Slow Burn: Tech's Creeping Threat to Art Fairs
With the 2014 edition of Art Basel Miami Beach now just a little over a week away, I’ve been thinking about how long for this world the current art fair exhibitor model really is. I’ve read and listened to so many gallerists this year lamenting the same increasingly hellish reality: that the all-in costs associated with running a booth at any fair, let alone the top tier set, are obscenely high…and yet the sales revenue those booths generate now makes up such a colossal proportion of their annual grosses that most sellers can’t afford NOT to participate in them.
To me, though, the crucial factor lurking in the background of this discussion is the gradual but real impact of technology. Talk long enough to gallerists (justifiably) complaining about the Catch-22 above, and many will eventually mention in passing that now their art fair sales almost just as often consist of works shown to clients on iPads or via email after an in-person chat as they do of works physically hanging in their respective booths. In some ways, the tangible pieces on the walls are just signal fires that lure collectors into the more expansive glow of the gallery’s off-site inventory.
Here’s my question: If this trend continues, then at what point do gallerists look at the stacks of cash and bundles of manpower associated with exhibiting physical artworks at fairs and say, “Wait, if I’m largely selling off of digital images anyway, do I really need to push all these other resources into the volcano for the sake of exhibiting in a traditional way? Or are my overall margins actually better if I just parachute into the destination city with my available works on a tablet and spend my time trying to close deals without the burden of a booth?”
As usual in the industry, I think there’s still a strong incentive to keep up appearances–at least for now. Art fairs are one of the market’s primary thermometers. Scandalous whispers would immediately start rushing through the convention center about any blue chip gallery that bypassed running a booth at an A-list fair like Basel Miami. But that doesn’t mean opting out wouldn’t ultimately be a smart strategy. It just means that one of the major players would have to be willing to brave the initial barrage of controversy by proving the concept, doubters be damned.
My guess is we’re still a long way off that happening. Change tends to be lava-flow slow in the industry, as we’ve all seen too many times. Nevertheless, a cogent argument exists for sellers to trade the classic, costly exhibitor model for the new operational leanness enabled by tech. A sluggish eruption can still engulf the oldest village, no matter how long it’s been standing unchallenged. All it takes is time.