How to Enjoy an Art Fair

You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy the wide world of contemporary art – but enthusiasm and courteousness helps.

Fairs are like playgrounds for grown-ups: There are tons of sneak previews, special offers, presentations and parties – not to mention all the free swag! Art fairs, on the other hand, still tend to have an air of exclusivity, discouraging all but insiders and experts from joining. 

That’s a shame, says Hans Krestel, PR manager of Viennacontemporary, Austria’s biggest art fair – after all, aesthetic appeal is universal. With Viennacontemporary all set to kick off on Sep 24 at Vienna’s Marx Halle, Metropole asked him and Alexander Mayhew of the participating Den Hague-based gallery Dürst Britt & Mayhew for some of the do’s and don’ts of art fairs, so even newcomers can enjoy their (first) journey into the world of galleries, collectors and artists. 

DON’T Be Intimidated

Unlike museums or galleries, the atmosphere at an art fair is jovial and lively, with none of the “intimidating silence,” as Krestel puts it, you often find in more formal settings. Also, you can wear whatever you like: “The art dealers that buy the most are often the ones dressed most shabby,” he recalls. Also, fairs are a perfect opportunity to make your first steps into the art world: Mayhew recommends simply talking to exhibitors. “It’s important not to be afraid to ask questions about art,” he says. If an artist is present, don’t be afraid to approach them – but bear in mind that not all of them are outgoing, and may have far less patience than gallerists. 

Therefore…

DON’T Ask Rude Questions 

While it’s totally legitimate to criticize or disagree with an artist, you should never question the basic purpose of their livelihood. “Artist always have to explain themselves”, explains Mayhew. “Why have you made this? Why did you choose to be an artist?” The question itself can be construed as belittling. “Why does someone choose to be a doctor, or a lawyer? Being an artist is also a job,” Mayhew points out. Also, avoid undifferentiated, sweeping criticism, like the classic: “My child could have done that.” Expressing an honest opinion is one thing – being unkind and offensive quite another. “All these creations come from a good heart or from passion and it’s very hurtful to talk that way,” says Mayhew. 

Of course, you’re not obliged to buy anything. However, if you do consider it…

(C) Dürst Britt & Mayhew/David Roth

DO Buy What You Like

You don’t necessarily have to understand an artwork to purchase it. Still, “it should speak to you,” as Mayhew puts it. Krestel concurs, recommending that you trust your gut. If you like a work, try to learn more: how was is made, or previous works by the artist. “If that information only adds to your liking, that’s great!” Mayhew reassures.However, beware of considering art as an investment – leave that to the experts! 

First-time buyers should check out the digital extension of Viennacontemporary, vc_on, which launches on Sept 17. Aimed at younger, less experienced clientele, all artworks listed cost €2,500 or less, lowering the threshold for aspiring collectors considerably. “We want to dismantle barriers and take away the fear that many people have when it comes to the art business,” says Krestel. 

DON’T Mistake an Art Fair for a Bazaar

While art fairs do have a chill atmosphere, make no mistake: The gallerists and artists are here to make a living. You can try to haggle, says Krestel, pointing out that success usually depends on your reputation and experience. Still, some dealers are willing to negotiate prices even if you’re a novice, so it’s worth making a counteroffer. However, severe underbidding – like offering half the requested price – appears rude and disparaging, so be reasonable: “Art simply has a certain value”, stresses Krestel. “It’s not supposed to be a junk good.” It’s crucial to take your time and make up your mind – withdrawing an offer is an absolute no-go which can seriously damage an artwork’s value. “I cannot sell it anymore”, explains gallerist Mayhew. “The second-in-line will not buy it anymore, because they think there is something wrong with the work.” 

DO Have Fun

Above all, an art fair is a congregation of like-minded art lovers, so enjoy yourself! Drift along, get inspired, and take some friends. “This way, you can talk about all the things you encounter,” Krestel recommends, “Whether you find it funny, daft or interesting.” With art, there’s no right or wrong, and experience or knowledge is often tangential. In the end, it comes down to whether you’re willing to get involved – and whether a work speaks to you.

Verena Mayer
After falling in love with the city on an Interrail trip over 10 years ago, Verena is finally living in Vienna. She’s an editorial intern at Metropole and about to finish her master's degree in journalism at Deutsche Journalistenschule in Munich. Her favorite topics include food, culture & people.

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