Lately it feels like all the world's an art fair. Record-breaking attendance at last year's ArtHK in Hong Kong and this year's India Art Fair in New Delhi cemented the BRIC market trend, while an exhibiting gallerist quoted in London's Financial Times wondered last week if "the rise and rise of the art fair" signalled global democratization. Here in New York, there were 10 fairs in March alone, and this weekend Frieze New York, the London-born contemporary bazaar, lands on Randall's Island in the East River.
Purists worry that the proliferation of art fairs, especially while museums and other public institutions struggle, proves the triumph of money over taste. Certainly, every other sense loses out in the disharmonious jumble of the fairground; feeling is usually the first to go. Concluding a chapter on Art Basel – Switzerland's annual art fair – in her blockbuster 2008 book Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton wrote that the experience made her crave "nothing more than a well-thought-out museum show."
Looking at recent museum shows, though, I wonder if she might reverse that sentiment.
Not long after Thornton's book came out, in 2009, New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art – ostensibly a model of the cutting edge – presented an exhibition of works owned by one of the museum's trustees, billionaire mega-collector Dakis Joannou, and curated by ur-1980s artist Jeff Koons. It was, wrote art critic Paddy Johnson, "an ostentatious show of money from start to finish, an out-of-touch event that seems in bad taste during a recession – even if the Joannous of the world are what the art world is built on."
In 2010, New York's Museum of Modern Art put on Abstract Expressionist New York, which toured to the Art Gallery of Ontario last year and which was both beautiful aegis and overblown argument for white-male American exceptionalism. (The fair-like roomful of Jackson Pollocks, for one thing, served mostly to underscore his overratedness.)
Now, there is a show to end all arguments about art "versus" commerce: Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, which I would not fly to London to see. I wouldn't even cross the street. His work is about death and taxes, the only other certainty being that he is lazy. Spots? If you want to see spots, go elsewhere in the Tate and see Yayoi Kusama. She has actually bothered to paint them herself, and did so decades before Hirst first hired assistants to produce his "spot paintings" at a conveyor-belt rate. Hirst's sell at rare prices – between $800,000 and $3,000,000 – but are about as rare as DUIs in West Hollywood.
"They are valued like unique, individual works of art, yet are made in quantities – and using methods – that seem to deny this fiction," wrote The Guardian's Hari Kunzru in a scathing indictment of Hirst as art-market metonym. "Cue alarm in a lot of penthouse living rooms."
There is a more general alarm, though, and it's that we who go to museums, love them, could sleep in the Tate (I have), do not want them to feel like those penthouse living rooms.
I call independent art adviser David Moos, former AGO contemporary art curator, so that he can talk very reassuringly to me about it all. If museums feel co-opted, he says, let's remember why.
"Museums are needing to compete in a globalized, highly capitalized art market – compete for excellence in terms of artwork and go against a new class of ultra-wealthy private collector that is commanding the art market," he says. "It is naive to think of a private collector as a trophy collector. Think of them as on a par with certain museums. You look at someone like Eli Broad, whose Broad Museum is under way in L.A., that's not a modest museum. It requires a certain ambition."
The Broad Museum upholds a long American tradition of institutionalizing private wealth. There is the Norton Museum of Art in Pasadena, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Menil Collection in Houston, and in Miami, the Rubell Family Collection, the one part of Art Basel Miami that feels civilized and caring, not like a sybaritic spring break for the creative upper class. In Canada, too, there will soon be the Remai Art Gallery in Saskatoon, named for the family that donated $30-million to its current renovation and future programming.
"That would not be happening without such an impressive and unprecedented donation," says Moos. "Without enlightened individuals in the community, you're not going to have a strong institution. If you compare museum collections in North America, you look at Pittsburgh, Detroit, L.A., Toronto, the reality is that a museum's collection is only as good as its community."
Community, for sure, is a kinder word than market.
You could argue, following Moos's line of reasoning, that the Tate is merely giving the people what they want: big-bucks, big-bang, biggest-name art, even if it's there because big-time collectors sit on the Tate's board. I could argue that for people who still believe we can decide what we want, the logic of latest capitalism notwithstanding, many fairs are a better use of time and admission fees than many museum shows.
I too used to feel that art fairs were like malls; they are, but there is something honest in that. The typical fair environment – loud, bright, undiscerning – is bad for the mystique that keeps artists elite, but good for feeling out what you like without being led there. And at least an art fair does not feel, the way the Tate looks right now, like a mouldy old auction house.
Frieze, which was founded in London in 2003 and runs for the first time in New York this week, is a good example. Eighty per cent of visitors, according to founder Amanda Sharp, don't come to buy art. They will see work from 180 leading, emerging, and rigorously selected contemporary galleries; this alone makes Frieze New York more "curatorial" than Art Basel Miami, or The Armory Show, both of which show modern alongside contemporary and have focus muddled by scope.
"You pay the money for the ticket, yes, but you see some of the best contemporary work anywhere in the world," says Frieze Projects curator Cecilia Alemani. "The environment might not be as good as a museum, but there has been a change in the way galleries present themselves, so that some of the displays could totally compete with museums."
For her part, Alemani commissioned eight site-specific works by eight artists who aren't all household names: John Ahearn, Uri Aran, Latifa Echakhch, Joel Kyack, Rick Moody, Virginia Overton, Tim Rollins and K.O.S., and Ulla von Brandenburg. Because the works are situated outside, says Alemani, there is a heightened sense of accessibility to the public. This accessibility, like community, is a major tenet of the museum.
Sharp, who stages the fair with Matthew Slotover, sounds – or makes herself sound – more interested in those traditional values than she is in buying and selling. "We do want to be more than a fair, in the sense that we always aimed to create a meeting place, a place where discussion could begin," she says.
That idea seems eminently useful. Too many museum shows end the dialogue, curtailing the significance of artists and movements with premature retrospectives and expos, or boosting them artificially for the sake of art-collecting trustees.
To see how art reaches the museum, the canon, you have to go to the fairs. I do not know if you can understand art without understanding the price of it. I suppose you could stick to an old-fashioned snob's dislike of art fairs, but that would be like eating meat, you know, without ever going to the butcher's shop.
Special to The Globe and Mail