Maria Pirkkalainen from the Finnish Institute blogs about national and international art events and how them gaining new, larger audiences affects the visibility of contemporary art. The text is a part of the Institute’s new project: Visibility and Impact of Contemporary Art in Contemporary Society.
One of the leading Finnish national art events, Mänttä Art Festival, closed its latest edition this August with a record-breaking number of over 20,000 visitors. On an international scale the numbers are on the rise as well for events such as the Venice Biennale, which passed 400,000 visitors during its 2013 edition. Frieze Art Fair in London sells out its coveted tickets year after year.
How - and why - are these events gathering larger crowds than ever before? This blog points out some of the possible means that the international and national art events use to grow their audience base - and how by doing so, they are gaining more and more importance in the changing world of contemporary art.
Cross-cultural events on the rise
An art event differs from a traditional gallery exhibition due to being a larger special occasion, usually in the form of a festival, fair or something in between. An art event can span multiple days or, in the case of Mänttä Art Festival in Finland, two and a half months. The programme at these events can consist of multiple curated exhibitions as well as other special projects. With art galleries being in turmoil due to the rise of e-commerce and losing their traffic to competitors from all fields of culture, the importance of these events to both presenting and selling art could quite possibly be at its largest.
Events such as Mänttä Art Festival and Venice Biennale aim each year to showcase what’s currently interesting in the field of contemporary art. By doing this they have traditionally gathered together art students, professionals and of course the members of the general public interested in what's current in the art world. The number of international visitors, both tourists and professionals, these events bring together is something that shouldn’t be overlooked either.
What has clearly taken place within art events is focusing on the programme’s diversity, meaning that besides showcasing traditional contemporary art, the events could include theatre plays, film screenings and other special programming. Diversity can be indeed listed as a forte for attracting the crowds.
Mänttä Art Festival, for example, is curated by a different person each year: in 2014, the curator Minna Joenniemi planned more events than ever for the festival and they didn’t only include visual arts. There were smaller poetry and theatre events as well, thus helping the festival to grow its audience base once and again.
It’s also interesting to notice how the idea of diversity has found its way to event planning in general. Film festivals hold art exhibitions and co-operate with galleries, and Flow Festival in Helsinki has initiated collaboration with contemporary arts by presenting a new prize for the artist of the year. This year the prize was awarded to Adel Abidin in August 2014. The effect these cross-cultural events have had on the visibility of contemporary art in our society is a question that's also worthy of more research.
But what good does diversity bring to contemporary art events? A wide spectrum of programme seems to help the media to notice art events even more than before, which is of use when they fight for the same small space on the culture pages alongside dozens of other events. This is clearly helpful in terms of gaining more visibility for contemporary art in the press.
The same applies with the audience - now these events can gather together crowds from the fans of poetry, theatre and film, and introduce them to contemporary art in general. This benefits both the artists and the contemporary art scene itself.
Art fairs as eventful playgrounds
However, not all art events aim to simply showcase the best in the field. While Mänttä Art Festival and Venice Biennale are more focused on exhibiting what's currently significant in art, for example London's Frieze Art Fair does this, but with the focus on selling products.
Initially a place for art dealers to showcase their protégés and biggest sellers, Frieze Art Fair has grown into a trend-maker of its own and is populated by visitors from young to old, from art students to buyers and just passer-bys – of course if they all were lucky enough to snatch a ticket, before they all sold out again.
The rise of art fairs has been a large part of speeding up the art economy. In a panel discussion held by artnet News in June 2014, columnist and author Anthony Haden-Guest speculates how trade fairs evolved into art fairs during 1994 as a part of the rise of mega galleries and franchises. John Keane goes even further and describes in an 2012 piece in a-n News how nothing has exemplified the polarisation of wealth distribution in the art world more graphically than the Frieze Art Fair.
The business side was clearly present in this October’s Frieze London as well, despite a large number of the visitors not exactly belonging to the group of art buyers. But art fairs still do, in all fairness, provide galleries with an excellent way to connect with new audiences and to lure in buyers.
A good example of the way Frieze London attracts new crowds is the sculpture park it produces outside its main tent in Regent’s Park. It allows the crowds to roam one integral part of the event for free and enjoy public contemporary art. Of course, works were still sold from here, amongst other to a young art collector from Abu Dhabi.
This year the event had also tried a new architectural structure. An article in artnet News also stated how the new layout could have spurred dealers to be more imaginative with their presentations. This was easily seen in for example the layout for Saatchi gallery’s own playground Kindergarten. Is Frieze trying to break out from the art fair mold to a more adventurous set-up – and by doing this attract new visitors?
Does the future of showcasing art rely on art events?
It’s easy to say that the future of the art world and its business is in an interesting state, as Allan Majotra, the Managing Director of Picasso Mio galleries, describes in an article. He continues by explaining how this century will certainly bring more changes to the arts and culture industry than we have seen in the last one thousand years. The article also states how art fairs will decline in popularity, since new technologies and larger galleries will lead to the diminishing importance of art trade fairs. However, within the world of events, this could just mean making traditional fairs resemble festivals, where doing business and selling isn’t at the core of their existence – or at least that’s what it seems like.
Since many art events are gathering a larger set of visitors every year, it seems as if they are attracting new audiences to contemporary art. Introducing contemporary art to a larger group of people benefits its visibility in society. One of the main means of bringing new crowds to these events is to diversify their programme - in 2014, an art event seems to be hardly used anymore just for showcasing or selling contemporary art.
The importance of events is easy to see in other fields of culture as well: film and music festivals break audience records year after year. Television programming aims to attract 21st century viewers by organizing its own special occasions and television events that span multiple days. In an era where the fight over the audience’s precious time is fierce, even contemporary art needs to participate in it with full force - and think as widely and cross-culturally as possible. Events might just be our era’s answer to all of these questions.
Adel Abidin, Flow Festival’s Artist of the Year
Haden-Guest, A. 2014. New York Dealers Discuss the Future of Galleries, Part One, accessed on 5 November 2014.
Haden-Guest, A. 2014. The Future of Commercial Art Galleries, Part Two, accessed on 5 November 2014.
Keane, J. 2012. a-n News. Is it time to challenge the art elite? , accessed on 5 November 2014.
Majotra, A. Fine Art: What is the Future of the Art World?, accessed on 5 November 2014.
Mäntän kuvataideviikoilla ennätyksellinen kävijämäärä. Press release 1.9.2014, accessed on 5 November 2014.
Sutton, B. 2013. Blouin Art Info. 2013 Venice Biennale Passes 400,000 Visitors, Sets New Single-Day Attendance Record, accessed on 5 November 2014.