Boston should never host an art fair.

Boston should not host an art fair. It would neither benefit Boston artists nor the city of Boston and would likely fail. What Boston and its arts community might want to consider is a city-wide biennial, but that’s another post for another day (and perhaps another writer).

The Boston artist Donna Dodson emailed me a week ago to talk about some ideas she had for business-oriented Boston Globe blog for which she is a regular contributor. She had been considering fairs as a sales outlet for her own work. With a collective of other artists, she rented space at the Fountain Art Fair, which she said was a great experience but resulted in no sales yet. We talked at length about the potential for planning an art fair in Boston.

I’ve adapted our email exchange into this blog post:

I don’t recall anyone ever talking about having an art fair like an Armory Show, Pulse, etc., although Scope had entertained the idea according to one Boston-based gallerist. I’m sure a Boston fair has been considered elsewhere, but without much seriousness. The market for contemporary (and modern, for that matter) art in Boston is just too small, and Boston contemporary art galleries participate in few fairs as it is. Steven Zevitas, Samson, and LaMontagne galleries actually combined resources to rent one booth (for $15,000) as, aka “Boston Contemporary Group,” rented $15,000 booths at Volta during this year’s Armory Week. A place like Miami, which boasts massive fairs, may have a small art market when compared to New York, but Miami has a lot to offer that Boston can’t (namely, nicer weather and a healthy Dionysian culture). I think all this means that a Boston art fair would be a hard sell to the art world.

All that said, there’s nothing stopping Boston from hosting one or even several art fairs in an attempt to bring the global art market to Boston – at least for a few days – but I don’t think it can compete in a fair-saturated art market and even with smallish cities like Cologne or Basel that have hosted art fairs for years. Moreover, the Next Art Chicago 2012 fair was cancelled in February, which also doesn’t bode well for a city with the size and art-market stature of Boston.

"If the point is to drive local sales, it’s misguided, since why would a local gallery owner pay additional overhead only to show the same work in the same city to largely the same people but alongside a great deal more competition?" Cambridge, Mass.-based artist and writer Caleb Neelon asked. (Neelon quote added 21 April 2pm.)

Whether art fairs would be good for Boston or for Boston artists are also two separate issues. Consider two of Boston’s largest intuitions like the Institute of Contemporary Art or Museum of Fine Arts, which include relatively few local artists compared to their programming. I think the same goes for the thousands of artists living in New York (full-time artists and those that supplement their incomes with other jobs): most don’t benefit from fairs.

Why would any gallery from any city pay to participate in the fair system? I think the answer is that it’s about access to buyers. Fairs are an easy way to reach a large clientele with deep pockets. At fairs, business is less about competition than promotion - fairs only last three or four days, and, beyond their brevity, most buyers already know which booths they want to hit before even stepping foot into a fair. It’s just that the risk involved in renting a booth is higher for Boston galleries because they have comparatively lower revenues. Boston galleries also have much smaller brand recognition, so they’ll have less luck with impulse buyers. Art fair competition is more about the fairs competing amongst themselves for the best galleries than galleries competing for buyers who go to the fairs - I think galleries are much more competitive about which artists they represent - a longer term enterprise than fair participation.

If competition was a concern, and you wanted to level the playing field, I suppose you could hold a Boston-centric or New England-centric art fair, but I’m not sure there are enough galleries in Boston (or all of New England (I suppose you could incorporate Canada as well, but then you’d be competing with the Art Toronto fair.)) to fill a convention center and create an event large enough to attract the thousands of attendees that fairs need to be sustainable. Planning could, perhaps, incorporate non-profit and alternative spaces, but their entrance to the fair would need to be subsidized.

Donna said it could be the goal for a Boston fair to have the most Boston-based art galleries participating and to feature the Boston arts community and art spaces, even if their costs were discounted. She added that Boston has numerous large facilities that could host art fairs such as new convention centers, and suggested that if fairs were scheduled alongside another big event in the city like fashion week, the fair could get cross-pollination. Boston, she wrote, already has the Craft Boston art fair and the International Fine Art Fair. (Caveat: I personally avoid the International Fine Art Fair because I find most of the work to be decorative.)

A biennial?

Another idea Donna suggested was to create a fair that was more like a biennial or arts festival, and run it in conjunction with Mary Sherman’s TransCultural Exchange conference while international visitors and guests are already in town.

I think there is the most potential for cross-pollination with the TransCultural Exchange, but conference attendees don’t go in order to buy art; and the artists who typically benefit from TSE aren’t the artists who typically benefit from the art market. They’d love to sell their work, but are more likely – given the type of work they make and the stage of their careers – to benefit from international residencies and cultural exchanges, which TSE was designed to showcase.

I do like the idea of a Boston Biennial. #BoBi14, anyone? Chicago-based artist and writer Tony Fitzpatrick in ArtNet last week wrote about the potential for a Chicago Biennial and what the city-wide Prospect biennial meant for New Orleans (read it). If the Big Easy can have Prospect, why can’t Chi-Town, or Beantown, have a contemporary art fest? There are many reasons not to, actually. But c’mon, let’s at least think about it.

Section added 21 April, 2pm: There is the deCordova Biennial (which closes April 22 if you haven’t seen it yet!), the ICA’s bi-annual Foster Prize and its corresponding exhibition, and other Boston-centric shows such as Proof Gallery’s “Boston does Boston" series, but unlike Prospect New Orleans, they are centralized single-venue events. The deCordova’s biennial and Proof’s "Boston does Boston" are curatorial projects, but they focus only on New England and Boston, respectively. Prospect is a curatorial lab that incorporates local, national, and international artists. New Orleans and Boston are two cities more different from one another than they are to most other cities in the U.S., but perhaps that’s a reason to consider a Prospect-like project in Boston. Boston is special in just as many ways as New Orleans, just for much different reasons.

And finally, a late disclaimer: I dislike just about everything about art fairs except for the fact that they allow certain, more progressive, galleries and galleries outside of big markets like New York City that don’t sell enough throughout the year to raise revenues with access to a relatively large number of deep-pocketed buyers and stay in business at their brick-and-mortar locations. The art we see at art fairs is the art that galleries believe will sell, and this is why fairs are generally boring and predictable. I’ve always thought that the Boston art community’s ability to subsist without fairs and big-ticket sales are its most important attributes. Boston is a perpetual academic conference and it’s perfect for events like TSE, the Flash Forward photography festival, and the Boston Cyberarts Festival, which people attend to learn and experience new work and ideas.

H/T to Corinna Kirsch, who fortuitously (for me, anyway) published a similar post on Art Fag City that led me to Fitzpatrick’s post on a Chicago Biennial during the time Donna and I were carrying on our conversation.

Update, 25 April, 10:30 a.m.: I’ve just learned through Facebook that at least one individual, architect Ramsey Bakhoum, is planning a Boston Biennial - tentatively scheduled for 2015 according to the proposed event’s website.