Thursday, October 18, 2007

Not a Cheap Affair

A reader on another thread asked the following:
I've always wondered about art fairs...unless you are participating in a seriously blue chip fair, it must be pretty tough to make a profit, as it costs a fortune to fly 2 or more people, put them up, meals, socializing, etc. in an expensive city.

of course there are other benefits, like exposure for your gallery and for your artists, later sales, etc...but I would be curious to know your take on sattelite fairs in miami, london, NY... money well spent or just something one is expected to do?
It varies, of course, but there's no doubt about it that participating in an art fair is a seriously expensive venture. Add in overseas shipping and travel, and making a profit from one becomes pretty tough indeed. Here's an interesting chart from Art & Auction [via artinfo.com] that breaks down the expenses for a bluer chip gallery than we are, but more or less covers what we're shelling out.

Here's what A&A estimated a booth at Frieze costs for a New York Gallery of decent size:
  • Booth itself: $30,940
  • Booth extras (electrical outlet, extra wall, etc): $2329
  • Crating: $5000
  • Shipping to Fair: $12,500
  • Shipping back to NY: $12,500
  • Empty Crate Storage: $1000
  • Art Handlers (to install the booth): $3000
  • Air Travel (for gallery staff of 4): $2000
  • Hotel for staff: $5600
  • Food during fair for staff (sandwiches, etc): $720
  • Dinners with clients after fair: $2500
  • Cell phone service (amazing roaming charges): $1500
  • Car service (if you're gonna visit East End galleries, you're gonna need some help): $400
  • Massage for director (OK, so this illustrates the difference nicely between a gallery at our level and those selling blue chip work): $290
  • Party for clients: $20,000
  • Total: $100,279
These estimates are not at all unreasonable to me. The party might seem like an extravagance, but your competitors are throwing one, so you might not see it as such after their booth gets mobbed the next day or your collectors tell you how much they're beginning to like that other gallery after such a shindig.

Our costs for London (we participated in the satellite fair Year 07 Art Projects) were a fraction of this. We had only two staff members, a much cheaper hotel, a much less expensive booth, no car service, certainly no massages, we installed the work ourselves, and didn't quite pay as much for shipping (I think...that bill has yet to come actually). Then again, whereas the imaginary A&A booth at Frieze must have had close to $300,000 dollars worth of art to sell in it to make a profit, we had considerably less expensive art in ours.

Of all the costs, the most annoying is shipping (and the stupefying charges for empty crate storage). Not that shippers don't earn their money, mind you, but for any artwork that doesn't sell, the idea that you've paid tens of thousands of dollars to move it from one location to another and back again does begin to grate on the nerves.

As to whether it's money well spent or not, that depends on your original strategy. I don't know anyone who feels they simply have to have a presence at a fair (at the expense of other considerations, that is) because it's something they are expected to do (expected by whom? I would ask). You go into one generally to (try to) make money, to increase your profile, or to build a new client base via that location. There are certain fairs notorious for low sales, but which are so carefully "curated" (if you will) and highly respected that being accepted into them is seen as worth the costs. Other locations, like Miami, are mostly about selling art, although you'll still see galleries taking big chances with a solo installation or incredibly tough-to-sell work there because getting attention in Miami can pay off the whole year round.

There are a few galleries that refuse to do art fairs (and at least one famous one that used to refuse, but now participates, which indicates the power of them), and virtually every gallerist I know would much prefer to sell out of their own space than subject themselves to the boot-camp-esque exercise that an art fair can be if you're counting your pennies (I know dealers still bruised and exhausted from London). Then again, the more fairs we do, and the more gallerists from other cities we become friends with, the more I thoroughly enjoy getting together to hang out with them, bitch about shippers or airlines or security guards, rave about our artists (OK, and/or sometimes bitch about artists), and learning that the problems I thought we were the only gallery in the world to have were rather common.

I don't mind pointing out that there was a time when new satellite fairs were considerably less expensive than the main fairs they orbit, but some of the newest ones in Miami, for example, are considerably costly for an event with little history or prestige. I'm not sure if that's because it simply costs that much to produce one or whether they're mainly seen now as a money-making venture (and of course, why shouldn't they be?) with a captive client base.

