So there are mistakes, no matter how misguided or wrong they might seem, you really ought to make the first time you go to an art fair. After a few years of stumbling through these tacky conventions, you get to know too many people and you get to become a little self-conscious about being seen acting ridiculous. The tragic result is that you end up conducting yourself with proper professional dignity, which finally and totally sucks all the remaining fun out of these altogether crass commercial conclaves.
Biennials are better international gathering events if you take art at all seriously, they just aren’t as much fun. It’s mostly art bureaucrats behaving like little old ladies on Roman holiday, collecting emails and postcards to scrapbook back home. Art fairs are generally a terrible place to look at art but the novelty of the first time shouldn’t make you want to treat it too much like the tiresome professional event it eventually is. The parties are better than biennials and the trashiness of too much money has its charms to be sure.
Everyone of course is there more or less on business - don’t let it all spook you. The smorgasbord of art for sale, international curators in primary color suits and quirky glasses two-stepping their way through the aisles, the chic get-ups and twice daily costume changes, the VIPs and VVIPs, exclusivity nestled inside exclusivity until you spot the door into the cabin on some yacht where only billionaires are allowed to enter, these are all fodder for the late night telephone calls to your current squeeze back home.
The first art fair I went to, I worked a magazine booth at Art Basel Miami Beach and I did all the things I learned later that you were definitely not supposed to do. I drank often and repeatedly, consistently chasing free drinks wheresoever they could be found. I freeloaded every taxi, crashed every party that was crashable, and took disco naps in hammocks in fancy beach clubs. I don’t remember paying for any a meal (though I mostly forgot to eat anyway) except fried plaintains from a Cuban street stall at 4am. I said obnoxious things to influential art worlders, I slept with sloshed curators, danced on bars, showed up to my merch table bleary-eyed in a dirty white suit coat, nodding over the magazines I was supposed to be selling. In short, I had a really good time.
Then again, I was happily a nobody from nowhere, the lowliest worker in an obscure magazine with a modicum of Euro-intellectual cred, enough for when I met people they filed me away as a someone who belonged just enough. But I was there and I had nothing to lose. It was still the early years of the Miami fair and the red ropes weren’t strung quite so tightly. We still happily found holes in the fences and the holes were just big enough for me.
And no matter how many times I aimed for one of Jeffrey Deitch’s parties, I never quite made it there, always sidetracked or hanging back for friends who couldn’t get in, ending up at some shitty dive where the drinks were less free and easier to get. Although I never made it to the Deitch party that first year, I did perfect the art of charging in to almost any fete uninvited and unfettered, sometimes getting tossed out for my troubles, no worse for the wear, and just charged off somewhere else where some art dealer or collector caught the tab and were old enough to appreciate the reckless dynamism of youth.
At your first art fair, you should do all these things and more. You should try to see everything you possibly can. Go to most of the art fairs (or at least three) and try to see every booth, make notes about every artist and then lose them, try to see every offsite collection and gallery, try to go to at least a handful of lectures given by the intellectuals to the apathetic as a simple beard for steroidal commerce. You should always be trying to be meet people you can never find, giving up at 2am when your cell phone finally dies or you fall into the pool with the thing in your pocket. Don’t even really bother to sleep, just cat nap as catch can, don’t even really waste your money on a hotel room, there’s always someplace to crash. You won’t be able to do accomplish all of it, but you should feel noble in trying. You’ll hate yourself the next week, but you only get to do it for the first time once.
It’s likely the second, third, fourth time you go, it still won’t matter, it’ll just feel like it does which makes you self-conscious, like you might end up on Artforum.com bleary-eyed, sucking tequila out of a stripper’s navel. None of us are really famous after all, and how much networking does a person want to do in the end? Networking becomes fantastically boring the moment one calls it “networking.”
How much art can a person safely consume? I could probably devote my life to studying just two or three really great artists, why even bother filing away the hundreds of names and where they show and cross-referencing it all? Making friends, having fun, arguing about art, checking in on the international travelling circus of the art world and its wares, acting ridiculous in a situation that at its very core is patently ridiculous, those are decent enough reasons to go to fairs I think. It’s easiest to harbor such ideals the first time though. Later it gets a little too complicated (or at least feels that way), so savor it.