The big bang of satellite fairs

Some call them parasites, others an affordable alternative to the big event. Whatever way you look at them, their number has mushroomed in the past decade. Welcome to the world of satellite fairs.

Art Basel has LISTE, Art Basel Miami Beach has NADA, The Armory Show has Independent, and Frieze Art Fair has Sunday, to name just a respected few. Regarded as a rather recent development, almost every major art fair in the world has at least one important off fair, and their numbers have been shooting up in recent years.

Sometime after the stock exchange crash of ’91, Cologne Unfair took place for the first time and with the boom in the art market, it was soon joined by others. Satellite fairs follow the fluctuations of the market and the rule of the survival of the fittest, which explains why some haven’t made it through the difficult years. One of the most important ones that’s stuck around is ART Basel’s ancillary fair, LISTE, founded in 1996. The story goes that director Peter Bläuer got a call from Galerie Eva Presenhuber in Zurich, who represents leading artists like Liam Gillick, Douglas Gordon and Ugo Rondinone. She told him she was disappointed she couldn’t get into the official fair. “We then contacted Art Basel and said: ‘If you don’t do something for young galleries, we will start a new art fair.’ They didn’t want to change their concept, so LISTE was born,” Bläuer says.

At official fairs, you’re guaranteed excellent quality. But you won’t necessarily be surprised, because galleries can’t afford to take major risks.

LISTE, like its contemporaries, took place at the same time as the main event in order to take advantage of the crowds and the communication strategy of its much bigger sister. It attracted 17,000 visitors in 2012 and is widely respected in the professional art world. “LISTE is almost not even regarded as an off fair anymore, it’s so important,” says Frédéric de Goldschmidt, a collector who divides his time between Brussels and Paris and is famous for throwing wild parties during Art Brussels. De Goldschmidt ‘shops’ at both the official fairs and satellite fairs. “Both have their advantages and inconveniences,” he says. “At official fairs, you’re guaranteed excellent quality. But you won’t necessarily be surprised, because galleries can’t afford to take major risks. Though not all the booths are interesting at off fairs, they are good places to discover emerging artists.” His advice? “It’s good to visit both, so you can combine the guarantee of quality and the possibility of new discoveries.”

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While major collectors might skip them due to lack of time or interest, off fairs are often popular among younger audiences on smaller budgets. It is widely accepted, however, that important satellite fairs like LISTE and NADA in Miami are not to be missed. Brussels-based gallery Elaine Lévy Project participated in NADA for the first time in 2012. “So far, it was the best off fair we’ve done in terms of quality, atmosphere and public,” she says. “I think doing NADA Miami or LISTE Basel is maybe even better for young galleries showing emerging artists – rather than being the tiny one at the big fair.”

According to some calculations, the total number of galleries represented in Miami reached 1050.” Of course, not all of these galleries can be good.

Since LISTE’s debut in 1996, many others have followed suit. “It’s not a boom, it’s an explosion,” says collector Alain Servais. We met him in his Uccle villa in the south of Brussels, where part of his collection is kept. It includes artworks by upcoming artists, ranging from Ghost of a Dream and Veronica Brovall to hotshots like Gerard Richter and Cindy Sherman. “During Art Basel Miami Beach, there were around 20 satellite fairs,” Servais says. “According to some calculations, the total number of galleries represented in Miami reached 1050.” Of course, not all of these galleries can be good. “You see a lot of bad art. But there is almost always something interesting. You just don’t know where you will find it.”

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Some collectors don’t have the time or the patience required to separate the wheat from the chaff. “I am not so much of an art fair guy,” admits Walter Vanhaerents, a collector who runs his own private museum in the centre of Brussels. “I used to like LISTE in the early days. But now it’s too much pushing and pulling. It’s not fun anymore.” Vanhaerents is not the only one complaining about over-saturation. “Maybe there are collectors for everything, but I don’t believe it,” says Rodolphe Janssen, owner of the leading Brussels gallery of the same name. He sees nothing to differentiate many of the satellite fairs that crowd around Art Miami’s main draw, while a distinct identity or niche, he says, is crucial in order to survive. “I don’t see the difference between Pulse and Scope, for example,” says Janssen. “They don’t have a real image, whereas NADA clearly has one.” And what if all those off fairs united? Johan Tamer-Morael, who founded Slick art fair in Paris in 2006 and a Brussels spinoff in 2012, is not crazy about the idea: “I prefer to stay small and have my own ideas instead of being big,” he explains. “The idea of uniting is not bad, but it’s just too complicated.”

Many off fairs operate according to the same principle as official fairs.

