Deep Dive: Art Fairs and Beyond

As many of you know, we are currently at the Affordable Art Fair in New York City. This is our fourth time participating in this wonderful event and we are so grateful for the experience.  That being said, we thought it may be a good time to reflect on why we love being part of this event. 

The Affordable Art Fair’s mission clearly mirrors ours - “Art For All”. The artwork featured at this event is curated by national and international galleries, showcasing artwork from emerging to established artists. The Affordable Art Fair first took place in London in the fall of 1999. They now hold fairs in 10 cities around the world including London, New York, Hong Kong, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Brussels, Singapore, Stockholm, Melbourne and Sydney. (Source: Affordable Art Fair)

Our current booth, E2 (floor 1), at the Affordable Art Fair, NYC.

“Lying at the heart of each of our fairs is the desire to make contemporary art accessible to everyone. Whether you know your Hockneys from your Hirsts, or you simply just enjoy basking in the glory of beautiful creativity, we believe everyone can be an art collector, whatever your taste and budget!” - Affordable Art Fair

The Miller Gallery at Affordable Art Fair, 2019.

Having said that, we started to wonder how this style of event began. How have they evolved over the years? How do art fairs in history compare to how art fairs are conducted today? What do we anticipate the future of art fairs to look like? 

The idea of art fairs dates back to religious festivals predating the middle ages, also known as Antiquity. It was during this time that the structural qualities of Art Fairs were initiated. These annual gatherings intertwined religion and spirituality with commerce. Rare and valuable objects would be exhibited for visitors, displayed in temporary tents erected for the occasion. The promotions of these events introduced the earliest forms of networking. 

Image: Peeter Van Bradael (1629-1719), The Old Ox Market in Antwerp

As time passed and artisanal fairs thrived through the 16th century, the focus shifted. Rather than the fairs being religious festivals, they became mercantile focused fairs. During that time, Antwerp was an exceptional example of thriving commerce and trade. It was also at this time the infrastructure of sales was revolutionized. The format shifted away from direct seller to buyer sales to involving dealers. Art dealers had larger networks and would connect sellers and buyers with their funding.

The Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London 1851.

“The long-lived institution of religious and industrial fairs, combined with the global success of the exhibition format, eventually led to the establishment of the notorious World’s fair.”  - (Source:

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, interest shifted towards industrial production and machinery. This led to the rise of sample fairs, which slowly replaced artisanal fairs. Eventually, this shift of interest is what led to what we now know as the World’s Fairs. The world’s fairs were an exhibition platform that merged the marketing of industry and technology while still featuring the arts. The structure was a vehicle for exhibiting and influencing culture globally. Over time, the interest in the platform of the World Fairs declined while interest in the art market increased. 

Armory Show, International Exhibition of Modern Art. The Cubist room, Gallery 53 (northeast view), Art Institute of Chicago, March 24–April 16, 1913. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The 1913 Armory Show is considered one of the greatest exhibitions ever held in the United States. The reason being, it displayed works from over 300 artists both American and European. It was the first time that the American public was introduced to the European avant-garde. This drastically changed the American view and culture surrounding modern art in the US. Artists exhibited at this fair include Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Duchamp and Hopper. 

“... The works in the show had a profound effect on American artists. But almost as remarkable was the exhibition itself. It was organized by a group of two dozen young artists who called themselves "The Association of American Painters and Sculptors." They raised money, generated publicity, transported the art, rented the Armory and staged the exhibition — all without public funding. Historian Valerie Paley calls that revolution a countercultural moment that questioned the 19th-century vision of the world: ‘I think art historians are fond of thinking that it created a revolution.’" (Source:

Nada Art Fair, Image credit: New Art Dealer Alliance

At last we can look at the mid 20th century, where we really see the growth and expansion of art fairs as we know them today. Paris, London, and New York were bustling with art dealers and galleries so they weren’t necessarily the locations that were in need of growing their art market. Because of this, art fairs started to develop outside of these major cities, allowing visibility to new markets. 

Many of today’s fairs were established in the 1970’s, but it really took until the 2000’s for them to take off. (Source: Fairs were initially set up to be focused on the regional market, but quickly pivoted to market to an international audience. Art fairs as we know them today combine hundreds of galleries in a concentrated space for collectors and patrons to discover new artists and galleries. 

Image Credit: Art Basel Miami

There is a wide range of formats and scale for these international art fairs. Put simply, the venue is the main cost for the fair, followed by production expenses. As for how the fairs make money, their sources of income range from booth rentals, ticket sales for the event and through corporate sponsorships. 

Affordable Art Fair, Art Basel, Frieze Art Fair, Art Basel Miami, TEFAF, ARCO, India Art Fair, The Armory Show, Art Dubai, PAD London, and the Melbourne Art Fair are just some of the well attended fairs across the globe. 

Image Credit: Affordable Art Fair UK

“With almost 300 occurrences around the world in 2019, the art fair is undoubtedly one of the most crucial infrastructures of the global art market – an essential platform for business, trade, networking, and a considerable industry on its own.” (Source:

While we may question what the future of art fairs holds, if there’s anything that this reflection tells us is that the fairs have endured and evolved for centuries. Therefore there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to.