Part 1: Playing Fair

By Tamlyn Martin

Exploring the Phenomenon of the “ Contemporary Art Fair “ 

I’ve been quickly thinking about the ideas behind the term Fair. As part of my research for this month’s news I have also asked some the specialist I have visited Art Fairs with this month to reflect on the meaning of the Art Fair and some of the interesting definitions that later reappear in some of our interviews. 

I kept feeling like I needed to lay foundations before writing about the different fairs. So, this month’s contribution has three related pieces – Playing Fair, Laissez-faire and Fair Well 

According to the Oxford (not that far from me these days) dictionary… the Latin root for Fair is “Feriae – meaning days of holiday rest and feasting“. There is a direct connection here to the idea of a Village Fair bringing the community together. 

Then there is a leading on from this which associate Fair with the idea of prettiness and even a light complexion and blond hair. 

Finally, we have the most common interpretation of Fair as “treating people without favouritism or discrimination.”

With a bit of further probing, I also discovered that Fair must not be confused with equality…

Sometimes definitions themselves so poetically peel back the layers of meaning that need to be considered when talking about a topic as complex as Global Art Fairs. 

Our Great Artroute friend, Julian Asher, art collector, award-winning travel photographer, tech angel investor, and founder of specialist travel company Timeless Africa’ had these wise words about his experiences visiting the 1-54 art fair over a number of years. “I have been attending 1:54 for many years. While African contemporary art has always had a stronger political edge than many of the works I see at Frieze, I have noticed an increase in commentary about tough questions, particularly around colonialism. O Barco is the most explicit commentary on slavery that I have seen.”

Simmi Dullay, artist, Decolonial Black consciousness researcher/cultural producer. Aka Afro-Asian-Scandi-Londonstani… also was quick to remind me that these great creative.

Spectacles hark unavoidable back to the era of the Great Exhibitions “a product of colonisation and a display of western wealth, of amassed treasures, taken from the global South and displayed as a symbol of power. Will it ever be possible to turn this legacy on its head?  

I remember fondly the excitement and hype and sort of scepticism that surrounded the first major JHB Art Fair in and inviting Carol Brown and Sean O’Toole to chat this new phenomenon through with Durban’s art community around 2008. Since then, the Cape Town art fair has also firmly taken root in the African cultural landscape and just a few years later in 2012 the 1-54 Somerset house African Art Fair was founded (this year was its birthday), building on the global fascination with contemporary art in Africa. 

Excitingly over the last Decade we have also seen the blooming of many African Fairs throughout Africa, exposing contemporary Art and Design to the creators within Africa from different regions and contexts and further expanding the accessibility and visibility of amazing cutting-edge contemporary art practise both within creative communities within Africa and the global art market.  In SA there are also the Turbine and Affordable Art Fairs that focus on drawing attention to emerging artists work, and on building audiences and collectors of original artworks. 

Over the global lockdown this ever-expanding network of Art Fairs also transitioned surprisingly successfully onto online platforms further growing the reach of the fairs to new global audiences. I am not alone in feeling that lockdown also has grown art audiences, making art enthusiasts hungry to experience art in real life, to meet the curators, artists, to talk about the challenging topics raised and to get their hands dirty, metaphorically, and physically through practise-based workshops and even creatively curating their own collections of work.  

As the world opened post Covid, many galleries also reported an increase in foot traffic, some suspected this was due to the limited numbers in galleries their reflective sanctity. 

Julian also drew my attention to the costs of attending fairs. “On the topic of ‘fairness’ one concern I have is that the cost of attending fairs like Frieze is going up – a general admission ticket was £46, and a student/child ticket was £32. This runs the risk of making them inaccessible, especially for younger people – the very same young people you might want to become interested in contemporary art.”

Julian was quick to point out that the Fairs do provide a novelty outing for some and we both wondered why fair organisers do not make the final day free to the public. 

“One thought I had around the theme of ‘fair’ is the idea of a fair as a place people go for a day out. In my experience, there are two main groups of people who go to art fairs – people who are part of the art world (artists, collectors, dealers, critics) and people who just want to have an enjoyable day out, who would not necessarily go into a gallery or an exhibit on its own. For this audience, the fairs expose them to art and experiences they would not otherwise have, and particularly for young people this can be a formative experience.”

Collaborating with collectors from around the globe over the past few years, I always wished I could attend more Fairs as many of the top South African Galleries participate in a number of big international fairs each year. This is a huge investment in growing and promoting artists from Africa. I am so proud of our local galleries often winning awards at these Global Fairs despite the incredible logistical, financial and contextual challenges they face being seen alongside Global industry leaders.

Thank you to Ashleigh the Director of What If the World Gallery for inviting Julian and me as VIPs to this year’s 1-54 Fair. Another big thank you to Tammy Mackay for the VIP tickets to this year’s Affordable Art Fair that I attended with Simmi.  (I chat more about Tammy’s tips for artists wanting to participate in fairs in the “Fair Well “ piece.) 

Simmi com. “it’s not my kind of thing really, such a hard grind of selling stuff but there are also special personalised experiences where you meet the artists very directly which can be great!“ 

Art Fairs grew out of, Art Trade Fairs in the Late 1960’s….. 

“Art Cologne began in 1967, closely followed by Art Brussels (1968) and Art Basel (1970). Each of these fairs have since continued to run annually.

Art Basel began in 1970, setting the art world abuzz and later creating the go-to format for the best art fairs the world over.

Similarly large, market-defining art fairs include Frieze London (began 2003), Art Basel Miami Beach (began 2002), and FIAC, Paris (began in 1974).”

Find the full article on this fantastic site all about the ins and outs of collecting art.