How to cruise an art fair

Gina Fairley

This week is no time for Art Fair FoMo. We give you the low-down on how to filter, to fossick and to find the art moment for you.
How to cruise an art fair

Image via Sydney Contemporary

After attending art fairs for twenty years, the advice is simple - go! They are great fun. They are also a fantastic opportunity to discover new talents and trends; to start to understand what it is you respond to, and to train your eye.

This week Sydney plays host to two art fairs: for the third time, Sydney Contemporary returns to The Carriageworks from 6 - 10 September, while Spring 1883 will return to The Establishment Hotel from 6 - 9 September. The two have a very different tone and visitor experience.


How do you navigate that intensity of art work and how do you start to feel confident in what you like and how to purchase it?

Whether you are a seasoned art lover or a first timer, the sheer smorgasbord of offerings is exhilarating, however the jostling aisles and jammed booths, and the endless stream of air-kisses and conversations, can take its toll on the enthusiasm of any fair-goer. So rather than be overwhelmed - plan!

To make the most out of your fair experience, we recommend:

1. Do your homework

To avoid the dreaded "fairtigue" we suggest taking a browse of the fair websites well beforehand. Sydney's two fairs this week have very different styles and personalities – a quick look at the gallery list will help you to match the right fair to your tastes and budget, and to prioritise your visits.

Get a sense of your “must sees”. And, when you first arrive take a moment to locate those key galleries on the fair map / floorplan. You always get sidetracked at fairs and inevitably miss something, so it’s a good checkpoint to drag you back on course when you get derailed.

Remember to pack a pen and take notes. While you might trust your eye, at this level of absorption you are guaranteed to forget an artist’s name or who represented them. A snap of a painting on your smart phone wont help you find it again.

2. Check out the different fair sections and the talks  

We recommend signing up for a guided tour around the fair, which is often led by an art professional or a curator. It is a great entry to collecting or can throw open a door to new artists and those who are strong in the market. They will also give you a good sense of pricing art – that is their job.

Art fairs today are more than just exhibiting booths. They are also fantastic entertainment with a bursting program of curated sections, great industry talks, workshops, film screenings, kids activities, and creative food.

Some of these events need prior booking so check out the individual websites and sign up – they can offer a great break for the blur and a chair to sit for a while!

And a good tip - if you are attending a talk than set an alarm on your smart phone. It is very easy to loose track of time while looking at booths, and sometimes the "chat" is just as good at the "look".

Another aspect of the fair that distinguishes Sydney Contemporary is its Installation Program – a series of 15 large-scale and site specific artworks  installed across the Carriageworks precinct created by  Australian and international artists. Curated by Rachel Kent (Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia) and Megan Robson (Assistant Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia), the exhibition will showcase the work of mid-career artists Betty Kuntiwa Pumani, Shoufay Derz, James Angus, Japanese artist Maio Motoko, Haydenn Fowler, Locust Jones, Lara Merrett, the Japanese collective teamLab and Nike Savvas. For more information.

Collecting at art fairs; Photo Gina Fairley, ArtsHub

3. Be ready to buy

Have a game plan if you are looking to buy.  Take a snap on your phone of the space that you are wanting to find an art work for as it can be hard to visualize that space within the chaos of a full fair. Write down the maximum size the space can carry.

Ask yourself how much you are prepared to spend. If you are wanting to take advantage of the art fair moment, but need to plan your finances, then you might consider Art Money, which allows you to purchase an artwork and take it home but pay it off gradually. You can even get pre-approved for shopping before the fair opens.

Don’t be shy about talking money with the dealers. Most of them are willing to sell an artwork with payment terms and are very accommodating. The purchase of an artwork is a win for everyone. 

Art fairs are also a good opportunity for first-time buyers to start building relationships with galleries. Each gallery has its own style or taste, and if you find a gallery you really like – chat to them. You might want to see more of an artist’s work in the gallery stock before you commit.

And if you have any doubt on a purchase on the day, ask the dealer to hold it for you for half an hour. Go and have a coffee and visualise it without all the other works surrounding it barking for your attention. Is it something you can grow with it? 

Art only has one real rule: you like what you like. Remember you will live with it and enjoy it every day, so your opinion is the key one that matters.

4. Take pictures, and not just selfies

The best way to remember your favourites in the sea of art you’re about to set sail on, is to put your trust in that other brain – your smart phone.

You want to snap not only the art but the wall labels and the gallery signage, so you have a complete reference later. You are bound to forget those important details, and if you are posting or socialing your personal fair picks, it is always better to know the name of artist you love!