Sydney Contemporary 2018

September 14, 2018
Xmas comes early at Sydney Contemporary. Ben Quilty at Tolarno

This weekend is the high point of the year for the Sydney – and Australian – contemporary art scene. There may be some disagreement from folk in Melbourne, or from those who believe the Sydney Biennale remains the premier contemporary art event in this country. It’s clear though, the Sydney Contemporary art fair at Carriageworks has the numbers on its side. As I’m writing this in advance of the opening, my comments will necessarily be general rather than specific.

The Sydney Biennale runs for three months, is spread all over town, and has been a disappointment during its last three iterations. Melbourne has just reinstated its own art fair after the original version, which began in 1988, died in 2016. The cause of death? Sales were so poor many dealers didn’t think it was worthwhile participating. The reason it was revived? As a point of pride Melbourne had to have its own contemporary art fair.

The old Melbourne Art Fair was held in the historic Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens. The born-again fair was held at Southbank, from 2-5 August, in a tent. Organisers declared the event a success, with attendances of 15,000.

Last year, in its fourth outing, the Sydney Contemporary art fair attracted roughly 30,000 visitors, and expects to beat that record this time around. Melbourne showed 40 galleries, Sydney will more than double that number.

Graham Kuo at Art Atrium

The strangest aspect of the Melbourne fair was the timing. One wonders why it was held less than six weeks before its Sydney counterpart? Perhaps Melbourne hoped to get in early, but that’s poor thinking. The most likely scenario is that collectors would save their money for the bigger and better fair unless they saw something irresistible. Ultimately such a schedule works to the detriment of both fairs. It would have been better to have them spaced as far apart as possible.

Australia, at the most generous assessment, is an emerging market for contemporary art. Prices are low in comparison with Europe, America and much of Asia while big-spending collectors are thin on the ground. One of the signal purposes of Sydney Contemporary is to help build a local art market that is not completely overshadowed by its international counterparts.

There is a very long way to go, partly because of the weakness of the Australian dollar, partly through our geographic isolation from the major art centres. The major reason, however, is cultural – or should I say “anti-cultural”? In countries such as the USA, France, Germany, Italy and the UK, contemporary art is big business, but there is also a much stronger sense of the value of cultural heritage.

The green fluoro dog that ate colonial Sydney.. Joan Ross at Michael Reid’s

In Sydney that sense is so poor the state government is aggressively trying to dismantle a major cultural asset – the Powerhouse Museum – and sell the land to developers. It’s a project that makes no sense whatsoever. Apart from costing the taxpayer more than a billion dollars, it will not give Parramatta any new arts facilities, with the development being planned as a science museum. It promotes short-term private profit over long-term public value.

In terms of public culture Melbourne is way ahead, with the booming success of the National Gallery of Victoria putting its Sydney counterpart to shame. At present there is a clear contrast between the way each city deals with the public and commerical realms of art, corresponding to that old cliché whereby Melbourne is the centre of high culture and Sydney is a marketplace.

Despite its professions of spiritual and political depths, contemporary art is also a marketplace – a billion dollar industry that engages with the richest individuals and corporations in the world. Whatever a work’s intellectual pretensions, the market is inescapable. Every new publication or museum exhibition serves to bolster an artist’s collectability and push up his or her prices.

Jason Sims’s vortexes at Mars Gallery

Whereas a biennale usually reflects the taste and ideas of a single curator, the work one finds in art fairs obeys a commercial imperative. Whether they are showing pretty pictures or cutting-edge conceptual work, dealers need to sell. They know their customers and are hoping to make new converts. As a result, a fair provides a more comprehensive snapshot of that many-headed monster called contemporary art.

The fair organisers are glorified landlords who make their money from booth rentals and peripheral activities. In return they organise parties, dinners, special installations, performances and video screenings, children’s programs, forums and lectures, visits to private collections, and so on. The value-adding helps create a buzz of constant activity.

It’s (private) money that makes the (art) world go round. This is why fairs have become such a dominant feature of the contemporary scene. These events, which now allegedly account for more than 40 percent of the annual value of commercial gallery sales, provide dealers with opportunities to showcase their best artists, to introduce new talent, and find buyers for high-priced resale works.

Pure abstraction.. Charlie Sheard at May Space

I donned a fluoro-vest last week for an early walk-through with director, Barry Keldoulis, during the set-up. A first observation is that the layout is more spacious, and the presentations looking more polished than ever before. Most of the major Australian dealers are represented, along with good number of their New Zealand peers, and a procession of emerging galleries from different parts of the country.

Of those galleries that have concentrated on showing a single artist, Tolarno has a massive display of new paintings by Ben Quilty, while Australian Galleries is competing with a panorama of Tim Storrier’s work. This is contest for the ages – a virtual clash of civilisations.

Justin Miller and Tim Klingender were the kings of the resale market at last year’s fair, and judging by the quality of their displays they should do equally well this time around. A busy works on paper section is virtually a fair-within-a-fair, with many accessibly priced items. Sydney’s National Art School has taken a booth in which they are displaying and selling the work of promising students.

Carol Jerrems’s iconic pic of Judy Morris, at the Duncan Miller Gallery

Of a handful of overseas exhibitors, the major attraction is Pace Gallery, which has seven international branches. The first thing visitors will see is a towering sculpture by Jean Dubuffet, supplied by Pace, which specialises in modern and contemporary masters. If Pace sells only one high-priced work it will have justified the trip to Sydney, but the major point of this exercise is probably to make connections with Australians who go on to become international customers.

Finally, the Duncan Miller Gallery from Los Angeles, is selling prints from the two million-strong photographic archive of the Sydney Morning Herald, which was sent to Arkansas to be scanned in 2013, and never came home. After the scanning company went bankrupt the Miller Gallery bought the entire collection from a receiver, and are engaged in selling the prints – by figures such as Max Dupain, David Moore, Olive Cotton and Jeff Carter – back to Australia. In this one can only applaud their efforts. As to how Fairfax managed to lose the archive, that’s probably a story for another news organisation.

Sydney Contemporary
Carriageworks, 13-16 September, 2018

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September, 2018