The rising of art fairs around the world

by Mihaela Manolache

Art fairs have become a huge success in terms of exhibiting, promoting, selling, and experiencing art of all genres. Collectors, galleries, curators, and artists meet up in an international creative environment to exchange data and ideas, selling and buying artworks. As a segment of a market chain, art fairs present a broad story about the art market’s history and its cultural impact.


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In 2019, statistics registered around 300 fairs around the world, becoming a crucial infrastructure of the global art market. We can say for certainty that art fairs are some of the most popular cultural events where not only dealers and galleries participate. Museum professionals, art lovers, and high-life people join with equal interest in the overall experience – social life, entertainment, profit, connections and innovations. So why are art fairs important today and what is their focus? How did art fairs emerge for the first time and how much of their structure has changed over time? 

The oldest fairs in the world

Since Antiquity, fairs are some of the oldest human manifestations in the world where trading, exchanging and presenting – spectacles, goods, or exotic merchandise represent the base of a large popular gathering. Usually organised in the centre of the city, such events spanned from Europe to the Chinese Empire. In ancient times these types of gatherings were held annually in temples, houses, or tents, celebrating some religious events or pilgrimages. Even though it meant twining religion with commerce, remarkable efforts were made by the society’s elite to organise such festivities and attract as many people as possible. 

Traders would bring along to the fair their most valuable objects to spark curiosity and obtain a good price for the items. The religious tradition became a fundamental aspect of the festivals and from year-to-year interest grew and more and more markets appeared resulting in a prolific commercial business. By the Middle Ages in Europe, trade fairs were popular exhibitions of products, including artefacts and artistic creations. By the 12th century, Fairs of Champagne in Medieval France toured different towns of the Champagne region and was the first one to have a formal structure, including trading contracts. 

Flemish Fair - Pieter Brueghel
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Flemish Fair by Pieter Brueghel

By the 16th century, fairs evolved into authentic platforms for vending where people stressed the importance of the originality of the items on sale and the construction of long-term business relationships. As a consequence, fairs took place at an expected date. The fairs’ inner core shifted from supporting a political and a religious motif to sole mercantile activities with a pleasant aesthetic display.

In terms of focused marketing on art, the Belgian city of Antwerp seems to have been a pioneer, where people could sell their creations internationally. The first-ever art fair opened in the courtyard of the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, in 1460. At this specific fair, paintings, sculptures, illustrations, and manuscripts were sold to customers, becoming a model for the future market of art. Antwerp fair was held on a biannual basis and won the battle for the most vivid financial capital in Europe of its time.

In the beginning, merchants were also producers of their goods so they used to sell their art directly to the customer. Art pieces and decorative items were sold together with goods and jewels. However, the European cultural rebirth, the separation from the religious side of the fairs, and the magnitude of Antwerp fairs gave birth to a new profession. Middlemen bought art from the creators and sold it to customers. In these times is when the (art) dealer emerged. Dealers were educated individuals, with a large network and enough capital to fund art. So they facilitated the processes of selling and buying art and has been an essential profession ever since.

The French System  

Salon Carré du Louvre gives the name to one of the most famous art exhibitions in the world – Salon de Paris or the French Salon. Since 1795, the salons have welcomed artists regardless of their educational institution, even though the selection was still influenced by politics. As a consequence, the system was contested repeatedly and by the orders of emperor Napoleon III, an alternative salon was created – the infamous Salon des Refusés, which displayed works from James Whistler, Paul Cézanne, Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet.

Nicolas Sébastien Maillot - View of the Salon Carré of the Louvre in 1831
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Nicolas Sébastien Maillot – View of the Salon Carré of the Louvre in 1831

In the United Kingdom, the monarchy ordered that a large-scale exhibition should be organised each year to display the works of the artists. The British Royal Academy of Art has become the first institution ever to create an annual event that is held without fail since 1769. The Summer Exhibition is the largest continuously produced open-submission art event in the world. 

