www.artsy.net Benjamin Sutton Mar 15, 2019 11:40am
As collectors flocked to Manhattan’s west side for The Armory Show last week, a coterie of 32 galleries affected by the abrupt cancellation of the Volta satellite fair took over part of mega-dealer David Zwirner’s West 19th Street complex and a vacant space on West 21st Street. The upstart fair, dubbed Plan B, was born out of necessity. Zwirner, 1969 Gallery’s Quang Bao, artist payment platform RiSBE, members of the Volta team, and collector Peter Hort and the Rema Hort Mann Foundation banded together to find a solution to an extreme and unfortunate situation. But in doing so, Plan B’s organizers also demonstrated the flexibility, inventiveness, and cooperation that many smaller and mid-size galleries increasingly rely upon as they try to find creative ways of staying in business. Dealers reported 46% of their sales by value taking place at fairs in 2018, according to economist Clare McAndrew’s report The Art Market 2019, published last week. But dealers also said they’d spent an estimated $4.8 billion attending fairs in 2018, up 5% from 2017. What’s more, returns in the art market have increasingly concentrated at the top end of the market; dealers with annual turnover between $10 million and $50 million saw their businesses expand by 17% last year, while small and emerging dealers with an annual turnover of less than $250,000 saw a contraction of 18%. Nurturing new markets was identified as the foremost challenge for galleries in the next five years, according to the report. And increasingly, dealers are exploring alternatives to just doing more fairs in order to access new markets, from gallery-sharing models and pop-ups to gallery weekends and more. Now, other art market players are starting to cater to this demand.
Fair enough, or no fair?
Hort said that art fairs themselves are a key contributor to the squeeze on galleries’ bottom lines. “It’s extraordinarily difficult for smaller, emerging, and mid-size galleries to participate in this art market model that revolves around fairs,” he said. “It wasn’t by design, but Plan B really hit on something—it was much more of a communal fair, it was inexpensive, and the art world really came and was supportive.”
Exhibitors paid $2,000—or about the price of 2.5 square meters at Art Basel—to show at Plan B.
Zwirner had raised the issue that fair costs pose to the viability of young galleries last year, and floated the idea of having major galleries like his pay a tax of sorts to help support smaller ones; several of the world’s biggest fairs have since adopted something in that vein, with tiered pricing for booths. Hort explained that an art market model that doesn’t support small and mid-size galleries ultimately wouldn’t support artists.
“You can’t have a vibrant, healthy art community here in New York with only major galleries, you need feeder galleries and nonprofits and artist-run spaces, and artists’ studios,” he said.
Volta wasn’t the only fair that sat out this Armory Week after being shut out of its usual venue. The New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), a nonprofit that supports emerging contemporary art dealers and has some 150 members around the world, usually holds a New York fair in March. It opted to cancel its 2019 edition after losing the contract on its most recent location, and will focus instead on tours and programming within members’ brick-and-mortar spaces around the city—as well as pop-up shows organized by members including Düsseldorf’s Golestani, Franz Kaka from Toronto, and Patron from Chicago.
NADA director Heather Hubbs said that a saturated market of fairs, along with the loss of the venue, drove her organization to rethink the event it would put on in New York. She said initiatives like its New York Gallery Open can cut down on some of the stresses and expenses of participating in the fair circuit, which are felt most acutely by smaller galleries, while allowing members to tap into the critical mass of collectors in town for a fair.
“Fairs are useful and important to some degree,” Hubbs said—adding, however, that feeling obligated to participate in an unsustainable number of fairs and compete for spots in the biggest and most expensive among them can take a toll on galleries’ finances and their programming at their home base.
“That pressure is really unhealthy,” she said.
Galleries go on the road
The risk of a fatal fiscal flop and frustrations with the frenetic pace of fairs have led small and mid-size galleries to include nomadic programming as part of their business model. Initiatives like the