Before Bernard Lumpkin was an art collector, he went to art fairs for the same reasons that someone might go to any exposition: to explore a new world. His first fair was in 2008 at the Armory Show in New York, where he made his first offer on a piece of art.
Since then, after years of collecting, Mr. Lumpkin’s approach to art fairs has evolved. He may still buy something, but that is not his primary motivation for going.
“Now that I have more connections in the art world and other buying options, I go mostly to look, learn and network,” he said. “I might not be buying, per se, but I’m still getting a lot of business done.”
Whatever the motivations, art fairs have grown in importance to dealers and collectors in the past decade. This week and next, two established fairs are back in New York: the Art Show, which runs through this weekend, and the Armory Show, which opens Thursday.
They compete on the world stage with big international gatherings like Art Basel, which has expanded from Switzerland to Hong Kong and Miami Beach, and the Frieze shows in London and New York.
The pull that fairs exercise over attendees’ minds and wallets is substantial. Just as the fairs can educate visitors about artists, they can seduce them into paying too much or buying too quickly. But experienced collectors advise caution for newcomers, saying it’s better to wade in slowly.
On the other side, the mix of money and a broad audience has made fairs important not just to young artists and gallery owners but to some of the top artists and dealers in the world.
The David Zwirner Gallery, with spaces in New York, London and now Hong Kong, will show and sell work at 20 fairs around the world this year.
“We’re educating the world about our program, but we’re also getting to know the buyers in each market,” Kristine Bell, a senior partner at Zwirner, said.
Thaddaeus Ropac, who operates five galleries in Europe, said he often used fairs to highlight different works by an artist he was showing in one of his galleries. Last year, he mounted a show of works by Georg Baselitz, a German painter and sculptor, in one of his Paris galleries. At the same time, he sold pieces by the artist from different points in his career at several fairs. The idea was to reinforce, not cannibalize, what was being sold in the gallery.
“The important thing is, you always treat art fairs like a show,” Mr. Ropac said.
That is as much a business decision as an aesthetic one. Even if the vast majority of fairgoers cannot or will not buy an expensive piece of art this week, a few will, and that’s what matters to even the most successful gallery owners.
“We have one of the largest galleries in New York, and we do all the things we’re supposed to do,” said Sean Kelly, a gallery owner who represents about 30 artists, including Kehinde Wiley, who painted former President Barack Obama’s portrait and will have a booth at the Amory Show. “But the fact of the matter is, if you go to an art fair and get 60,000 people through in five days, we’d never get that in the gallery. It’s a very simple statistical game.”
The fairs are circuslike endeavors, with scores of galleries rolling into town and setting up displays of millions of dollars’ worth of art for a multiday spectacle. And then everyone departs, as if leaving town at night with the big top.
“When we started, there were maybe six fairs,” said Nicole Berry, executive director of the Armory Show, which is in its 24th year. “Now, there’s a fair somewhere in the world every weekend.”
The Armory Show, spread over more than 250,000 square feet, will include about 200 galleries from 31 countries and sell art priced from several thousands of dollars up to millions, Ms. Berry said.
Opinion about fairs among art advisers — those people who guide the hearts, minds and wallets of top collectors — is split.
“A fair offers the opportunity to see as much work as possible in a short amount of time,” said Ashley Carr, a co-founder of the Modica Carr Art Advisory in New York. “That has its benefits for people who are incredibly busy and can’t go to galleries every weekend or can’t travel to shows.”
She creates a plan for her clients so they can make the most of their time, looking at art, talking to the gallery owners and sometimes meeting the artists.
But Lisa Schiff, an international art adviser who has consulted for the actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation, takes a different view. “I don’t like fairs because it’s a pileup of merchandise,” she said.
Ms. Schiff cautioned collectors, particularly new ones, not to buy at an art fair. That same atmosphere that creates excitement makes it hard to properly assess an artist, she said. But she acknowledged the convenience, comparing the experience to ordering online as opposed to shopping at a smaller business.
“I usually end up doing a lot of business at fairs even though it’s not my intention,” she said.
Mr. Lumpkin, who sits on the board of the Studio Museum in Harlem, had several pieces of advice for a first-time fairgoer or buyer. Avoid being taken in by any hype around an individual artist, he said: “Buy with your eyes and not with your ears.”
Attendees also need to strike a balance between impulse and hesitation. On the one hand, he said, people should not be afraid to wait and follow up after the fair if they see something they like. On the other hand, he said, “if you see something good and like it, jump on it before it’s gone.”
It’s those types of conflicting emotions that make fairs exciting but also risky for buyers prone to quick decisions. The lead sponsor of this year’s Armory Show is Athena Art Finance, which specializes in lending quickly to collectors buying art.
“Clients, literally in front of the painting, text me a picture and say, ‘How much would you lend me if I bought this painting?’” said G. Andrea Danese, president and chief executive of Athena.
The answer is less than the purchase price. “The sale price isn’t so relevant to us — it’s inflated,” Mr. Danese said. Generally, if the work is by a known artist with a sales history, the firm takes 20 to 25 percent off the price and then lends about half that amount.
The company, which has been open for about three years, has $180 million in loans outstanding, ranging from four months to five years.
But that type of financial engineering is at the top of the art fair market.
Mr. Lumpkin, who attended a private reception on the opening night of the Art Show this week, said he still appreciated the fairs for the openness they projected in the otherwise rarefied world of high-priced art. He called them “one of the few democratic arenas where anyone can, in theory, walk in and buy something.”
“Of course, the reality is that a lot of the best work is already presold or on reserve when the fair opens,” he added. “And just because you can afford to buy a work of art doesn’t mean the gallery will sell it to you,” because galleries often want their artists’ work in the hands of respected collectors.
But for an afternoon, at least, an art fair lets you dream. “Enjoy the people-watching,” Ms. Schiff said, “and the food.”