POST BY PADDY JOHNSON
What are best contemporary and modern art fairs in the world? Dealers, artists, collectors, and art enthusiasts ask me this question all the time. People want to know where their time is best spent. AFC’s definitive art fair rankings answer these questions! Editors note: This list reflects only 25 to 30 the fairs we’ve seen this year.
Art Basel entrance. Photo AFC
1. Art Basel, Basel Switzerland
Art Basel Switzerland easily tops our fair list this year, the mammoth fair offering quality, variety, and vast auxiliary programming. It’s not perfect of course — you need to take out a second mortgage if you want to eat at their cafeteria and the acoustics in the “conversations” room ensure attendees hear far more ambient fair noise than speakers — but the good outweighs the expensive and the inaudible. Basel’s Unlimited, a section dedicated to over-sized work is, as far as we know the only one of its kind, and new programming such as Statements, the emerging art wing offered up a view into some of best new artists working today.
The Miami Convention Center Default Google Map Thumbnail. Originally from Joel Holmberg at nasty nets.
Art Basel Miami. Photo AFC
2. Art Basel, Miami, Florida
Featuring the largest and strongest selection of work at the Miami fairs, Art Basel, easily nabs our number two position. The directionally challenged will surely enjoy the straight navigational lines of the Miami convention center’s “borg cube,” that makes it easy to find any gallery emerging, contemporary, or secondary market. Critics describe this organizational choice as mall-like but frankly, I like a fair that doesn’t pretend to be something other than what it is. Within reason anyway. Downsides to Basel Miami largely pertain to the convention center’s corporate ickiness: No free WiFi, Jaguar cars and salesmen permanently stationed out front of the fair, and an Entenmann’s stronghold on all dining options.
Frieze fair entrance. Photo AFC
The Amory Fair interior. Photo AFC
The pluses and minuses of these two fairs are such that were eventually forced to declare a tie. The breakdown below:
Location: Frieze fair wins. Unlike the Armory, Regent’s Park is easy to get to. Frieze has a stunning entrance, the booths seem more open, and their fair lighting is the best of all the art fairs we’ve attended. With that said, believing that the tent makes the fair less mall-like lets marketing tell you what you’re seeing instead of figuring it out for yourself.
Special Sections: Toss up. The Armory International introduced a specialized field for modern art this year, where as Frieze launched Frame, an emerging section. Given our focus on contemporary art, we obviously prefer the latter, though this is a matter of interest more than anything else. Notably this kind fair diversification finds its retail equivalent at The Gap Inc. The brands falling under their hood (the higher end products of Banana Republic and the inexpensive Old Navy clothing as an example) match to The Armory’s Modern Art pier and Volta respectively (Merchandise Mart owns The Armory Show International, The Armory Show Modern, and Volta – emerging).
Quality of the art: This is a bit of a lottery for the fairs — they can’t control what dealers will bring — but The Armory wins this year’s prize. Frieze galleries simply brought too much familiar work to the show. Boring!
- Frieze: Just an art fair
- Iteration the Most Telling Statement of the Fair?
- Frieze Fair Highlights: Go to Frame!
- The Armory International: Overwhelming but good
- Armory Nomination for BadPaintingsofBarack Obama.com
- Amory Fair Highlights
NADA entrance. Photo AFC
5. NADA, Miami, Florida
Serious emerging artists need to make it a point to attend Art Basel Switzerland and NADA Miami, if it’s at all within their financial means. While Basel provides the largest amount of good work in a single space, NADA hosts the best new galleries of any event we’ve attended. Even with the new spaces the larger fairs have dedicated to emerging art, NADA still knocks that competition out of the park.
6. VOLTA, New York, NY
While Volta’s Executive Director Amanda Coulson will tell you their clean toilets make up for exhibition booths that resemble office cubicles, we’re not quite so convinced. That said, after only two years in operation the fair has established an outstanding reputation for strong emerging programming. It is New York’s best fair venue for emerging contemporary art and hanging pine cone trees.
Liste Fair entrance. Photo AFC
7. Liste, Basel Switzerland
Want to visit a fair location more poorly suited to exhibiting art than Volta’s office cubicle spaces? What about attending a fair that showcases more bad art than good? Liste’s emerging art fair is for you! Foxy Production, Peres Projects, Doggerfisher, and David Kordansky Gallery were big highlights in that fair. The steep stairs and bicycle candelabra were something else.
VOLTA entrance. Photo AFC
8. VOLTA 5, Basel Switzerland
There’s been some dispute at AFC about whether Liste or VOLTA was a stronger fair, but ultimately Liste came out on top despite its poor location. It’s hard to take any fair hosting the red enamel Buddha schlongs of Debanjan Roy seriously, even if it also showcases Katharina Grosse and Terry Haggerty.
Pulse Miami exterior. Photo AFC
9. Pulse, Miami Florida
Pulse Miami has size and cheesiness going for it, if that’s what you look for in your art. I probably visited this fair five times over the course of a week in Miami, and the more I looked at it, the more cliche the art seemed to me. This slowly evolving opinion likely has to do with the layout of the fair, which is usually so well executed that the art looks better than it actually is, at first.
Zoo Entrance, Photo AFC
10. Zoo Art Fair, London, UK
We’re not great fans of the Zoo Fair here. They aren’t particularly friendly to press, and their fair isn’t anything to write home about. As a general rule of thumb, fairs opting to make money in the short term off substandard galleries lose much more in the long term through lost credentials. In short, you guys need better exhibitors. The editions portion of the fair was passable.
11. Pulse, New York, NY
What happened to Pulse this year? It was so awful we were forced to create the Sci-Fi Art Awards, specifically for this fair! Not good.
Aqua Parking lot. I forgot to take a picture of their exterior last year (sorry guys).
12. Aqua, Wynnwood, Miami, Florida
This fair made me dislike Russell Crotty’s intensely factory like production. He was exhibited everywhere in Miami, the largest display of his work showing up here. How many hanging penciled globes do collectors need?
Anyway, galleries that didn’t get into Pulse Miami last year typically exhibited at Aqua. It was a third rate show.
Scope entrance. Photo AFC
13. Scope, Miami, Florida
Founded in 2002, Alexis Hubshman laid a lot of the early groundwork upon which New York fairs would grow. But they haven’t been able to maintain their edge; The fair forced to exhibit a growing number of sub par galleries over the years. Scope Miami wasn’t the worst performance I’ve seen by them — their presence at Basel was too poor to even report upon — but they did host the bronze sculpture of a decapitated man eating his own asshole. To date, that is the worst art work I have ever seen.
Art Positions installation view. Photo: AFC
14. Art Positions, Basel, Miami, Florida
As I wrote for artreview, Basel’s Art Positions leave viewers with almost nothing to discuss of consequence. Also, there’s just far too much amorphous plastic architecture in this space. A fair to skip.
Image in the center: Feng Zhengjie, China 2005 – No. 26, silkscreen edition of 200, at Exhibition A. Photo AFC
15. Bridge Art, Miami, Florida
Bridge demonstrates the perils of an uncurated fair by exhibiting some of the worst art I’ve ever seen. I doubt Bridge will return to Miami this December.
*This list does not include specialized fairs such as those focusing exclusively on photo, prints or books.