But the truly influential venues in terms of global culture and progress were the international exhibitions in London and Paris. The edition in 1851 held in Hyde Park within the Crystal Palace attracted more than 6 million visitors. The famous Exposition Universelle of 1900 in Paris established the French capital as the cultural capital of the world. Across the ocean, in the U.S.A. the greatest art show ever organised remains the 1913 New York City Armory Show – which displayed more than a thousand artworks from almost 300 artists – both Americans and Europeans – including iconic Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Marcel Duchamp, and Edward Hopper. 

Foundation of Contemporary Art Fairs

Throughout the 20th century, important art hubs were established in London, Paris and New York. The American public was delighted when introduced to the European avant-garde with the occasion of the Armoury show and never stopped supporting European artists ever since. What is interesting to observe is the phenomenon that drove the public’s attention from the established capitals to peripheral regions. As art hubs concentrated in big cities already had several established galleries and patrons, contemporary fairs appeared in smaller cities with strong economic development that deserved attention. Good examples are the Cologne Art Market, which opened in 1967 and Art Basel established in 1970. 

Modern and contemporary art fairs continue the tradition of large-scale exhibitions, held on a regular basis by galleries and dealers, and emphasising the commercial side of the sector. They bring together art professionals, art buyers, and people that are genuinely interested in buying art. Although the events attracted regionally, many dealers expressed their desire to go internationally. With an emphasis on business activity around galleries which needed connections and collections, first art fairs were mostly organised for the guild. Auction houses were the result of dealers’ work to buy cheap and to resell the work but they evolved to an interactive platform, exposed internationally, which today monetises concretely the artists and their works. This is the reason why some collectors invest in art without being even interested in it but rather in its financial value. Dealers usually guide a collector to follow a trend that can offer a return for the investment. As a consequence, many collectors end up buying mostly the same names from different galleries and auction houses and reselling them in a few years.

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Art Basel

The change came after 1990 when the art market was reorganised. New networks were born and new types of fairs came into being, with much stress on local creation. After Art Basel Miami in 2002, the phenomenon truly exploded in thousands of locations throughout the world, with overwhelming costs and expectations. Both galleries and artists acknowledge the fact that there is a difference in terms of quality between the work exhibited in the gallery and the one sold at an art fair. 

The new fairs address not only the professionals in the field but the interested public as well, including affluent collectors and high-life individuals. While art fairs still combine creation with profit, the contemporary structure needs to add social components, entertainment for VIP guests, and promote a hand of artists that reach up to the market position. Some of the galleries request their artists’ particular artworks which they anticipate will please the visitors, thus limiting the artist’s creativity and overlooking emerging talents. 

However, the advantages of art fairs cannot be denied: establishment of new galleries, promotion of emerging artists, new concepts for future exhibitions in museums, network, visibility, setting trends, and so on. The complexity of contemporary art fairs tends to fatigue both the dealers and the artists and causes many of them to leave the much-questioned system. 

Online Art Fairs

During the pandemic, art fairs have shifted from requiring a physical presence to virtual viewing rooms. In 2020 Art Basel Hong Kong with its digital settings proved to be a successful edition while supporting the evolution of the art market considering the crisis to overcome it. Following the model, many other fairs moved to the virtual area. Although it lacks human interactivity, selling art through online fairs has proved to be more transparent in terms of prices to eliminate some intimidation and mixed feelings that some of the collectors and artists felt at times. 

The virtual world has taken over fairs, museums, and other major tourist attractions, innovating technologies that offer new types of experiences to its audience. Artists have refined their digital skills and created artworks available only in the online environment. And it is believed to be only the beginning of this new art. The concept of art fairs will evolve and overcome obstacles, as it did for hundreds of years. Although we might not return to the classic patterns of old trading, the art market will transform together with our ways of life, including smartphones, virtual rooms, and technologies that continuously shape our daily normality. 

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