Art Fairs: Independent Artists’ Best Income Bet?

By Renée Melchert Thorpe

There are compelling reasons for Bali-based artists to consider making a foray into international art fairs. Local galleries can provide exposure through location and contact lists, but if finding collectors and making sales is a top priority, regional art fairs could possibly be a career fast pass.

Four and a half hours due north of Bali lies the world’s second largest art market, China, with Hong Kong as its primary hub for art collectors, auction houses, dealers, and a government- backed Arts Month which includes fairs like Art Basel, local open studios, and myriad arts immersions for the public. Fine art is now in a seller’s market. This March, 12,000 art collectors came to the Asia Contemporary Art Fair in the Conrad Hong Kong, to see and purchase works from hundreds of international artists.

In a unique format that is a great antidote to many art fair’s blinding white cubicle format, each luxurious guestroom on 4 high floors of the hotel was devoted to a participating artist or dealer. Promoted by organizers as a system to enjoy art in practical interior spaces similar to one’s home, the effect was sociable and relaxed.

Artists from as far away as Peru and the UK shone brightly aside regional artists, the majority being South Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan. Paintings were the most common medium, but sculptures in an amazing array of materials were on sale, and prints were offered widely. Artists who invested in a room by themselves, or those who came with their dealers, seemed happy and relaxed, answering visitors’ questions, proffering brochures (part of Asia Contemporary’s customized marketing package), and genuinely enjoying meeting their public. This reporter was struck by the quantity of repeat sellers, with one gallery declaring it was their ninth appearance at the fair. Every artist answered that the fair has been profitable for them.

Asia Contemporary’s touch of cachet comes across in sponsored champagne Friday previews for VIPs (exhibitors may invite several). and on-the-spot sales commenced right away. Trade continued over the two weekend days, with general public eagerly paying about USD25 for single entry tickets. Deals continued to be struck in the days after the fair ended. Indonesian artists, while garnering rave reviews at the blue chip Art Basel HK and nearby Art Central, were nearly absent this year at the Asia Contemporary. It took a bit of searching to discover, in the hotel room occupied by V’Art Space (Kuala Lumpur), several extraordinary pieces by Jogjakarta’s Miranti Minggar, alongside a selection of   the gallery’s chosen emerging Asian talents. Perhaps the curatorial vetting process at Asia Contemporary will give a slight advantage to Indonesian art due to the escalating profile of Indonesian fine art in recent months.

Whether applicant to Asia Contemporary is by an artist or a gallery, it’s a base rate of eight thousand US dollars to get the 5-star room for five nights, and included in the deal is the chance to have 50 images of artworks placed on Asia Contemporary’s website for 6 months. For anyone browsing Asia art or the artist’s name, it’s a top hit, and a very easy-to-use site. Thousands of people all over the world are subscribers, and they believably tout themselves as Asia’s leading art website.

Asia Contemporary offers reasonably priced add-ons like getting ads in the festival brochures and fair layout map. The festival’s marketing is first rate, a standout part of the art trade messages of Hong Kong’s Arts Month dominating the Hong Kong streets and media.

This is big business. Art Basel, through its partner United Bank of Switzerland (UBS), freely releases a global art market report each year, downloadable from It’s full of essential information about the business for artists, dealers, and collectors, broken down into at-a-glance graphs, pie and bar charts. It clearly shows that art fairs are now making up 46% of an average dealer’s sales. It may be a nice ego-boosting foothold to have a posh art gallery on a chic street somewhere, with a gallery girl welcoming visitors, but in terms of profit, the art fair is taking hold as the way of the future, and collectors appreciate the one-stop shopping of a fair.

Marketing and Promotion can be an artist’s least favorite tasks and are best left to the pro’s. Unless contracted with an established dealer in a good city, with a large contacts list of collectors, an artist can lose his/ her purpose and ambition, and end up as a Sunday painter with a day job.

There are many ways to break into art fairs. The Affordable Art Fairs of Singapore and Hong Kong (both part of Affordable’s worldwide network of fairs organized out of London) have been growing in popularity, and prices are mandated to be in keeping with the proven range of sales to a public less than fabulously wealthy.

Hong Kong’s long-established trading and financial industries have created the perfect setting for secure transshipment of art, for the swift movement of cash, and boasts a moneyed public with increasing taste and sophistication. Residing in the small enclave (roughly the size of Tabanan Regency), are 11,000 people with a net worth of at least 10 million USD each, on top of a huge upper middle class.

Singapore has a similarly compact population of the wealthy and a rising middle class. Visual arts have possibly had longer public importance and exposure than in Hong Kong, and English is more widely spoken. Art fairs in Jakarta have the advantage of riding a recent wave of interest and expansion in the city’s visual art scene, and in being right here in Indonesia (no customs and immigration, land shipments easily done).

Australian painter Joanna Blair, three-time exhibitor at Asia Contemporary Art Fair told the Bali Advertiser this:

The atmosphere is unbeatable and I get a lot of curatorial support from the Fair staff. The organizers are highly professional, which I very much appreciate. This is my favorite way to exhibit. Being in a hotel room I can completely control the ambience of my room, the music, even the temperature is important! Everything together impacts the viewers experience of your work. I also like to have a flow, whereby my work is easily viewed and not packing in as many paintings as I can. Once someone is in your room, they are not distracted by whatever else is going on in the show, they are able to give their full attention to your pieces, and it is easy to engage them in conversation.

I sold four paintings for this show and came away with a number of leads that may result in future sales. Many people were interested in art, asking lots of questions and prepared to buy.

It’s too late to apply for inclusion in 2018’s Affordable Art Fair Hong Kong, and Art Stage Singapore, but there’s 2019 to plan for.



Asia Contemporary Art (Hong Kong) Sept. 29-Oct. 1

Affordable Art Fair Singapore November 16-18

Hong Kong May 18-20

Art Jakarta August 2-5, 2018

Art Stage Jakarta August 7-9