Melbourne Art Fair 2010

August 14, 2010
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It was not the most auspicious omen that the museum next door to the 2010 Melbourne Art Fair was hosting an exhibition devoted to the Titanic. After a year of painfully slow sales, and government initiatives mildly homicidal to the industry, the commercial galleries of Australia were hoping for a change of fortune.

It helps to come to the Fair with a fatalistic attitude. Every dealer is committed to spending about $30,000 just to take part. Travel expenses, freight, hotel and restaurant bills keep adding up. As the days roll by, the break-even figure drifts upwards. Eventually one can only justify the expense by saying it was a great public relations exercise. Of the 80 galleries in attendance, nobody expected to make a windfall, but the atmosphere remained upbeat.

Melbourne did its best to make a splash: Art Fair advertisements were seen everywhere, the opening night party was a glitzy affair, and there was a lively program of talks and events. I was invited to chair the Bill Henson address at Federation Square, and found myself facing 700 people, with another 400 watching on a monitor outside. If anyone came to heckle, they were silenced by Henson’s remarkable display of erudition. Aside from a few brief mentions of the politicians and the media, he talked mainly about art and literature. During two hours on stage he didn’t show a single image.

Many listeners were bowled over by the depth and breadth of this talk. For Henson’s detractors, once again, the disappointment was palpable. One tabloid suggested in an editorial the next day that the artist should have used the speech to make an apology. What for? Selling newspapers?

The Henson talk generated two thoughts at the beginning of Art Fair week. Firstly, that art may be a commodity, but it can touch the mind and spirit in ways that nothing else can match. It is this, rather than the uncertain financial returns, that keeps so many people engaged in making, selling and collecting the stuff. Secondly, there are no headlines in good news stories about the visual arts. Instead of a nasty jibe at Bill Henson, it would have been refreshing to read an editorial in praise of the Art Fair.

The Fair is worthy of celebration because it has demonstrated the resilience of the Australian art market at a time when there was every reason to be skeptical. Dealers are unhappy with the imposition of a hastily arranged Resale Royalty, and have only recently fought off a proposal of the Cooper report into Superannuation that the successful Super for Art scheme should be scrapped.

While art fairs inevitably have their winners and losers, Melbourne is a model of collegiality – a bonding exercise for dealers rather than a contest for clients.

Even though it may dislike the label, the Melbourne Art Fair is also a provincial enterprise, and gains some of its strength through embracing that identity. In large international fairs such as Basel, Chicago or London Frieze, one tends to find the same big names in gallery after gallery. Wealthy collectors vie with each other to make show-off purchases, putting forward their credentials as serious players to fastidious high-end dealers who will only sell to approved customers.

None of this applies in Melbourne. Even the snobbiest of galleries are small-scale in world terms. The dealers and their assistants are relatively laid-back, and the prices are a mere fraction of what one would expect in New York or Paris. The only comparable point is quality. Australian contemporary art loses nothing in comparison with the art one finds in Europe or the United States, but it is much, much cheaper.

One can imagine that this might appeal to a wealthy collector who bought art as a passion rather than an investment – if there is such a beast. There is always the lingering possibility that a work bought for a small sum today will appreciate rapidly in the future.

The rise of the Hong Kong Art Fair has put paid to whatever international aspirations Melbourne may once have entertained. For overseas galleries there is no way an Australian fair can compete with Hong Kong’s central location, or its lack of taxes and duties. Within its first three years, Hong Kong has become a magnet for the world’s biggest galleries, while Melbourne struggles to attract international exhibitors. This year’s overseas component was comprised of four galleries from New Zealand, one each from Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong. Tony Scott’s China Arts Projects is based in Beijing, but it is an agency rather than a dealership.

If Melbourne is destined to be a provincial art fair, the only recourse is to make a virtue out of necessity and put up the most vibrant of shows – to act “as if” the whole world was watching and admiring.

This was largely what occurred last week. The fair had a positive feeling, with many galleries taking the trouble to put on special one-person exhibitions. Michael Reid argued that his co-exhibitors could have tried a lot harder in this regard. He thought that too many galleries were still relying on “stock room shows”.

While Reid himself could not be faulted in this way, having given over his space to an ambitious solo installation by Danie Mellor, I think he under-estimated the number of dealers who attempted more focused displays. Among notable one-person shows one might include: Sutton Gallery (Stephen Bush), Kalli Rolfe/(Juan Davila), Australian Galleries (Graeme Drendel), Melbourne Art Rooms (Samuel Tupoe), Mossgreen (Simeon Nelson) Neon Parc (Moya McKenna), and Anna Schwartz (Daniel Crooks).

Other galleries settled for a two-artist approach: China Art Projects attracted a lot of attention with collage works by Tibetan artist, Gonkar Gyatso, supported by Deng Yifu. John Buckley showed paintings by Dale Hickey and sculptures by Bruce Armstrong; while Tolarno had a very successful double of paintings by Peter Atkins and small sculptures by Peter Graham. Having sold all the Atkins works to a single client almost immediately, dealer Jan Minchin could enjoy the rare luxury of a stress-free art fair.

Other galleries, such as Watters, have a philosophical commitment to show something by each and every artist they represent. Democracy is the ideal, although cheerful anarchy is often the result.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the slump in the Aboriginal art market, but this was flatly contradicted by activity at the Art Fair. An impressive selection of work at Gabriella Roy’s Aboriginal and Pacific Art had virtually sold out by the end of the first day. Alcaston House had one of the most eye-catching displays, with a series of large canvases by octogenarian, Sally Gabori, underlining her claims to be the Next Big Thing in indigenous art.

Elsewhere, Mossenden Galleries held a strikingly original show by the Kunoth family of Utopia. Colourful cityscapes by Dinni Kunoth Kemarre were paired with paintings and sculptures of AFL players – Aussie Rules being a shared religious experience for both Utopia and Melbourne.

The very layout of the Art Fair gives some indication of generational change in the Australian art market, with gallerists such as Darren Knight, Sarah Cottier, Sarah Scout and Barry Keldoulis commanding prominent positions on the ground floor. Newcomers such as Brisbane’s Ryan Renshaw Gallery and Melbourne’s Fehily Contemporary made a strong impact, benefitting from a central location.

This year the more established galleries were located in corridors off the entrance way but nobody seemed to feel neglected. Martin Browne said that his fair had been a resounding success, while Rex Irwin was in credit early, due to strong interest in Cressida Campbell’s work.

The final sales figures were in excess of $11 million, touted as “a 56% increase in the volume of sales achieved compared to 2008”. Yet looking back on 2006, one finds that total sales were given as $10.5 million, which does not indicate any major progress over the past four years. By contrast, the 2010 Hong Kong Art Fair did not report final figures, only individual highlights such as the purchase of a Damien Hirst piece for £1.75 million. Even this is tiny compared to the turnover at the Basel Art Fair, which also declines to release sales figures.

In the words of Brisbane dealer, Michael Eather, the 2010 fair was a buyer’s market. Many small works were to be had for reasonable prices, while collectors could take their time over larger purchases and perhaps negotiate more favourable terms. It was a modest show of strength for a much-beleaguered sector – not so much a flexing of the muscles, but a nod and a wink. Take a deep breath, art dealers of Australia. Life goes on, for now.

 

Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne, August 04 – August 08, 2010

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 14, 2010