Art fairs: why buying and selling original art matters more than ever

Why the explosion in original art sales and art fairs, says Linda Pittwood, and are they any good for art?

Thinking about art fairs, I cast my mind back to the last three years of the Manchester Contemporary. Closed my eyes and thought about how this contemporary art showcase has gradually gained in confidence and introduced me to artists I hadn’t heard of before. It has educated me about what Han Feng did next after winning the John Moores Painting Prize China in 2010, and allowed me to revisit artists such as Samantha Donnelly. The recent involvement of art magazine, Corridor 8, as well as the Contemporary Art Society, has also given the Manchester Contemporary critical edge and national relevance.

The problem is that most people who rate the Manchester Contemporary won’t even acknowledge its bawdier populist cousin, the Buy Art Fair, which takes place at the same time. I always go to this, in case there are gems hiding amongst the wacky cow portraits; with the Buy Art Fair, the tone shifts from the critical to the brazenly commercial. Whereas the Manchester Contemporary is the result of a strong network of commercial galleries, the booths of the Buy Art Fair don’t have much to say about the state of the arts today.

How can two events taking place at the same time, with broadly the same aims, feel so different? The prerogative of all art fairs is to get people in a room with art, and try to sell it to them. All fairs, good or bad, can be an intense, condensed art experience. There is none of the physical and head space that a gallery will allow; there is no ironing out of fixtures and fittings so that visitors can enjoy the art without distractions. But, in spite or because of their intensity, art fairs in their most thoughtful incarnation can be a snapshot of a city’s thriving arts ecology.

In Liverpool there has been a sudden explosion of art fairs: Cave in September, The Great Liverpool Art Fair in November and two just before the end of 2012: the Winter Arts Market and the print ‘edition’ of the Liverpool Art Fair. As in Manchester, they vary wildly; some very sensitively curated (Cave), others with more of a craft focus (The Great Liverpool Art Fair) and some, such as the Winter Arts Market, a combination of the two (the latter blogged about the younger artists it exhibited, such as Hannah Bitowski, former member of the artist-run Royal Standard in Liverpool).

For all their differences, the quality that unites all of the North West events, and distinguishes them from art fair beast Frieze, is that they have a warmth. By which I mean: the gallerists, artists and other representatives want to talk to visitors (customers?) rather than waiting for the punter to make the first move. At Frieze this creates a weird tension; it is almost as though you are sharing the same space as the art and the gallerists, except they are in another dimension. Even the Grizedale Arts presentation in the project space here (brilliant though it was, especially Bedwyr Williams’ ‘curator cadaver’ cake) somehow failed to thaw the ice.

Perhaps the art fairs in Liverpool have moved in to fill a hole. They don’t offer the same experience as some of the cutting-edge galleries that succumbed to funding cuts, migrated to London (Ceri Hand) or shut up shop all together (A Foundation). But they have laudable aims: introducing ordinary people to artists, exposing visitors to new ideas and encouraging them to support artists through purchasing and collecting contemporary art. Liverpool is one of the most deprived areas of the country, so for the city to support this many arts selling events there must be a market here, as the Manchester Contemporary has already proved there is further east. I take the art fairs as a positive sign of, if not economic recovery, certainly proof of the North West’s enduring love affair with the visual arts.

Image: Buy Art Fair, Manchester, 2012.

Article first published on creativetourist.com December 2012

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