Why Cities Thrive During Art Fairs

Arguably the most significant development to have reshaped the art world in the last half century has been the emergence and subsequent domination of The Art Fair. On many occasions throughout the year and across the globe the world’s elite congregate under one roof with the same common goal; to acquire and enjoy great art.

Whilst these fairs seriously boost the art market, their effects are felt far beyond the narrow context of money changing hands between collectors and dealers.

Cities pulsate with the much broader social and cultural outcomes that have come to outweigh the economic effects.

Hosting an art fair completely alters the character of a city; the fair becomes the epicentre of a tremendous ripple effect of satellite fairs, talks, parties and events that propel the city’s profile onto the world stage. Whilst this may seem a drop in the ocean for mega-cities such as London and New York, other locations have been utterly re-invented by these opportunities. Needless to say, the Art Basel brand has had this effect the world over; Basel itself has become synonymous with what is widely considered the world’s premiere art fair. Miami and Hong Kong have effected a total rebrand of their cities’ cultures since being incorporated into the Art Basel family.

This surge, whilst in part to do with the gathering of the world’s rich list into a single place for a concentrated amount of time, finds its roots in a long-standing tradition of artistic events acting as pinnacles for cultural stimulus and progression. One could say that an influx of the world’s most creatively influential people into a single place might inevitably have this effect. The modern- day art fair has a long and, at times, rebellious history, whose stimulus can be found in the defiant mounting of the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1867. This iconic exhibition and the works in it (organised by the Impressionist painters whose ‘subversive’ works were rejected by the official Salon des Beaux-Arts) are now seen as the cradle from whence the Modern art movement was born. And, like all great artistic and cultural innovations, the movement caused the world around it to adapt and reflect its vision.

Waves of change create tides that shift and reshape everything in their path. Artists get swept up in the momentum leading creative industries to find ways of capitalising upon these currents. It goes without saying that the art world will deploy its sharpest performance, galleries promote their leading artists and auction houses host their high-end evening auctions, all accompanied by extremely glamorous launch parties. But the sheer number of artistic events reach far beyond the elitist sphere of affluent collectors. Top museums take advantage of the hype to bring together momentous exhibitions and satellite fairs have been established to represent more emerging and affordable artists.

London, during Frieze, which has established itself as one of the world’s leading Contemporary Art fairs, is a perfect example of a city, brimming over with exciting events geared towards art lovers, be they students, buyers, artists themselves or the merely curious.

Running concurrently to Frieze is ‘The Other Art Fair’ in East London, catering to a younger crowd, the event (which now hosts fairs across the world) was set up both to compliment and challenge more established art fairs.

These rival fairs illustrate brilliantly how London institutions have utilised the hype surrounding Frieze. By harnessing the city’s unique blend of tradition and cutting edge, ‘London Art Week’ as it has now been dubbed due to the sheer volume of events taking place, plays host to exhibitions that attract universal attention. From the Basquiat show at the hyper-urban Barbican Centre to Tate Britain’s Rachel Whiteread retrospective, the London art scene will be unrivalled this season.

What Frieze has done for London has long been symptomatic of the energy that an art fair can bring to a city.

Though both the Basquiat and the Whiteread shows will run for much longer than the duration of Frieze, it is no coincidences that these events coincide. London has long been a recognised cultural world centre, but the peril of being firmly established is the danger of becoming complacent. Frieze, since its inaugural fair in 2003, has breathed new life into the London art scene, forcing this historic city to dust off its cobwebs and present itself anew as a trailblazer of art and culture.

Though the boost art fairs bring to the economy (both for the art market and the local businesses that benefit from the surge of tourism) are laudable, the renaissance it has upon a city’s cultural landscape is perhaps the most significant and enduring consequence.

Article by Rebecca Jennings

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