10 Art Fair Horror Stories


The Venice Biennale opened to the press last week, more or less without a hitch. Reviews were mostly admiring, and heavy on praise for Massimiliano Gioni, the Director of Exhibitions at the New Museum, and the Biennale’s youngest-ever curator. Given his eager availability in a run-up to the fair’s opening, which Gallerist called a “force-five media machine,” Gioni is coming off as a refined director. There are nevertheless a few things that can be copped off to good luck. Here are a few of the greatest art fair disasters, which Gioni fortunately missed.

[Image via Artfaircalendar]


At the 2008 Omaha Summer Arts Festival, a would-be day of fine weather was interrupted when sudden, high-speed winds toppled over tents, causing only minor injuries, but forcing 10-20% of the artist roster to leave early. The event, of course, took place before the Midwest renewed its infamy for destructive winds; a blogger at Art Fair Calendar says disasters like these can arise “out of nowhere.”

Helen Gotlib, Pot and Box. The painting was among those stolen at the 2012 fair.

[Image via Startribune.com]

Serial theft

Artists and visitors were sorely bummed when thieves made off with tens of thousands of dollars worth of paintings at the Uptown Art Fair in August 2012. While Helen Gotlib conceded it was the first time anything like this had happened, according to the Star Tribune, she couldn’t help pointing to a startling irony: two years earlier, the fair won the “Best Public Safety Plan for an Event” award from The International Festivals and Events Association.

“It is a sad day when one of the few shows in the country with theft and vandalism issues is given an international award for security and safety,” artist Benjamin Frey wrote on Facebook.

[Image via Nybooks.com]

Everything sinks

Venice may be above water now, but as Anna Somers Cocks writes in The New York Review of Books , the host city of the world’s biggest non-commercial art fair is unfathomably vulnerable to a host of threats, exacerbated by the fine Italian tradition of an overbearing tourist trade and ineffective government intervention. By Cocks’s account, climate change and the resultant flooding are almost too big an elephant to acknowledge:

This drastic change to the ecology of the lagoon cannot be attempted without first cleaning up industrial pollution in it and in the waters descending from its 1,003-square-mile drainage basin, and without giving Venice a main drainage system (yes, Venice is medieval in that respect as well).

[Image via Fox2Now.com]

Violent storms

The St. Louis Art Fair was shut down for the first time in history in September 2012 when winds and rain tore through downtown Clayton, destroying tents and causing thousands of dollars in damage. “Everything was hung, everything was ready to go for the customers,” John Leben, an artist whose booth was among those affected, told KMOV. “It was terrible.”

[Image via Guest of a Guest]

Vomiting frat boys

The vogue for relational art — art made entirely out of social experiences and exchanges — was tested at the SCOPE Art Fair in March 2011. For his work C’mon Guy (Frat Boy Box Party), artist Richie Bubb invited three real-life fraternity brothers from New Jersey to live in a glass room, leaving them copious beer, a magic marker, and a bucket for nature’s duties to amuse themselves (and the public). Eventually, the bucket was put to use, and at least one of the young men was asked to leave the fair for his contribution to the piece.

[Image via Art21]

Rust, mold, and puddles

The effects of Hurricane Sandy on the art world was well documented in October and November of 2012. In addition to the gallery hubs and storage spaces in Chelsea, the artist paradises in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn were well within the flood zone, and the damage was heartbreaking. In a search for catharsis the following December, curators in Red Hook planned a show, Flooded Art Party, dedicated to work whose changes under the weather were visible. “There was a surprising and heartening display of spirited humor and energy in the face of such unfathomable loss,” Serena Qiu wrote in Art21, “which for a number of artists meant an entire lifetime’s worth of work was gone.”

Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi

[Image via Arabianbusiness.com]

Government objection

Collectors and curators are mostly encouraged by the growing demand for contemporary art in the Middle East, which can foster international business and healthy cultural exchanges outside of London, Paris, or New York. Particularly in the Muslim world, however, they are not without their obstacles.

In April 2011, Jack Persekian, the director of the Sharjah Art Biennial, was dismissed by direct order from Sheik Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, a member of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Sharjah. According to The New York Times, the firing came after after numerous attendees complained about works of art that included sexually explicit Arabic slogans and irreverent references to Allah.

[Image via ArtStars.tv]

Eccentric narcissism

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the curator of DOCUMENTA, the prestigious exhibition that takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany, exposed herself to ample ridicule when a press kit was released in advance of the event’s 13th edition. Whereas the packet’s CD-R contained three images of work by Giuseppe Penone and nine JPEGs featuring the work of Jimmie Durham, there were 19 images of Christov-Bakargiev smiling next to works of art, or just standing there looking fabulous. “This is curator porn at its best,” journalist Nadja Sayej wrote in ArtStars.

[Image via Huffington Post]

Criminal charges

Like Armory Week in New York, Art Basel Miami Beach is known for the number of satellite fairs it attracts, many of which operate in discrete locations or unorthodox settings. In December 2011, police arrived at the Sadigo Court Hotel in Miami Beach with plans to shut down the Pool Art Fair, on the grounds that the operation lacked the proper permit. As a cease-and-desist order was placed on the front doors, hotel owner Rod Eisenberg was told that he, too, was under arrest for operating a hotel without a license.

A few days later, he announced plans to sue the city. “I’m still in shock,” Eisenberg told CBS Local. “I still cannot believe I was hauled away to jail under a false charge because they wanted to get me out of the way.”

Noritoshi Hirakawa. The Home-Coming of Navel Strings, 2004, Installation View at the Wrong Gallery Booth, Frieze Art Fair, London.

[Image via Deitch.com]


Given the circumstance’s rigid separation between art and life, this may not count as a disaster, but at any other art fair, audiences might have fled. In 2004, the installation artist Noritoshi Hirakawa arranged for a young woman to read a novel by Philip Pullman at London’s Frieze Art Fair. In the most notable part of Hirakawa’s piece, titled The Home-Coming of Navel Strings, the participant undertook a morning ritual that left a tidy coil of her feces on one side of the chair.

“Although happy to answer questions, no one was much interested in asking how she was getting on with Lyra and her adventures,” Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian. “There was really only one question, and it related to her own, rather than Pullman’s, dark materials. Is that your poo?”