IT seems that over the last few years there has been a resurgence internationally of new or emerging privately owned galleries. This is curious, since it also seems that just yesterday the eclipse of the commercial gallery ‘system’ was widely predicted as being an inevitable consequence of (among other things) a general retrenchment in museum funding, collapse of the dot-com economy, conceptual art, internet purchasing, virtual reality – or whatever. Things looked bleak.
Now listen to Jerry Salz in Modern Painters this January: ‘…the market is now simply a condition, as much part of the art world as galleries and museums…Regardless, the market is now so all-permeating and encompassing that it’s not possible to evaluate it effectively. For now the market is generating competition, as is its wont, and that is resulting in more art – as well as more everything else.’
What especially strikes one is that this resurgence is not localised to the usual suspects in New York, Cologne, London or Madrid. It is global, and this makes for a sense of the surreal when one recognises the parts but fails to grasp the totality, where nothing is unfamiliar yet everything is strange.

But perhaps the explanation is not so complicated. Think economic recovery, thanks to globalisation – and think China. Think technology and the explosion of internet access. Think the perversity of human desire and the relationship of catastrophe to shopping and entertainment. Think the art fairs. Think this, just in from Scope New York, the six-year-old alternative art fair: ‘Visitors to the fair will be embraced and initiated by roving performers, sound and video pieces interspersed throughout the fair. Nestled atop a snow blown “mountain”, viewers can seek sanctuary in a veritable hunting lodge, where art stars, icons and iconoclasts interview each other and warm to a crackling fire.’

That’s it. It’s the art fairs, stupid! Listen to Peter Schjeldahl, writing in The New Yorker last January: ‘In contemporary art, this is the decade of the fair, as the nineties were the decade of the biennial... Fairs give the little stores conglomerate muscle.’ And thinking of art fairs, don’t just think Basel (somewhere in Switzerland). Think Basel Miami. And while you’re at it, think Novosibirsk, Russia, or the contemporary Istanbul International (it coincides with Christmas, ‘which makes a trip to this fascinating city of all faiths more attractive than ever’, according to their website). Think Dubai. Think anywhere. Did you know there are an astonishing 62,200,000 items registered under international art fairs on Google? What we have here is hardly a failure to communicate. What we have amounts to a new paradigm.
Or is it? Maybe it’s a very old paradigm. Maybe the equation of global capital mobility, consequent high-speed technology and high anxiety’s need for entertainment equals shopping with a vengeance? Maybe we have the conditions of the spectacle. Maybe we have the medieval fair (or is that vanity fair?), with sweetmeats for all. Maybe we have the (continuing) triumph of the ever-emerging middle classes and the elixir of cultural status. Make no mistake: in our culture of speed they’re in a hurry. The fair is a hothouse, according to Toronto gallery dealer and long-term respected curator Jessica Bradley, with reputations at stake and historical amnesia the chaser. A heightened one-stop shopping, no need to hunt: just cruise the fairs and, not so incidentally, be seen at the scene. Be part of the elite. And that elite includes the taste-makers and power-brokers – the critics, curators and powerful collectors (or their agents), who also wouldn’t miss the show. We seem to be in one of those ‘moments of relaxation’, as Lyotard calls it, when slumming is the way to go. It isn’t that Venice or Documenta are past it; it’s just that it’s more fun at the fair.

In the end, it is a natural symbiotic affair. Satisfying a need, the gallery opens its doors, not just down the street, but to the world – to the crowds who could never come to the door, who can only come to the fair. In the end, in fact, the interesting question may be: what is it that makes art so sought after now? In an age of galloping ecological concern (and, dare one say, a rather familiar puritanical severity?), what is it about the material artwork that it defies gravity? We come back to something, again, quite simple: the need to hold on to something. To hold, after all, is to prosper. Ask any financial advisor. Ask any collector.