Art, actually By Gareth Harris

John Martin, director of the Art Dubai fair, which opens later this month (March 19-22), can't contain himself. His Emirati event, which launched last year, is bigger - more than 400 galleries applied for the 70 selling slots this year, up from 41 dealers in 2007 - and Martin says he knows why. "Dubai is a key stopping point between India, east Europe and Africa. It's also a financial hub and a tax-free haven which is important for collectors," he says excitedly.

Art Dubai is typical of the new crop of fairs keen to tap into new collector bases worldwide such as the booming non-resident Indian base in the Gulf. This burgeoning market, particularly hungry for contemporary Middle Eastern and Indian art, has prompted other fairs to cash in on the Gulf. An Abu Dhabi version of Art Paris, the French modern and contemporary art fair, set up shop last November while Art and Antiques Dubai, run by the British fair organisers Anna and Brian Haughton (see profile), debuted in Dubai last month.

Meanwhile, other new global kids on the block, such as ShContemporary in Shanghai (September 10-13) and Art HK 08 in Hong Kong (May 14-18), are set to harness the potentially stratospheric buying power of new Asian collectors, particularly in China and Korea.

In contrast, the European fair scene is saturated (the names trip tediously off the tongue: Art Forum, Artissima, Arco etc) while the US scene is surprisingly patchy. Its latest quirky addition is Seafair, a 228-ft, $35m luxury yacht which launched in October in Connecticut with a radically new concept: to bring 20 art and antiques dealers to wealthy communities along the US eastern seaboard. The floating fair has had to return to dry dock twice, though, for "necessary repairs".

But just how many art fairs does the art world need? At last count, 2008 was set to see at least 200 fairs open their doors, compared with a paltry 50 in 2001; but in the 1980s and 1990s, the landscape was nowhere near as flooded or frenzied.

TEFAF Maastricht (March 7-16) has been the essential port of call for fine art and antiques since its launch in 1975 (its contemporary section, introduced in 1991, is patchier). Dealers emphasise that Maastricht is a "destination fair" with hungry collectors heading to the event just to scour the stands (what else is there to do in the not-so-lovely Dutch city?). Where else would you see under one - admittedly vast - roof, a huge Jenny Saville nude of 1994 (priced at $1.5m) and a little known Degas of dancers up for grabs at around €10m? Or superstar artists Marc Quinn and Anish Kapoor snapping up works of ancient art?

One gallerist enthusiastically points out that Boston Museum of Fine Arts is sending a "whole plane-load" of people to Maastricht this month while New York old masters dealer Richard Feigen even zooms around the floor, buying up 20th-century works from other stands on behalf of key clients.

"Dealers tend to save their best things for Maastricht," says Feigen.

The price of admission even had to be raised last year (from €25 to €55), to draw serious buyers and deter window shoppers. The ploy worked: 2007 saw the fair pull in 71,000 visitors, 13,000 down on 2006. Fair profits, which must be hefty considering turnout and the average stand hire fee of $450 per sq ft, are ploughed back into the fair's redesign.

Over in Switzerland, Art Basel has always been the "pre-eminent" place for modern and contemporary art, says Nicholas Logsdail, founder of London's Lisson gallery.

"Lisson had a stand at Art Basel when it first started in 1970, showing work by Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, and Art & Language among others. In its first years it was a very much smaller and more regional affair, with two or three cutting-edge galleries from each one of the major cities," he says. The Swiss phenomenon's pulling power has not waned in over 30 years, with Texan Kenny Goss and his partner George Michael rolling up last summer to splash out on work by Gary Hume for their Goss-Michael Foundation, set up last year in Dallas.

But it was only when Sam Keller turned the traditional art fair model on its head after taking the reins at Art Basel in 2000 that art fairs became celebrity magnets. Keller rolled out the red-carpet treatment for collectors, dealers and artists, creating the blueprint for the 21st century fair: a combination of cultural and commercial concerns with packed-out debate panels, hot-ticket parties and VIP tours of prestigious museum and private collections on the agenda.

