The rising popularity of the Art Fair – John McDonald

Frieze Art Fair, New York

Frieze Art Fair, New York

In an article in The Art Newspaper of June last year, Georgina Adam counted no fewer than 189 international art fairs held during 2011. She noted that in 1970 there were only three events worthy of that title: Cologne, Basel and ‘Art Actuel’, held in Brussels, but by 2005 the number had ballooned to 68. To get from that figure to 189 requires an average of 20 new fairs a year, although a detailed graph would show an exponential increase.

Over the past year the total number of fairs has kept trending upwards, with the new Sydney Contemporary being added to the list. Needless to say, there must be a limit on the number of international art fairs the market can sustain, and that limit can’t be far away.

With the local art market in the doldrums, Sydney Contemporary is a brave venture. Many dealers have decided they can’t afford to participate in the event. Others are taking part in a fatalistic frame of mind, hoping to make a few new clients or secure some useful contacts.

For all but a handful of wealthy international galleries, this is the way dealers tend to approach every art fair. If you go along expecting to make money, you are courting disappointment. Sometimes the best art fails to sell while certified junk walks out the door.

While the largest, most prestigious fairs such as Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, have the luxury of turning down at least a third of the applicants, a new fair such as Sydney Contemporary has had to work hard to fill those spaces.

The key to the epidemic of art fairs is the consumer, who likes the idea of seeing a large array of art galleries in a single visit. To appreciate this we have to stop thinking about art as a deeply spiritual, intellectual enterprise and treat it as a commodity. Art fairs bring the rarefied business of art under the popular rubric of the shopping complex.

For those who don’t go to galleries regularly, the art fair provides a crash course in collecting. Out of their usual habitat dealers are ready and willing to talk to everyone. The sheer variety of works on display allows visitors to discover what they like and don’t like, and how much these things actually cost. Once the ice is broken, buying art is simply a matter of what one can afford.

For the big-time collectors the story is different. Over the past few years the strength of the Australian dollar has encouraged many collectors to do some serious shopping at the international fairs – mainly Basel and Hong Kong; but Miami, London and New York have also proven popular. For the first time Australians have had the buying power – and the inclination – to mix it with the rest of the world. Some high-profile collectors such as David Walsh of MONA fame, or Judith Neilson of the White Rabbit Gallery, are among the most desirable clients for any of the international galleries.

Along with the government’s brutal dismantling of the art for superannuation scheme, the growing taste for international art fairs has had a slightly depressing effect on the local market. Instead of going around the Sydney or Melbourne galleries on the weekend, a number of collectors are now more inclined to enjoy a week in a foreign city, where they can make a few strategic acquisitions of work from anywhere in the world.

This is rather a luxurious position but most of these collectors started by buying inexpensive pieces at local galleries. It’s possible that those who make their first hesitant purchases at Sydney Contemporary, may one day become valued clients at Art Basel.

Sydney Contemporary will run from 19-22 September 2013; Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh, (02) 9331 9255,