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“Art fairs are not evil. They give immense amounts of visibility to the participating artists,” says Leah Dixon, a postgraduate MFA student at New York’s School of Visual Arts. She is part of a demographic not normally associated with art fairs, those commercial behemoths that have come to dominate the art world (at the last count, there were at least 280 running worldwide every year). Crucially, Frieze New York will tap into this audience of budding curators and collectors by offering $10 student tickets on Monday May 12 (limited to 1,000, also available online).
But whether art fairs can benefit the younger generation remains a point of debate. Museums and even commercial galleries arguably impart more about artists’ practices and the development of pivotal schools and movements. But fairs, especially those that try to marry curatorial and commercial concerns through special curated projects and talk forums, could serve some kind of pedagogical purpose.
“I visit art fairs in New York and Miami virtually any time that they happen. Why bother? Because in one day, it is possible to get a vast survey of American object-making. It is highly helpful in spotting trends – some to follow, most to avoid – and seeing relationships between work that would normally never be shown together,” Dixon adds.
“Often it’s more about the product than the process but the exceptions to that rule are the most memorable experiences for me,” says Alison Kuo, another MFA student at the School of Visual Arts, who also works as a Frieze New York tour guide. For her, reduced admission is a “determining factor” in whether she attends.
Prices can be prohibitive. “I wish there could be a discount for artists. I know many artists who ... can’t afford to go to them. The price of a fair can buy a good amount of art supplies,” says Chajana denHarder, an MFA combined media student at Hunter College, City University of New York. She points out, though, that going to fairs helps her gain a better understanding of art-market dynamics.
“I haven’t been to an art fair in three years. I find them market-oriented and beneficial to artists that already have established relationships with galleries ... I don’t feel like an art fair would influence my decision to be an artist,” said an MFA student at Columbia University in New York.
All the major fairs, not surprisingly, say that they cater for this demographic. “Art Basel has always offered reduced-price tickets for students at our shows, and we have given away thousands of free tickets to art students,” says Marc Spiegler, director of the heavyweight Swiss fair, which offers day tickets for students and senior citizens priced at SFr35 ($39). “This is because the great young minds of today will become the artists, collectors and gallerists of the future,” he opines.
The prestigious Tefaf fine art and antiques fair in Maastricht, considered the grande dame of the domain, does not offer reduced admission but grants special rates for student groups. The organisers of Fiac, Paris’s premier modern and contemporary art fair, are especially generous, with a ticket fee of €20 for visitors under the age of 26 (the full price is €35).
Stephanie Dieckvoss, director of the Art14 fair in London, underlines that fairs are now just as important as biennials for viewing art and spotting trends but they must strike a balance: “If there are too many students, collectors may feel that fairs are not right for them.” The concessionary rate at Art14 is £8 in advance (£12 on the door); the fair also showcases works by recent graduates of the University of the Arts London under the Future Map initiative.
Most fairs also have education programmes targeted at students. Art Dubai, for instance, has implemented ambitious schemes for students. “A career in the arts is a relatively new concept here, and we find that many of our interns or students bring their families to the fair in order to demonstrate to them the viability of the arts industry and the fact that it is strongly supported by the ruling families of the UAE,” says Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai. Students have gained free entry to the Gulf event since it began in 2007. At this year’s edition, in March, education packs provided details of key artists and movements for students and lecturers.
Frieze New York’s education programme is geared towards high-school students, incorporating a series of prior workshops which follow “the process of an artwork from its inception to a display at the fair”. (As part of the programme, teenagers have visited the studio of artist Florian Meisenberg, who will present an installation with Simone Subal Gallery at the fair.) “Perhaps everyone in the art world should take that course,” quips an unnamed dealer.
The Armory Show, Frieze New York’s main rival (which runs every March on Piers 92 and 94 in Manhattan), offers half-price ($20) tickets for students and senior citizens. “We absolutely want to cater to this demographic ... the breadth of work on view at the Armory, which spans the early 20th century to the present, is incredible,” says Noah Horowitz, the fair’s executive director.
Not everyone is convinced. Tamsen Greene, the director of Jack Shainman Gallery, a Frieze New York participant, says: “We deeply value education and want to open up the gallery to students, as well as meet young artists, but fairs are not the place to do that.”
Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art, states pithily why students are prepared to pay fair entrance fees: “a) to see art; b) to take the pulse of the scene; c) to catch sight of and maybe meet well-known art worldlings; d) to map the gallery system in terms of their own ambitions; e) to schmooze”.
The last word goes to denHarder: “Sometimes I need a long walk after visiting a fair to keep from getting depressed after being in an overly saturated, crowded space where money rules. Other times it’s invigorating and I feel more connected to art and new ideas.”