Five Things I Learnt from Working at an Art Fair

by Mariah Lamont-Lennox

Last week I skipped school to go to New York City. A dayum fun idea, but I didn’t go just to gad about the city, I was actually there to help out my mum’s gallery at The Affordable Art Fair NYC.

The Affordable Art Fair started in London in 1999 and now hosts fairs in London, New York, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Hamburg, Brussels, Singapore, Milan, Stockholm and Bristol. 

Working at the fair was a great opportunity for me and I did manage to enjoy the city despite the busy days and long hours. Whaaaat a Week! I am certainly playing catch up for doing zero work while I was away (three papers due next week - wish me luck) but I thought I would share five things I learnt from my experience working at an art fair.  

1. Finding a fair that is the right fit for your Gallery is important

I am obviously biased towards my mum’s gallery, but I had some criticisms of other art at the fair. It seemed to me that most of the work that sold well at the fair was lacking in intellectual substance. There was a lot of artwork featuring bright colours, lacquer and glitter, black and white cityscapes and also a lot of highly realistic animal portraits. This is not my favourite kind of artwork, but clearly the target audience of the fair was interested in artwork that was bright and simple. While it is important for each booth to fill a niche at an art fair, I do think that the gallery I was working with was not the right fit for the majority of the people who came to the fair. It seemed the most trafficked booths were selling the aforementioned abstract lacquer art. At the end of the day, artists are at the fair to sell their work so artists and their galleries need to think carefully about their buyers and whether their booth fits the audience at their fair.

2. A minimalist aesthetic is best 

It’s important to have a clean looking booth because a large art fair can be extremely visually overwhelming. I think that by the time people come to the second floor they have already seen so much art that if a booth looks too busy, potential buyers won’t even check out the art because their senses are overloaded. If I ever organize an art fair, I would make it a priority to keep a simple aesthetic in each booth to maintain maximal attention to art and minimum attention to other clutter.

3. The days are lonnggg (and sometimes boring) 

The first few days were 10 hour days which included a lot of standing and talking, often repeating the same things over and over again. There were ups and downs in terms of traffic so there were idle periods where we are waiting around and then suddenly there would be a rush of people and it was easy to get stressed about making sure we attended to everyone. I found it to be an exhausting experience so this is something to keep in mind. 

4. There are many factors outside of your control 

Going into a venture like this, one must also take into account the factors that are out of one’s control - like the weather or major events. On the opening night of the fair, which is typically a very busy night, there was a “snowstorm”…for a weather-hardened Canadian like me calling the what was a fairly minimal amount of snow that melted upon reaching the ground a snowstorm was laughable but unfortunately it kept many New Yorkers from coming out to the art fair. Another factor out of our control was that the weekend of the fair also happened to be the March for Our Lives, the major protest against gun use, laws, and violence in the United States. I was so glad to see so many people attending the March instead of rushing to an art fair. It reflects well on New York as a city that is fighting for change. Absolutely no complaints about the fair going on during the March, but it was another example of a variable that was out of our control!  

5. The fair didn’t do enough for the smaller galleries 

Spatially, the fair was divided into larger galleries showcasing their work on the first floor of the space and small galleries showing on the second. I think the fair should have done more to encourage people to go up to the second floor or in fact find a venue where the smaller galleries could be on the same floor but perhaps in a different section. It might have helped to have the only bar be on the second floor to entice some a larger number of people to the second floor during the opening and other evening events. 

Bonus! I predict that clogs will be really on trend in the upcoming spring/summer season

On the days when the fair was busy, there was great people-watching to be done! There were some very stylish people at the fair but one slightly peculiar trend I noticed was clog-boots (here is a link to the pair that every many people seemed to be enthusiastically sporting:[–26-leather-clog-boots-504615341.html

I saw so many pairs of clog-boots that I think it is an indicator that the more summery classic clog will be very on trend. 

I loved being in New York City and having an ‘art job’ to go to every morning felt like I was fulfilling a bit of a fantasy. However, the experience of working at an art fair from the perspective of a smaller gallery made me a little unsure of how beneficial art fairs are for these galleries. While the fair was a success for my mum’s gallery, a lot of the others really struggled. I think that perhaps large art fairs like The Affordable Art Fair NYC need to reevaluate the concept for smaller galleries and figure out how to highlight them. Additionally, alternative venues such as pop-up shows need to be viewed as practical and legitimate art-selling environments in order to provide better opportunities for small gallerists wanting to sell their work commercially. 

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