Keller fine-tuned this mix at Art Basel Miami Beach, the Swiss fair's sister event which sent seismic shock waves across the art world on its 2002 launch. Last December, Keller's last outing as director before departing to head the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, a record 43,000 visitors (many on the 220 private planes operated by NetJets) visited the sixth Florida edition.

Private collectors were out in force, including financiers Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group and Steve Cohen of SAC Capital. Elton John even snapped up hip-hop portraitist Kehinde Wiley's "Dead Soldier", on offer for $120,000 with Deitch Projects gallery of New York.

Fairs became full-fledged cultural "festivals" under Keller's reign, a model emulated by Frieze in London when it launched five years ago. The result was that the Regent's Park's October smorgasbord has sent the entire spectrum of London's art world into a spin. "Frieze Week" triggers an avalanche of events from slick gallery openings to major museum shows. The auction houses also cash in on the presence of international art buyers at Frieze, with over £180m worth of art going under the hammer during the fair last autumn. The 20-year-old London Art Fair has suffered in Frieze's shadow but fought back last February with curated projects and more graffiti-based, edgier work on sale.

The Frieze effect has frozen out the original European art fair grande dame Art Cologne which first opened in 1967, although this stalwart was already struggling. In the early 1990s, Cologne's pole position as Germany's contemporary art centre was threatened by an edgier scene in Berlin. Ex-director Gerard Goodrow's recent departure over the future direction of the fair means new turmoil for the ageing event which drew 60,000 visitors in 2007, 10,000 fewer than in 2006. It has moved from October to a spring slot (April 16-20) to try to ensure its place in the public eye.

But two other high-profile fairs have bounced back after a dip in fortunes. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Art Chicago and FIAC in Paris were circuit favourites. The former, however, began to look stale with more and more of the world's serious collectors, curators and dealers bypassing the Windy City shindig after 2001 in favour of the Florida sunshine to be had at Art Basel Miami Beach.

"It's a good example of a fair not reinventing itself and then being ignored," says John Martin.

Chris Kennedy, nephew of JFK and head of Merchandise Mart Properties (MMPI, see profile) which is now running the fair, is evangelical about propelling Art Chicago back into the first division through tapping into existing client bases in the city. "I asked the dealers who their collectors were. I knew many of them as they're important Democrat activists," he says.

FIAC, which has been lagging for a number of years, hit a new high last year with some exhibitors virtually selling out on the first day. Even French luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault and Miami collector Martin Margulies were spotted trawling the aisles under the glass dome of Paris's Grand Palais.

"The two I rate are Art Basel and Frieze," says Frank Cohen, the "Saatchi of the North" who runs his own public gallery in Wolverhampton, while fellow seasoned UK collector Anita Zabludowicz singles out Frieze along with NADA and Zoo (two successful satellite fairs that run alongside Art Basel Miami Beach and Frieze) as must-see events.

But as belts tighten in the light of a predicted economic downturn, many fair organisers foresee a "survival of the fittest". Sam Keller says: "If you're the number one art fair, you benefit from the market growing as much as you benefit from it shrinking. In good times, galleries will go to many art fairs. In bad times, they will only go to those they consider necessary." Put more bluntly, the big boys will still entice the core big spenders as fair fatigue sets in.

This is borne out by Frank Cohen who warns that "a lot of the art fairs are no good. You can't expect artists to be able to show great work at 20 different fairs a year. The smaller art fairs become about quantity not quality".

But even prestigious venues need to keep ahead of the game. Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota told The Art Newspaper at Frieze 2007 that some of the exhibitors "can afford to be more ambitious; Frieze brings together contemporary art from across the world and it should offer museum-quality pieces".

"Buying at art fairs has become somewhat of a buying frenzy. Sometimes you don't even have a minute to think about a piece before it is purchased by someone else," says Goss. If big-spenders are so cautious, then other punters may soon stay away.

Photo London, Pulse London and the Fine Art Fair Frankfurt have all cancelled their 2008 editions. Expect other casualties.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008
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