in 2008, the Spanish curator and critic Paco Barragán dubbed this arrangement “the art fair age,” one in which fairs are “taking up functions as well as resources from other artistic institutions”—edging them out, to some extent. The fairs are, as Jack Bankowsky proclaimed in 2005 in Artforum, “the moment’s rawest, rudest manifestation” of the art system itself.