What does it take to run a successful art fair

This month sees some of the world’s most prestigious art fairs showing across three different continents, with The Armory Show in New York 7-10 March, TEFAF Maastricht in the Netherlands 16-24 March and Art Basel Hong Kong 29-31 March.

But in an ever saturated market – nearly every week of the year one can attend a number of art fairs – what does it take to run a successful art fair today?

Art fairs have become increasingly important way for artists and buyers to meet face to face and understand the works on offer. Especially considering many fine art works are going under the hammer for eye-watering prices at major auction houses around the world.

Not to mention traditional gallery spaces making way for high street fashion houses and restaurants. It can come as no surprise that the art fair has become one of the most important fixtures for makers and buyers alike.

Visitor numbers are at an all time high, with The Armory Show, TEFAF Maastricht and Art Basel Hong Kong attracting approximately 65,000, 68,000 and 80,000 visitors respectively. 

With general admission prices $45 on average, although the fair’s VIP attendees are gifted gratis tickets, organisers are hoping to target committed buyers.

So how do you create the optimum experience for visitors to buy works? t’s all about creating an enticing space where the architecture allows the art to be displayed in the best possible light, but most importantly, doesn’t compete with the art.

So says Tom Postma, the Dutch architect and artist turned art fair designer. Postma is singlehandedly responsible for the look and feel of some of the world’s most prestigious art fairs, including TEFAF’s editions in Maastricht and New York, along with Art Basel Hong Kong and Miami.

One of the biggest challenges an art fair designer has is getting the floor plan right.

One must understand how to encourage visitors to walk the way you want them to walk, to balance the interplay between the different booths, and crucially, to ensure visitors reach the very farthest corners of the fair.

Postma likens it to creating an “art city” complete with avenues, resting areas and squares to reflect in. When visitors arrive at the entrance they need to feel like they’re entering somewhere special.

Unlike most architectural designs, an art fair will be taken down after several days showing. Just like the structures are temporary, so too are the cut flower displays that have become somewhat of a hallmark of Postma’s designs.

Postma also credits the location of the art fair itself as having a defining role in its design.

The culture of the city plays a huge part in the look and feel of the space. The energy and bustle of Hong Kong is played out throughout the design of Art Basel Hong Kong. It would fall flat to copy the design for Art Basel Miami and try to apply it to Art Basel Hong Kong. It simply wouldn’t work.

It’s all about expecting the unexpected

Putting on a renowned art fair is a major undertaking in itself, but the task can be absolutely herculean when faced with unexpected challenges.

So the organisers of the 25th anniversary edition of The Armory Show in New York found out recently.

With only a week to go before the show’s opening, a routine city inspection of Pier 92 revealed major structural flaws in the building, leaving the space unfit for use over serious safety concerns.

Over a third of the show’s exhibitors had to be rehoused, with the only solution being to suspend their sister show VOLTA and use their space at Pier 90.

Both show’s affected exhibitors received a reimbursement on booth fees, but international dealers in particular would have already been out of pocket on hefty customs fees and transport costs. Not to mention the onward effect on service providers of cancelled land transport.

Relocated Armory exhibitors would no doubt be concerned about the impact on sales given the extra quarter of a mile visitors would now have to walk to visit their booths.

All of the 78 displaced VOLTA exhibitors, which represents emerging artists, were “fully reimbursed” according to organisers, but as yet a new date for the New York edition had not been set.

Such is the sometimes unpredictable nature of running a multi-faceted event like a major art fair.

Further art fair details can be found here:

The Armory Show in New York 7-10 March https://www.thearmoryshow.com/visit/locations-hours

TEFAF Maastricht in the Netherlands 16-24 March https://www.tefaf.com/fairs/tefaf-maastricht

Art Basel Hong Kong 29-31 March https://www.artbasel.com/hong-kong