how to kill an art fair in 10 easy steps

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It’s been a busy month for art fairs in Shanghai! First there was Photo Shanghai, then SH Contemporary and Art in the City, and now West Bund Art & Design. Photo Shanghai and Art in the City were both successes. West Bund Art & Design is bound to be a success. SH Contemporary? Well … that was a nightmare I would much rather forget … if only I could.

So, because I’m still incredibly annoyed by how the whole thing went down, here’s a guide how to kill an art fair in 10 easy steps, as learned from SH Contemporary. After the debacle that SH Contemporary was, I’m pretty sure it’s dead. Actually, I’m pretty sure it died before the fair started but the organizers decided to prop it up, slap some make-up on it, and continue on as if nothing was wrong despite the obvious smell of decay so they could avoid refunding everyone. Does that sound morbid? Well, it was a pretty depressing affair.


Here goes (in no particular order):

1. Avoid media like the plague. Communication? Social media? Press mentions? Not necessary. Why on earth would you want to publicize an art fair? If you are approached by media or industry people who want to promote your event and bring in high-level clientele, feel free to ignore them.

2. Give your exhibitors exercise in extreme runaround and futility. After you collect their tens of thousands of RMB, feel free to waste their time. Make them fill out lots of information (VIP lists, exhibited works, catalogue information), harp on them for not filling things out properly, then promptly ignore it all.

3. Stall. See how much mileage you can get out of the phrase “in a few days” or “let me check on that and get back to you.” Over a month without offering any response? Congratulations, you’re winning!

4. Allow rumors to run rampant. A few weeks before opening, have a curator quit. A few days before the opening, have people saying that the fair might be canceled. Instruct staff to stonewall exhibitors with a form message and have organizers pretend like nothing’s wrong. That way the art world can bring out its catty claws and turn into a giant gossiping machine and spread even more rumors about the people in charge. That’s sure to burn all your reputations.

5. Respond to complaints with “If you don’t like it, quit.” Customer service is totes overrated.

6. Sell admission tickets for 120 RMB, over twice the price of tickets for the better organized and publicized fair that happened at the same location the week before – that’ll ensure low attendance!

7. Don’t update your website. Keep up information from two years ago and include no information on the current exhibitors. And during the fair (and even after), keep the giant “Apply Now” button on the main page. That’s sure to confuse everyone!

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8. Turn in the licensing paperwork to the government way beyond the deadline. That way, behind-the-scenes foreign consular intervention will be required, entangling even more people into the headache. Oh, and this way, once the fair is finally confirmed, there won’t be enough time for works imported from abroad to get cleared by customs (3 days required) and you can have lots of empty walls for the VIP opening and have some booths installing during the first day of the fair! Visitors to an art fair love being bombarded with sounds of drilling and hammering, right?

9. Allow an inexperienced Italian with insignificant connections in China to run a fair … in China. Fill support staff positions with well-meaning but woefully inexperienced Chinese who have no idea how an art fair works. And have an English-only catalogue … in China. Basically, ignore the fact that this is supposed to be a substantial art fair in a major city and instead treat it like an afterthought that is beneath you.

10. Don’t allow exhibitors to sell any works at the art fair. At the fair, right before the opening, tell all the gallerists who paid tens of thousands of RMB that even though they signed up to participate in an art fair, they’re actually only participating in an exhibition rather than a commercial event. That’s sure to piss off all those gallerists to the point where they’ll form an extremely active WeChat group to very passionately discuss legal action against you!


Heads got chopped at the conclusion of the fair, but it seems like the people whose heads should’ve been chopped managed to escape the guillotine, while those who actually tried to help got scapegoated. There was some great artwork on display, but only because there were some good galleries attending. The organization of the fair was abysmal so attendance and sales were much lower than expected. The booth fee and transportation costs added up to a sizable chunk of change (and I can’t even imagine how much the international galleries ended up shilling out), but in all honesty, it’s not just about the money. Each gallery put in so much effort, that to have the organizers treat us so disrespectfully and completely drop the ball was extremely gutting. So yeah, I’m still steaming.

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