A basic guide to fair-going

Art fairs have become the de facto gathering place for a wide representation of the art world: collectors, gallerists, artists, curators, other arts professionals, and of course those who love art and/or spectacle. Fairs are one (big) part souk, one part art market cross-section, and one part professional conference. No wonder, then, that visitors who aren’t attending in a defined role are often unsure how to proceed.

Having attended fairs as both a visitor and exhibitor, I have a few ideas to make the experience rich rather than draining.

Come early. Most art fairs begin mid-week with VIP events, and then open to the public Friday through Sunday. VIP openings can be a lot of fun, though not necessarily the best viewing environment. If you can’t get a VIP pass, come in the morning and possibly earlier in the fair. It’s quieter, the staff are rested, the light is better, and if you do find artwork you want to buy it’s more likely to be available.

At large museum exhibitions, I always take a quick visual tour (no stopping!) from start to end, then come back to the beginning and focus on the subset of work that intrigues me. This quick tour approach works just as well at fairs. You want to get a sense of the size, diversity and quality of the fair at the outset, so you can figure out how much time to spend overall and how to allocate. Nevertheless, don’t let first impressions from that quick tour be your sole guide. As you see unfamiliarities and curiosities, and things that bug, stop and investigate. Many of the best finds happen that way.

Ask questions of gallery staff members (or the artists, who may be in attendance). Many fair visitors feel they can’t ask questions or are afraid of being “sold to” if they do engage in a conversation. This is unlikely. Of course gallerists are at fairs to sell, but we’re also there to converse and educate. Most gallery staff are skilled at intuiting who has serious purchase intent versus who just wants to learn. While sales conversations will always take priority, most of us really enjoy discussions with people who are simply interested in the work and the artist.

Finally, stay hydrated. I recommend Champagne, but not all fairs offer a decent one, so water if you must.

Come test my theories in Miami this December! We'll be at UNTITLED from December 1–7.