NADA, which was founded in Miami in 2003, attracts approximately 18,000 visitors per year and has reexamined the entire concept of the off fair. “NADA is unique because we are a member-based organisation and non-profit,” says Heather Hubbs, the current director. “I think this is reflected in the energy you experience at the fair which is extremely pleasant. NADA has a vibe that makes both exhibitors and visitors feel good.” Sunday, which takes place alongside Frieze Art Fair in London and received over 7,000 visitors in 2012, is a gallery-run initiative started in 2010 in Berlin that ended up in London. “The idea was to organise a fair ourselves, without a company behind it,” says Jonas Zakaitis, one of the founders. “In comparison to other fairs, participation in Sunday costs very little. We go back to basics. Unlike other fairs, we don’t organise big events, public talks or a champagne bar.”

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Like Independent in New York, Sunday does not feature booths but rather an open floor plan, so that the fair feels less like a supermarket. “We want to blend in with the space and do everything on the spot. For young galleries, it is a more relaxed way to work,” says Zakaitis. It’s an approach that is also followed by POPPOSITIONS, one of the off fairs that tags onto Art Brussels. “I noticed that many off fairs operate according to the same principle as official fairs,” says Pieter Vermeulen, one of the organisers of POPPOSITIONS. “We don’t want to imitate the format, but to change it. Both regarding space and organisation.” For their first edition in 2012, POPPOSITIONS invited nomadic galleries to present art works in the special architectural surroundings of Brussels Congrès train station. This year’s edition is taking place in parts of the former brewery complex of Wielemans-Ceuppens, next to Wiels art centre in Forest/Vorst. “Why would it not be possible to work site-specific in an original location and still sell work?” asks Vermeulen. “Why couldn’t a conceptual approach lead to something commercially interesting?” It’s a vision that is finding more acceptance, and not just among satellite organisers. Official fairs are also more keen on organising specific projects and paying more attention to the presentation of the art works, as well as inviting curators. Rodolphe Janssen doesn’t think this phenomenon can be attributed to the influence of satellite fairs, however. “Galleries understand that the presentation has to be perfect so collectors can see the work in excellent conditions. Art fairs are no longer the souks they sometimes used to be.” But as a result of these changes and more attention paid to younger initiatives, is there still a need for satellite fairs? And does their presence always create an added value? Rodolphe Janssen is not so excited about what Brussels has to offer. “We don’t really have off fairs here of the same standard of, say, Sunday,” he says. That also has its reasons: “Participation in Art Brussels is not too expensive compared to other international fairs,” he says, “So all the good galleries that want to be at the official fair are already there.”

Some galleries can easily join Frieze but decide to stay with Sunday.

The relationship between satellite and official fairs appears less strained than you might imagine. All satellite fairs are quick to emphasise that in no way do they represent a challenge to the official fair. “LISTE was never meant as something against Art Basel,” says Bläuer. “Art Basel is an excellent fair. You can’t get better than them. That is why we wanted to do something else.” Sunday is also realistic enough to admit that it still largely depends on Frieze. “We are definitely not in opposition. During Frieze, the entire London art scene is activated. I don’t suppose Sunday could be that powerful, functioning on its own,” Zakaitis says. Nor do official fairs seem to have a problem with satellites. “The fact that there are off fairs during Art Brussels is proof that it’s a successful fair. So it’s a compliment for us,” says Nele Verhaeren from Art Brussels. There’s even evidence of collaboration, as the satellite fairs are mentioned in the main fair’s brochure. “That’s a sign that we recognise and support their presence,” says Verhaeren.

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Though there may not really be any competition between the bigger fairs and their auxiliaries, isn’t there a potentially frustrating risk that an off fair’s own discoveries might get picked up by the official fair? “It is the nature of the game,” says Tamer-Morael from Slick, whose gallery Figge von Rosen fell prey to the big event. Not every gallery at a satellite fair wants to join the official fair, however, which runs contrary to the belief that artists at satellite fairs are not ‘good enough’ for the official ones. “Some galleries can easily join Frieze but decide to stay with Sunday,” says Zakaitis. “Sometimes for the price argument, but also because it makes more sense for them to stay with us.” Bläuer from LISTE is used to it. “We discover and show galleries for the first time. If they’re good enough, the official fairs take them. It’s a big complement for LISTE, and that’s what we are famous for.” Losing emerging galleries to Art Basel also seems to have an upside. “If nobody moved from our fair, we would have no space to introduce new galleries! It is something organic.” And that can also be said of the relationship between official and satellite fairs. The latter can’t function without the former.  The presence of a (good) satellite fair is more of an advantage than a bane to the official event.

Nada, New York
From 10 to 11 May
www.newartdealers.org
 
Liste, Basel
From 11 to 16 June
www.liste.ch
 
Slick, Paris
From 24 to 27 October
www.slick-paris.com