I suspect we'll see some rethinking on how many fairs any city can support after Miami this year (are there any hotel rooms that aren't reserved for the galleries and their staffs left for collectors?). I'm not pessimistic about it for us, mind you (we love being in Miami and we're bringing a kick-ass booth of art), but as an observer of a phenomenon that would have been beyond any rational expectations just a few years ago, I'm in awe of what's happening there and simply can't believe it's sustainable. Will slow sales spell the end for certain fairs if things cool off this year? Stay tuned...

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38 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

The bar bill for Sammy Smiths could easily = the shipping costs! Art fairs, trade shows, the costs creep, a massage is not an extravagence. What you show in your booth seems to be the big decision, pile up salon style or take a chance with a solo artist.....

10/18/2007 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

hat you show in your booth seems to be the big decision, pile up salon style or take a chance with a solo artist.....

Indeed. We've done two solo installations (both at Pulse New York, both paying off very well eventually), but it does cross one's mind how risky it is (in both instances we simply believed that strongly in what we were exhibiting). Then again, we've done salon style booths and brought most of it home in certain cities...nothing is like Miami. And even Miami may not be like Miami much longer.

10/18/2007 09:43:00 AM  
Blogger Tyler said...

The Game of the Day: Fill in Ed's not naming names...

10/18/2007 09:57:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

my lips are sealed

whether that applies to my typing fingers or not remains to be seen... ;-P

10/18/2007 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

A hearty Welcome Home, Edward!

Interesting post. Your take on shipping makes sense, and it's the part that makes me wonder how long this fair thing is going to last.

I understand the desire to create community, and I see how fairs do that. Fairs help create a network of gallerists, and those friendships help artists.

But shipping a whole show at least one way, multiplied by what, two hundred galleries? Five hundred? A thousand? I hope it is not cutting off my own nose to spite my face to say there's a wastefulness to it that I can't quite wrap my mind around.

I am not suggesting that any gallerist boycott fairs because they are concerned with their carbon footprint. But it is inevitable, as transportation costs rise in order to control carbon emissions, that fairs will change, will turn into something else entirely.

Wouldn't you think?

I mean, it is this kind of weird, gilded age thing to do... to take a small but substantial gallery show and fly it somewhere else a few times a year.

I am not complaining about fairs. But I am curious about what fairs will evolve into, as they are currently both useful and totally unsustainable.

10/18/2007 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger hovie said...

There are certain fairs notorious for low sales, but which are so carefully "curated" (if you will) and highly respected that being accepted into them is seen as worth the costs.

Naming any names?

10/18/2007 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I will name one name in this context, at the risk of pissing off its organizers and perhaps never being accepted into it, although if the organizers are unaware or upset that despite legendarily low sales, most galleries still want to do their fair, then perhaps I'm doing them a favor. They are certainly doing something incredibly right to have that reputation.

One fair that most galleries consider worth the cost despite low expectations for strong sales is Artforum Berlin.

10/18/2007 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Stephen from Platform said...

Excellent take on the matter, Ed. Blake and I enjoyed being your neighbors in London for all the same reasons you mention. Onward to Miami.

10/18/2007 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It was great to be your neighbors as well, Stephen (the view from the gallery in NYC is no where near as dramatic as our booth at the fair, although we got some great photos of Bambino and Big Ben at sunset).

Congrats on the great artinfo.com review for your booth!!!

10/18/2007 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I am not suggesting that any gallerist boycott fairs because they are concerned with their carbon footprint. But it is inevitable, as transportation costs rise in order to control carbon emissions, that fairs will change, will turn into something else entirely.

Wouldn't you think?


We tried bringing only video to a fair in another country once (renting the equipment there) to try and save on shipping and avoid the carbon footprint dilemma only to have a high-profile New York art critic there tell me he never watches video at an art fair because there's not enough time. We got great reviews from artists and other dealerss for the boldness of the booth, but sales were less than stellar (and it had nothing to do with the work, which we've sold well in other contexts). Despite the issues of shipping, folks only have so much time at fairs and time-based work is often not even considered worth it.

Then again, there are great video only fairs (like Loop or DiVA) where you go expecting to spend that kind of time, so perhaps I simply chose the wrong fair at which to try this.

10/18/2007 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am happy that you are comming around. Still some distance to walk but soon....

Go back...re-read.

If only I could take the credit...

Scope.....

10/18/2007 11:01:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Anon,

if you had any idea at all how annoying and essentially useless such nebulous comments are, you still might make them (I'm sure), but you probably wouldn't expect anyone to spend much time on them...spell it out or leave it out please.

