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The History of Art Fairs You Need to Know

The History of Art Fairs You Need to Know


We go to dozens of art fairs every year, but there’s something about Art Basel that still makes us giddy. The office is buzzing with excitement because today marks the official count down! We’re two weeks away from Art Basel! 


Are you ready for Basel?


Relax…you have ArtBinder!


While we’re gearing up for the art fair of all art fairs, we wanted to take a look back into the history of the art events we orbit around.

Here are our picks of historical art fairs & biennials that rocked the art world.


art fairs

Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The Salon des Refuses 1863

By 1863, artists were begging to be shown in the Salon of the French Academy, known for honoring classical and Renaissance inspired art – and, really, who doesn’t like a good Botticelli. Well, not everyone was producing the “Birth of Venus”; artists were doing something new. Over 2,000 artwork submissions were rejected, quickly prompting the opening of the Salon des Refusés (yes, the Rejects, as direct and polite as one might be). Of the works featured was that of Manet, “Déjeuner sur l’herbe(The Luncheon on the Grass) currently on view at the Musee D’Orsay, Paris.

Robert Rosenblum writes in his book 19th-Century Art, the Salon des Refusés was a place “where artists at war with authority could be seen and where the public could go either to jeer or to enlarge their ideas of what a work of art could be.” Isn’t that what art is all about?


art fairs

Image courtesy of Art Agenda

Armory 1913

Five decades later, the International Exhibition of Modern Art, aka The Armory Show, opened at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. While most of artists exhibiting were American-born, the introduction of European artists like Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp really rocked the boat. Imagine, this was the first time Matisse’s “Blue Nude” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” graced American audiences. To say the least, this was major culture shock. Never before had the nude figure been so fractured and distorted. Or, as one critic so vividly described Duchamp’s nude, “an explosion in a shingle factory.”


With all the talk and hullabaloo also came a lot of excitement. This artist run and artist funded exhibition was inspiring! It did manage to ruffle some feathers…but those feathers maybe needed to be ruffled. If you have 5 minutes to spare, NPR’s “‘Armory Show’ That Shocked America In 1913, Celebrates 100” is a must listen. You’re welcome. 


art fairs

Polaroids taken of the art dealer Ivan Karp by Andy Warhol, 1970

Art Basel 1970

Jumping now to 1967, post-war Germany debuted an international sensation, Art Cologne (you may have heard of it…), in the resurrected Kunstmarkt Köln, a historic building previously used for festivals and entertainment, now a meeting place for modern art. At this very fair, three prominent Swiss dealers also converged, Trudi Bruckner, Balz Hilt, and Ernst Beyeler, with the shared idea that the Swiss city of Basel (a French-Swiss-German tripoint) could be the perfect site to rival the international art fair scene. And so, in 1970 Art Basel was born.

As the Art Basel website toots, “More than 16,000 visitors attend[ed] the inaugural show to see 90 galleries and 30 publishers from 10 countries”(!!!!) Art Basel has ever since had a profound effect on the art world — expanding to Miami Beach and Hong Kong. While we’re on the topic… are you ready for Art Basel? More importantly, have you updated your ArtBinder yet? 


art fairs

Art Club 2000, Untitled (Conrans I), 1992–93

1993 Whitney Biennial

And, last on our list, the 1993 Whitney Biennial.  

You either loved it or hated it.

In a 1993 NY Times review, Roberta Smith commended the Whitney’s director, David A. Ross, and his radical curatorial decisions that introduced something undeniably new and bold.

The show was daring, provocative and inclusive. It touched on issues of the time: diversity, gender, the AIDS crisis, the poverty line and more.

That said, Smith thought it had some critical flaws, one being — where is the art? She writes, “There are only a few instances where the political and visual join forces with real effectiveness…”

Some twenty years later, art critic and husband to Ms. Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz, looks back at 1993’s influence on the art world in a New York magazine feature so aptly entitled “Jerry Saltz on ’93 in Art”.

In contrast to his wife’s opinions, Saltz found the Whitney Biennial to be incredibly thoughtful and impactful. The show was heavily focused on underrepresented media, like sculptures and installations; it brought us artists who we continue to celebrate in our time, like Robert Gober and Fred Wilson; and it sprung a new and powerful generation of dealers, like Friedrich Petzel and Gavin Brown. In short, Saltz looked at the 1993 Whitney Biennial through a more contemporary lens that showed us how “the Biennial was on the side of the future, and still is.”


As we prepare for the tiring weeks ahead, we should be inspired by our rich tradition of art fairs, biennials, and salons. So what will Art Basel 2016 bring? Stay tuned. 


Header image: Daniel Joseph Martinez, I can’t even imagine wanting to be white, 1994, image from Whitney Biennial 1993 archival press

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