“What many fairs are now seeing is the discordant relationship between art and its need for context,” explains Ambre Kelly, who along with her other half, Andrew Gori, founded the Spring Break Art Show (SPAS) in 2012, a wildly curated collection of thought-provoking presentations often in unexpected locales—an abandoned school, a post office, even former Conde Nast offices in Times Square. SPAS is one of some 11 fairs that now constitute the “Frieze Frenzy,” as New Yorkers colloquially call the first week in May during which the London cast-off franchise moors itself to Randall’s Island, turning Gotham City into a veritable race of must-sees that include New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), Collective Art+Design, and another London-transplant, Condo. “When we started our first official art exhibition as a ‘fair,’ we liked the idea of turning the excess that the art fair naturally came to represent on its head,” adds Gori. “Particularly with the influence of Art Basel/Miami, art fairs had a consumerist cachet we thought would be both interesting to borrow and crucial to disturb.”
As their name suggests, satellite fairs emerged under the shadow of name-brand behemoths such as the aforementioned Frieze and, most important, Art Basel, as ancillary extensions and antidotes for the community of art collectors and professionals who descend upon a city to transact and trawl through the contemporary art landscape.
By exhibiting at the same time as larger fairs, these smaller, more focused operations can piggyback off the clientele who come to town. But these upstart fairs are also “where artists can share and grow their practice among their contemporaries, and where latent discourses can mature and be renewed,” explains Touria El Glaoui, founder of the multi-outpost 1:54 African Art fair, which started in London alongside Frieze. It’s since grown to also operate during New York’s Frieze week as well and soon will have a February edition in Marrakech, Morocco to encourage the African collecting community to converge.
Though the premise of a fair is to sell, satellite fairs aren’t simplified channels for engaging the art market. These new models have emerged in the past five years as a growing response to another phenomenon of the past decade: the art fair as the premier event in the arts calendar. There are now nearly 270 annual art fairs; 15 years ago, Art Basel, Art Cologne, and the Armory Show were the only necessary stops on the art fair tour. Similarly, a report in The Art Market | 2017, issued by UBS and Art Basel, found estimated sales at art fairs reached $13.3 billion (a quarter of global art sales total and 22% of total dealer yearly spending) in 2016, a 5% increase from the prior year and up 57% since 2010. Art fairs are the heart of the art market these days.
As art creates more and more of an asset class, these independent satellite operations offer exhibition-worthy and highly curated presentations of emerging, overlooked and reconsidered artists, with “no corporate entities, no negatrons,” as SPAS’s Kelly puts it. Even the pioneering satellite operations have rejected the muddy commercial approach. As tells Jeffrey Lowman, founder of Untitled art fair in Miami, which began in 2005: “Untitled was founded because I saw an opportunity in the marketplace to create a fair that focused on artistic and curatorial integrity with the intent of innovating the traditional fair model to create a more interesting experience.”
In an almost ironic twist of capitalism, for these independent acts the price of freedom is, in fact, less expensive. Operating at lower costs, a wider variety of artists can be featured in the fairs, while fostering a farther-reaching network. As gallerist and art fair creator Brett W. Schulz explains, “In Mexico City at that time, Zona Maco was the only fair. We had participated for three consecutive years in Maco’s New Proposals section, but it always felt to us like we were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. At the price points we were managing, we could rarely sell enough work to break even and we felt like the context, size, and format of the fair were ultimately working against us. We weren’t even making helpful contacts. The entire experience just felt cold.” In turn, Schulz co-founded Material, soon entering in its fourth edition in February 2018. “Art fairs, when they’re done well, can create communities that continue to be felt and understood throughout the year,” he says, “We wanted a fair for our generation.”
More and more, these satellite fairs reject the straightforward sales approach and instead “offer the edge,” explains 1:54’s El Glaoui: “Satellite fairs remind us to challenge our perception of the art center, because the art world has many lively centers. We can instigate the changes we wish to see with a greater sense of vision and control.” What that often means, in cases such as SPAS or Material, is trading ideas and challenging convention through artworks that impose upon the art’s gambit. As Schulz says, “At the most basic, reductive level, the way I think about it is that if you want to see a lot of shiny, commercial, overpriced trophies, go to the big fair. If you believe in the transformative power of ideas, go to the independent fair.”