Marc Spiegler runs a great art fair, Art Basel, but he may not be the best sociologist. Explaining the growth of art fairs over the last decade and a half to Bloomberg’s James Tarmy, Spiegler trots out a formula he’s used a number of times in the past:
“The reason that art fairs have become so important has to do with the shifting demographics of wealth,” says Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel. “Wealth is more and more in the hands of people who are working, rather than those who’ve inherited it.” While previous generations might have had the time to travel the world looking for choice paintings and objets, current collectors “are actively building their fortunes,” Spiegler says. An art fair, with hundreds of galleries in a single space that’s in, or close to, collectors’ homes “allows patrons today to discover a lot of galleries and artists in a concentrated way.”
It can’t hurt Spiegler to flatter his audience by suggesting they’re all such diligent worker bees. But the conjecture is hard to sustain in the face of broader trends. Saying art fairs have grown because attendees are too busy is like suggesting Burning Man has grown because the attendees can’t get vacation time from their start-ups.
Both Burning Man and an art fair are intense, concentrated experiences that gain their potency from mass participation. The growth of art fairs is more likely a product of the same trends that have created multi-day music festivals and participatory conferences like TED and Davos.
The growth of the art fair circuit also seems to have coincided with the emergence of a global class of business owners and investors who need a common context to build trust and sense of group membership.
At the same time, the communications revolution has made it easier for Spiegler’s wealth builders to attend fairs in Europe or Asia while still staying on top of their correspondence and in touch with their direct reports. Art buyers are surely building wealth 24/7 but they can do that while strolling the aisles of an art fair now more easily than ever.
Finally, if we have to look for one solid reason for the art fair trend it may be the need for a form of social proof in the art world. Collecting is no longer simply about visiting a few trusted dealers on semi-annual trips to New York, Paris or London. Art collecting is an avocation that can be overwhelmingly complex and confusing. Art fairs provide a visual context (good or bad) that allows participants to gain far more information in a group context than they might generate in isolation.
In that sense, art fairs may have much more in common with auctions than anyone involved in the business wants to admit.