10/18/2007 11:08:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Gorbachev sings: Tractors! Turnips!

10/18/2007 11:46:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Is it me, or are comments on this thread actually being misplaced here by blogger from another site? ;-)

10/18/2007 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

off the subject a little. I am looking to see some pics of the year 07 fair. anyone know if i can see them anywhere. thanks.
great dialog about art fairs all very poinyent.

10/18/2007 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Your Pulse booth was very great.Small amounts of courage stand out as more people play it safe.It's interesting to see the fancy "backrooms" galleries are now building into their booths.

It seems to me, that the fair bubble has not come close to reaching it's peak. The reason for this is that the real estate costs are forcing more and more galleries out of the main art centers and districts making them very dependent on fairs. There's also a depressing trend towards training more and more people to only buy at fairs.

Of course this is an outsiders perspective. I really was too broke to have been considering this game.

One thing I wonder about is how long it will take before more fairs alow dealers who do not have physical galleries. That is what I would imagine that a lot of people would like to do-- just sell at fairs.

10/18/2007 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thread, very enlightening.
(I was the original poster)...It seems like the economics are daunting, but then again they are daunting for a gallery space as well.

From an artist's perspective, it's essential that your gallery participate because it seems like the only (best?) way an artist can find representation in other cities, which is critical...and your gallery is absorbing the additional cost/risk of the fair but you are still getting your 50%. As someone who has been showing with a well respected younger gallery here - they've gotten me terrific press and some nice sales - but one which has been slow to get into good fairs, I've given this a fair (no pun intended) bit of thought. I guess that's what I meant by "expected" to participate.

I do think that the satellite fairs have gotten out of control...Is it really possible that the real collectors even bother to go to most of them? And any dip in the art market will probably hit those marginal fairs (and galleries) hardest.

10/18/2007 02:04:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

There's also a depressing trend towards training more and more people to only buy at fairs.

This is a very important point (possibly worthy of its own thread). Long-time collectors are increasingly frustrated by it as well (they've told me so). I'm not sure what will reverse it or slow it down, but perhaps fairs are more fad than "brave new world," and this will take care of itself in a few years.

Then again, perhaps I'll happen upon a bag containing 3 billion dollars that no one else claims.

10/18/2007 02:11:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Seems like the most cost-effective way to promote your gallery might be to skip the shipping and party expenses entirely, and just have a booth offering free massages. Call it a performance piece.

10/18/2007 02:31:00 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

"It seems like the economics are daunting, but then again they are daunting for a gallery space as well."

Yes, this whole subject relates to some very deep problems in the art world. There really is something wrong and unsustainable and I think it relates at it's root to real estate prices and the current location of the major art centers.

The organic dense, well located arts districts are becoming far too pricey on a per square foot basis. This is forcing a things to spread out and become less convenient for collectors and there are also just a lot more dealers out there. The end result is that fairs become more and more essential.

The smaller, more marginal players who are often the people who really show new work are the most vulnerable.

10/18/2007 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Ed, if you are spending $290 on a massage, you are getting RIPPED OFF. I make outcalls to Chelsea for only $120, and I am the BEST. If you come to my place I'm even cheaper, and you get the full Artist Ambiance as well.

You CONFESS to having back pain, Edward. What does it TAKE for you to take care of yourself? Shame on you! Call me!

10/18/2007 03:20:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I have to say that I did get a great massage by the above poster yesterday. She is confident for a reason.

10/18/2007 03:34:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

I think it's interesting (and very like you) Ed to think about the larger picture and attempt a creative solution (video at the fair), and I can see why it was a little... before its time.

I guess what I am saying is that in upcoming years it will be interesting to see what everyone thinks of. Video is a good one, but how about miniatures? A huge vogue for teeny tiny drawings?

Since PL is hawking wares Ed, call *me* when you need to put a whole huge sculpture show in your suitcase. I have one word for you:

Inflatables!

; P

10/18/2007 03:39:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Hey, I did NOT volunteer to be the art-fair masseuse. My concern was solely for the health of Edward. ;-)

10/18/2007 03:51:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Glad to hear you're feeling good, Deborah.

10/18/2007 03:52:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Between massages and inflatables, we really are getting into some interesting territory here. EW, you could have the most popular booth at Basel, and save a lot of $ at the same time! Aren't you glad you have this team of free business advisers?

10/18/2007 05:03:00 PM  
Blogger Daniel Cooney said...

