Established 1978
Fine Arts

May Fairs

by Linda Zweig

When May art fairs first came into the consciousness of collectors, consultants, gallery owners, and dealers, the question on everyone’s lips was, “Are you going to the Art Fair?”

In the early days, the Art Fair took place in Chicago at the Navy Pier and “everyone who was anyone” in the art world gathered there.

The goal was to see miles of exhibitors who transported a mini version of their galleries to booths presenting the very best work they had to offer—in the hope of finding new art buyers from all over the country. In essence, art dealers would temporarily leave their quiet and elegant white-walled environments and “take the show on the road.”

The model gained traction and various art fairs started popping up all over. The format has not changed much since those first fairs, and the goal remains the same. What has changed is the number of fairs, which have multiplied, divided, and splintered to the point where one can lose count of the many art fairs in the U.S. alone. Art fairs around the world have also proliferated, from Berlin and Basel, to Sao Paulo and Dubai.

Two of the best known these days are Art Basel Miami (held in December) and the Frieze Art Fair, which occurs in May on Randall’s Island Park in Manhattan—one weekend before artMRKT opens here in San Francisco.

Twenty-thirteen marks the third year that Artmrkt has taken place in the city and the first year it will be held in a new venue at Fort Mason. The brainchild of co-founders Max Fishko and Jeffrey Wainhause, artMRKT was held in a SOMA venue last year, which, most visitors agreed, had great energy and ambiance. The move to the Festival Pavilion in Fort Mason is meant to accommodate more and bigger gallery representation and many more visitors during its three day run, from May 16 through May 19. The opening night party will benefit the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Though the Festival Pavilion can be a somewhat overwhelming space for the fair organizers, this year architecturally designed lounges for VIPs have been added to break up the space and create intimate havens.

With almost 70 galleries expected to participate in this year’s artMRKT, chances are there will be talk among dealers of planning for gallery collaborations, future exhibits, and, one would hope, increased sales receipts.

Because art is being sold—and not cars, or boats or medical devices—these events are called “fairs” instead of “shows,” as in trade shows, but the ultimate goal of “cashing in” is the same. Art fairs provide a place where both buyers and viewers can see a very large amount of art in a short amount of time—creating less wear-and-tear than traditional “gallery hopping.” It is also an opportunity for galleries to get immediate access to potential clients who might never visit a gallery.

Several galleries from out of the Bay Area will be putting up booths at artMRKT this year. They will come from out-of-the-way places such as Park City, Utah, to more predictable cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, and London. Still, most of the galleries participating in this year’s fair are Bay Area-based.

In May 2012, the Fort Mason venue housed a different art fair with a different name and owner. As art fairs flourish and the field gets more crowded, promoters discover which venues work better than others, and they move to new locations.

This move leaves just one competing art fair this May, ArtPadSF, which is always held at the fun and funky Phoenix Hotel. The Phoenix Hotel is known for the many well-known musicians who have stayed and played there. For a few days in May, collaborators Chip Conley, of Joi De Vivre Hotels, and Maria Jensen turn the hotel into an art mecca for the famous and almost-famous artists who produce works in every medium.

This upstart fair is set up so that interesting and interested collectors can view art by the pool or up the stairs in the hotel’s guest rooms, which will be amazingly transformed again for this year’s event. Many rooms will be recreated as art installations, while other exhibitions will utilize the available wall space in unexpected ways. Like the artists represented, the ArtPadSF galleries are there to expand the mind and introduce a new vision. ArtPad will also run from May 16 through May 19, and the opening night event will benefit the Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art at SFMOMA.

The shift of focus from individual galleries to collective gathering places has begun to take on great importance as artists and their dealers reach out to first-time collectors. By creating a place that encourages exploring and socializing in a user-friendly environment, art fairs have found ways to make the idea of buying art much less scary and much more enjoyable.

For some, it is difficult to imagine that an art purchase could be as easy as buying furniture, designer clothes, or the latest Apple product—but that is changing. Perhaps it takes attending more than one art fair to understand the excitement of owning an original work of art—so be sure to go to both of San Francisco’s May art fairs this year.



     Linda Zweig is an art consultant serving private and corporate clients.  She has also worked with several auction houses, including Christie’s, New York, and Bonhams & Butterfields, San Francisco.

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