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In 1967 there was only Art Cologne. Widely considered the world’s first art fair, the event was launched by German dealers seeking to reinvigorate a stalling market for modern and contemporary art. Over the next 45 years, a diverse population of dealer consortiums, private companies, and individual promoters followed, mounting the hundreds of art fairs that now compete for the eyes and the wallets of the collecting public year-round.
“They are part of the business plan now,” says San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier of the fairs. Participating in any fewer than four such events a year, he says, “would be like not advertising or not having three phone lines. It’s critical to operating a business.” Preoccupied with chasing new revenue, however, galleries can sometimes miscalculate or overlook expenses that come with attending multiple art fairs each season. The increasingly event-driven marketplace has become both a professional obligation and a financial risk.
According to a 2011 study titled “The Role of Art & Antique Dealers: An Added Value,” dealers make approximately 28 percent of their total sales outside the primary country where their business is located. That figure, gathered from a survey of 45 members of CINOA, an international association of art and antiques dealers, includes sales to collectors overseas as well as participation in art fairs. But the two dozen galleries that provided detailed figures for this article painted an even more striking picture. Most reported that art fairs alone account for an average of 60 percent — and as much as 90 percent — of their total business.
Participation in art fairs doesn’t come cheap, however. A single booth at a premier event can cost more than $75,000, all of which must be paid up front. “If you have four fairs going on more or less at the same time, and each one costs between $40,000 and $50,000, you have a lot of money out there,” notes Richard Arregui, a director at Miami’s Fredric Snitzer Gallery.