So happy to be one of few avoiding Miami in every way this year.

10/18/2007 06:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Speck said...

fisher6000 mentions maybe hand luggage is the way. It already is! People just prefer not to mention. Something about prestige.

10/18/2007 07:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I met my wife when she was working at an art fair as a masseuse. Really.

10/18/2007 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger bgfa said...

I was in London, but never got the time to stop by Year '07 to see you, Ed. I was doing the Bridge Fair at the Trafalgar.

The British press made a point to discourage people from attending the American-run fairs, emphasizing Frieze and Zoo over Year 07, Pulse, and Bridge. And it worked. The attendance was poor, and sales were meager.

Unlike Miami, and any other American city where art fairs are held, Londoners did not show much enthusiasm for attending. In a city of 10 million, we saw maybe 50-75 people a day in our space.

I do believe that the only people making any money at the fairs are the people selling the spaces. Even the press buys into the hype, asserting that sales are strong when they are not. I read story after story asserting various deals which I happen to know did not occur. Several dealers brought sold work, marked it sold, and bragged to the press that it sold at the fairs. Pure bullshit.

I had a great time in London. I met wonderful people, bonded with a group of other dealers, and generally enjoyed the urbanity of the English capital. But these fairs are a scam.

My advice to emerging dealers? Go to the fairs as a visitor, not as a participant, go to the parties, meet the people, and avoid the trap of paying some organizer tens of thousands.

Daniel Cooney has it right. I will be showing one last time in Miami this December, and that will be my last fair (unless I get invited to do one for free, how likely is that?).

10/19/2007 01:57:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Pretty Lady, wooing art dealers by offering oily rubdowns is not fair. I object to this unlevel playing field!

10/19/2007 11:12:00 AM  
Blogger John Morris said...

Thanks for the honest dope on your experience, Bert. It's true that the galleries who invested in these things will be the last to admit in public that they made a mistake.

10/19/2007 01:22:00 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I would think that logically, one of the main benefits of fairs would be to expose residents of a city/region/country to out of town galleries or at least some of the underexposed and lesser known in town ones.

Seeing places like the Armory, packed in with galleries no more than 30 blocks away from the fairs is a big drag. Even worse, is seeing that a gallery in Mumbai, or Leipzig with booth of secondary market Alex Katz work or something.

I would imagine, financial pressure will overwhelm it, but I think organisers should tilt fairs away from blue chip local galleries at least at the NY and London Fairs.

10/19/2007 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good, keep going, more truth and less hyperbole...

10/19/2007 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Good, keep going, more truth and less hyperbole...

Says the commenter afraid to sign his/her name.

It's true that the galleries who invested in these things will be the last to admit in public that they made a mistake.

There is a fear of upsetting the organizers that comes into play, much the same way that many artists are the last to admit in public when they're unhappy with a grant or residency or museum or gallery. That must be understandable, no?

10/19/2007 02:11:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Every cultural group needs a few events where everyone can get together and act weird. Think of Comic-Con or Anthrocon.

10/19/2007 03:19:00 PM  
Blogger bgfa said...

"There is a fear of upsetting the organizers that comes into play, much the same way that many artists are the last to admit in public when they're unhappy with a grant or residency or museum or gallery. That must be understandable, no?"

The organizers have nothing to fear. If sales are lacking, the fair phenomenon will fade away on its own. Ultimately, exhibitors will not continue to waste their money if they are getting nothing for it.

In most cases, I don't think the organizers are doing anything wrong, so there's no point in criticizing them. The overall market determines this. Of course, for those fairs that are invitation only, one would want to be invited back.

10/19/2007 05:58:00 PM  
Anonymous FineCraftGuru said...

Greetings all, new here, perhaps just passing thru. A dealer myself, I find this exchange terrifically refreshing in its candor.

On to the point - I believe the fairs, at least in our market segment, Objects, are gaining in import, not declining. Attendance increases yearly, our sales increase yearly. It *is* tremendously nervewracking to put $30k on the pass line, in effect... I've made money, lost money, broken even. Stepped outside our "comfort zone" (SOFA) to do Bridge in Chicago last year, and got creamed. But, generally, in our case, the fair increases our credibility, as the established collectors do expect the dealers to be there. It also broadens our base, giving us international reach.
I do resent the online-only or fair-only dealers that are allowed in; makes on wonder if that's not the easier path.

1/19/2008 07:53:00 PM  

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