Van Krimpen, who founded the Art Fair Foundation with Martijn Sanders, became the first director of the KunstRAI in 1984. The first KunstRAI was held a year later. This covered almost 2,300 square metres and attracted some 15,000 visitors. The exhibition got off to a good start and had an international character from the outset. From 1989 onwards Van Krimpen introduced the concept of host countries and adopted a regional focus to give galleries from outside Holland's western conurbation the opportunity to exhibit.
The KunstRAI played a pioneering role. Other than the exhibition in Basel, which was held for the 41st time in 2010, and the exhibitions in Cologne and Brussels, which were founded in 1975 and 1981 respectively, Europe had few art exhibitions. Art exhibitions had been held occasionally in the Netherlands, but there was no annual event. At that time the number of galleries in the Netherlands was still limited – in the early 1980s there were no more than 60 galleries for contemporary art.
When Wim van Krimpen left the KunstRAI to join the Kunsthal in Rotterdam in 1989, he was succeeded by gallery owner Jacob Witzenhausen. After one exhibition under his charge, he was in turn succeeded by Erik Hermida. In 1992 Amsterdam RAI acquired the exhibition from the foundation. Hermida was given the job of turning the KunstRAI into an exhibition that would attract a wide public and have a strong national focus. The new formula proved popular and visitor numbers rose steadily, almost without interruption. The 2000 edition of KunstRAI attracted the all-time record of 28,000 visitors.
However, there was dissatisfaction about the direction the exhibition was taking, especially among the more innovative galleries with an international reputation. In 1994 they set up their own event known as Art Amsterdam in the Beurs van Berlage (the former stock exchange building). Later the event moved to the Westergasfabriek. In 1996 Art Amsterdam merged with the KunstRAI, but this did not silence the critics and the number of complaints about the absence of a clear exhibition profile actually swelled. In 2002 Erik Hermida made way for Anneke Oele.
Oele, who had been curator of the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem and had previously been a gallery owner, immediately put in place a new, high quality concept. She halved the exhibition space and introduced stringent selection criteria. This ‘small is beautiful’ approach achieved a drastic improvement in the quality of the exhibits. Visitors appreciated this: their numbers rose as did their approval rating. To emphasise the break with the past and underscore the exhibition’s international ambitions, the name was changed to Art Amsterdam in 2006.
The selection criteria for Art Amsterdam were tightened up still further in 2007. Galleries displaying jewellery, glass, ceramics and ethnographica were excluded from participation. At the same time, there was a rise in both the number of foreign exhibitors and the sales figures. In 2007 galleries from the United States, Korea, Denmark, Germany, France, Great Britain, Belgium and Poland took part. Sales totalled almost 5.3 million euro.
In 2009 Art Amsterdam celebrated its silver jubilee. To mark the 25th anniversary all 135 participating galleries staged a solo stand. The exhibition was opened by Her Majesty Queen Beatrix and the media coverage was overwhelming. Almost 24,000 art lovers visited the exhibition, which put the crown on the work of Anneke Oele. Shortly before the exhibition she announced that she would be standing down as director. She has now been succeeded by Edo Dijksterhuis, former head of the art section of the financial daily Het Financieele Dagblad.