Image of a large hall with people and red coloured drapery.

Art Fair & Its History

We've all heard the buzz surrounding art fairs, craft fairs and art expos. We have seen the art fair in Delhi- India Art Fair and the most recent art fair of 2023 - Art Mumbai. But have you ever wondered about the roots of these vibrant gatherings? Are they a modern phenomenon, born of our fast-paced world? In this captivating journey, we'll unravel the rich tapestry of art fairs' history, tracing their origins and evolution through time. From ancient rituals to contemporary showcases, join us as we explore the timeline that has shaped the world of art fairs into the  spectacle we know today.


To begin with, where did the name come from?

The term 'fair' comes from 'feriae,' a Latin word for holidays or sacred days, and it also suggests a time free from work. In German, the word for fair is 'Messe,' which also points to its religious beginnings, meaning a religious service or gathering and historically used to describe any big religious event.

1. Ancient & Medieval marketplaces

In ancient times, religious festivals occurred on particular days of the year. They took place in most growing empires, including the Roman and Greek Empires, the Aztec and Inca Kingdoms, and during the Han-Dynasty Great.


Medieval Marketplaces were erected at the confluence of rivers or roads where middleman traders had paid rent to offer their wares to a mass gathering of interested visitors.A long time ago, back in the 700s, one of the first big fairs started near Paris, in a place called Saint-Denis. Then, the idea of having these fairs caught on and they started popping up in other places like Champagne and Flanders during the 1100s and 1300s. These Champagne fairs were really important because they helped figure out how to do business at fairs.


A colourful painting of people in a market,
Ancient and Medieval marketplace. Photo Credit: Trade in Medieval Europe: World History Encyclopedia

2. Early Beginnings in Antwerp (1460)

By 1460, Antwerp had established itself as a global trade center with the fair known as Our Lady’s Pand, where art and book dealers gathered for a century in the church's courtyard and sold items. Similarly, the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair of Germany, a leader in its domain, has roots stretching back to the 15th century. This setting, combining commerce with spirituality, marked the first few steps of art into the commercial world. The fairs kept growing and spread to other cities like Geneva and Lyon until around the 1500s.

A painting of a large hall with a lot of people and red drapery.
The inauguration of Great exhibition 1st May 1851. Photo Credit: David Roberts (1796-1864)

3. 1800s onwards:

In the 1800s, "international exhibitions" started with the inaugural event in London's Hyde Park in 1851. Attendees were charged an entry fee to view thousands of artifacts- from elephant cloth and luxurious silks to the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India, all displayed within an impressively constructed environment made specifically for the event.


The 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris was a significant milestone. This event showcased art from various countries, making Paris the world's art capital. These expositions set the stage for modern fairs to come.

Venice's Biennale (1932) was a cultural milestone for film, influencing future art fairs. It showed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s work for its fortnight screenings and soon spread to Cannes, Berlin and across the world.


4. Renaissance Europe and Beyond

Fast forward to the 20th century, Europe’s post-war era saw cities like Cologne and Paris reviving the avant-garde art scene which was disliked by the Third Reich. This period was important to set the stage for the emergence of modern art fairs.


Rudolf Zwirner, a contemporary art dealer, was thinking in his gallery in West Germany- where he could attract a larger audience? He was torn between Düsseldorf and Cologne. He chose Cologne for several reasons, including its closeness to Bonn, the then political hub of West Germany, which also had direct flights to New York. Moreover, Cologne was home to a museum that exhibited works by artists once banned by the Third Reich.


The effects of World War II and the Holocaust trials in the 1960s made American buyers, many of Jewish heritage, hesitant toward German culture. To revitalize the dormant art market, Zwirner, alongside Cologne dealer Hein Stünke, established the first official contemporary art fair, Kölner Kunstmarkt or Art Cologne, in 1967.


In the beginning, Art Cologne was geographically restricted to German galleries. It was also restricted in terms of its space, and thus to a limited number of attendees. The participating dealers were selected through a panel (a practice that continues in most fairs till date). These constraints led to the formation of other art fairs, namely Art Basel.

A black and white image of a large hall with people seated.
Venice's Biennale (1932). Photo Credit:  Archive of La Biennale di Venezia

6. Contemporary Art Fairs

FIAC in Paris and Arte Fiera in Bologna both reproduced Art Basel & Art Cologne's structure in 1974. Since there have been many Art fairs that have come up- Frieze, India Art Fair and the most recent being- Art Mumbai.

Image of a beautiful booth with artwork and a brick coloured wall
APRE Art House at India Art Fair


The history of art fairs is a fascinating journey from small, local gatherings in medieval Europe to major global events. In the end, art fairs aren't just about buying and selling; they're a reflection of our cultural journey. They've brought people together, transcending borders and time, shaping the world of art and commerce. So, whether you're a seasoned collector or an art enthusiast, these fairs are where history and creativity collide in a magnificent spectacle that continues to inspire and amaze.


Back to blog