Aug 6, 2013 Art city
You can think of an art fair as being a bit like a wedding. There’s an invite list that includes a bunch of people who don’t know each other at all, others who know each other rather too well, and more than a few people wondering whether they’re wearing the right shoes. There are speeches, champagne, expensive and short-lived decor and, if things go as planned, people signing on a dotted line and going home starry-eyed.
A month out from this year’s Auckland Art Fair, organiser Jennifer Buckley’s wall sports a venue map of The Cloud covered in moveable paper flags bearing the names of the 40 participating New Zealand and Australian galleries. “It is very much like seating a wedding,” agrees this crop-haired, effervescent Canadian (and co-founder of Orex Gallery), who has co-run the fair since its inception in 2005. “You have people in a business where everyone has their own personalities, likes, dislikes. You don’t want to seat people together who used to be married, or two galleries side by side who show the same artist, or who used to show an artist that they don’t anymore.”
There are also a few dealers put out that they didn’t make the list. All the big locals have their namecards, of course, from stalwarts like Auckland’s Gow Langsford, Sydney’s Martin Browne Contemporary and Dunedin’s Milford Galleries, to the recently renamed locals Hopkinson Mossman and artist-run space Gloria Knight.
But with only 40 places and more than 60 applications, some miss out, and they don’t always take it well. This year, one disgruntled gallerist emailed Buckley threatening “a substantial protest” and assuring her his grievance had “firm interest from two television current affairs shows, the print media and certain radio stations”.
Buckley takes it in her stride. “Inevitably there will be people who will be disappointed they missed out. We don’t like to disappoint, but ‘small but perfectly formed’ is what we’re aiming for.”
She shrugs. “It’s a funny world. In 2011, I got taken to task by someone because Sarah Hopkinson from Hopkinson Mossman wasn’t invited to the fair. All I could say in my defence was that she wasn’t open.”
Of course, the focus of the fair is not on the intrigues of the contemporary art community, but on selling art to people who might not usually set foot in a gallery. “A lot of people find galleries intimidating,” Buckley acknowledges. “The fair takes all of those white cubes up dark staircases and down odd side streets and puts them on a level playing field. Everything is for sale, so there’s none of that, ‘Oh my god, do I ask if that’s for sale or if it’s the fire extinguisher?’ stuff. The potential to make an ass of yourself is reduced substantially.”
Around 600 works will be on sale, although Buckley says they don’t judge a gallery’s presentation by quantity — “we’d be happy if a gallery presented one absolutely kick-arse work; that’s more important than having a salon hang from the stockroom”.
Everything has a set price. And unlike at auctions, works sold at the fair pay artists as well as sellers. “If people only buy at auctions and don’t support galleries, there isn’t going to be any work to buy eventually.” Prices range from $400 up to several hundred thousand, when big artists like Hammond or McCahon are on show.
Highlights of this year’s programme include a work by Auckland artist Alex Monteith about the Reno shipping disaster that will be projected on shipping containers wharfside; the Digibox, showing digital works; a keynote speech from Sandra Phillips, curator of photography at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art; and a panel discussion about new media, which includes one of Australia’s leading new media collectors, Dick Quon. “He collects things that people go, ‘What the… how the… what do I do with it?’” says Buckley.
At the very least, the projected 10,000 visitors to the fair can expect to leave with a better grasp of the local contemporary art scene — and if some do go home with a work that, well, doesn’t work out, they might even find themselves financially better off after the split.
First published, Metro July-August, 2013
Correction: The article published in the magazine incorrectly identified Jennifer Buckley as American. She is Canadian.