Like common ghosts, writers sometimes find themselves drifting back again and again to a location of unconscious relevance. You can’t easily say why this thing suddenly matters so much–you just find yourself floating around it and making mischief to attract notice. And the haunting simply rages on until the full meaning behind the object of attention is completely unearthed.
This is the situation I’ve found myself in recently regarding globalization’s effects on the art market.
The past few weeks have generated posts about the absurdity of regional auction records and the long-term peril of second-tier destination fairs–both of which play on the underlying theme–as well as some related secondary points in my piece on packing and shipping startup Shyp’s (doomed, I believe) foray into arts transport for Art Basel Miami.
Well, today brings another quick burst of my pasty ass knocking pictures off the walls and levitating furniture in the same locale.
In her roundup of (OFF)ICIELLE, Colleen Milliard of artnet raised two points about the fair that caught my eye: one, that both FIAC and (OFF)ICIELLE had “a distinctly French flavor,” owing in part to the fact that “more than 25 percent of the galleries at [FIAC] are based in the country” while the “proportion…reaches just under 50 percent at (Off)icielle." And two, that brisk sales at (OFF)ICIELLE were "stimulated no doubt by the relatively low price point (most of the works on show…[were] below €20,000).”
What Milliard leaves unsaid is the direct link between these two aspects of the fair. The simple truth is that the glitziest art fairs are the costliest for dealers, especially those who have to travel themselves, their staff, and their inventory to an international location. I touched on this (with numbers, rebel that I am) in my earlier-mentioned Shyp piece:
in 2012 Blouin Art Info surveyed two dozen Art Basel Miami exhibitors and found the average cost of their booths to be $55,000 for the weekend. That average price excludes all the tandem incidental costs of exhibiting, such as shipping the artwork, installing it, and designing the booth beyond the bare bones minimum. (Basel Miami and other fairs literally have an a la carte menu of options for plussing out exhibitors’ spaces, with per unit costs for extra walls, lighting, furniture, etc.)
As a reference point for the total costs beyond just the booth fee, Blouin gained access to one anonymous exhibitor’s all-in expenses for one weekend of hocking at the “original” (and slightly pricier) Art Basel 2012, i.e. the version of the fair that takes place every summer in its namesake Swiss city. The sum? A pulse-spiking $122,550.
It’s not hard to extrapolate from there about the average price of the artworks being offered for sale at the fair…
Whether intentional or not, (OFF)ICIELLE’s relatively earthbound price points function as a de facto form of economic protectionism for French gallerists and, to a lesser extent, gallerists based in nearby western European countries. No matter how unofficial the figure may be, if the expectation for sellers is a €20,000 price cap–with most works going for considerably less–then the all-in costs of exhibiting at the fair make it a less and less appealing option the farther flung a merchant’s headquarters is.
True, the overall effect is muted by (OFF)ICIELLE’s Siamese twinning with the up-market FIAC. The superior margins a gallerist could count on at the latter make running a targeted companion booth at the former a reasonable, possibly even savvy, strategy.
But for non-French gallerists not already planning to spit-roast the Parisian art market, (OFF)ICIELLE itself creates a haven for locals purely through downward price pressure. I can’t say if this was a conscious tactic by its braintrust to Gallicize the fair, but to my eye, the decision undoubtedly helped foster that effect.
Still, whether or not it’s a smart long-term strategy is another question entirely–one that it’s entirely possible I’ll find myself leaving disembodied footprints through on some dark night in the near future.