The hubbub of the marketplace

Laura Gascoigne on how today’s young and hip art buyers are more likely to go to fairs than galleries

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In the 1960s a cosmopolitan collector friend of my father who had fallen on hard times took salaried employment with a Bond Street gallery. When asked how he was adapting to his new life, he replied serenely: ‘In the art world, there are the crooks and the supercrooks. I’m with the supercrooks.’

Today, he might not have found the transition so smooth. In the past ten years the art business has changed almost beyond recognition, especially in the field of contemporary art. The model of the contemporary art dealer is now closer to a market trader than a supercrook thanks to the boom in art fairs, which has shifted the action from the hush of the private gallery to the hubbub of the marketplace.

This year, London will host no fewer than 16 fairs dealing to differing degrees in contemporary art. Next week the pioneering London Art Fair celebrates its 16th birthday at the Business Design Centre in Islington (14–18 January), followed by The Art on Paper Fair — now six years old — at the Royal College of Art (29 January to 1 February). In February, Collect, the Crafts Council’s new international contemporary applied-arts fair, makes its début at the V&A (20–24 February), and in March the Affordable Art Fair makes its spring appearance in Battersea Park (18–21 March).

April sees the return of the Chelsea Art Fair to Chelsea Old Town Hall and the London Original Print Fair to the Royal Academy at its new Burlington Gardens space (both 22–25 April), also the venue for the brand-new Photo-London Fair (20–23 May), following the spring Battersea Contemporary Art Fair — for artist-exhibitors — at Battersea Arts Centre (14–16 May). In June ArtLONDON is back at Burton’s Court, St Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea (9–13 June). In July the graduate artists’ fair, Fresh Art, reopens at the Business Design Centre, and September welcomes back the 17-year-old British Art Fair to the Royal College of Art (15–19 September) and the Under £500 Art Fair to 33 Portland Place, London W1 (dates to be confirmed).

In October the autumn season gets into full swing with the return of Frieze Art Fair — London’s first international contemporary art fair, launched last year — to Regent’s Park (15–18 October), the autumn Affordable Art Fair to Battersea Park (21–24 October), the London Artists Book Fair (dates and venue tbc), and the autumn Battersea Contemporary Art Fair to Battersea Arts Centre (18–21 November).

Whatever mutterings one may hear about a depressed market, Charles Saatchi is obviously not the only person buying contemporary art in London. In the past six years the 100 galleries at the London Art Fair have increased their business from £2 million to an estimated £15 million, and the 124 international dealers who dipped their toes into Frieze last year found the waters — with 27,000 visitors over four days — pleasantly warm. The auction market may be in the doldrums, but modern and contemporary art is on a roll. The only worry is that its popularity is being bought at a price.

Mass markets have a natural tendency downwards, and this year’s selection of pre-publicity images from the London Art Fair does seem to indicate a move in that direction. It looks like cutting-edge department-store art and is accompanied by a similar sales pitch. This year the fair has invested a quarter of a million pounds in promotional features, including a contemporary Art House for displaying art works in context — courtesy of the furniture showroom B&B Italia — and a ‘personal shopping service’, conjuring visions of being shepherded round the stands by Carole Caplin.

Don’t knock it. Today’s art buyers, says market research, are younger and hipper. They may not know much about art, but they know what goes with a Philippe Starck chair or an Antonio Citterio sofa. And while art-educated oldies scrimp and save for an impecunious and pensionless old age, the young have the luxury of disposable incomes which they’re far more likely to spend at an art fair than in the intimidating atmosphere of a gallery. Lingering first-time nerves can be overcome by appeals to their vanity — ‘Living with an original work of art is a way of seeing the world differently, of seeing yourself different...’ coos the London Art Fair leaflet — or their greed. Unlike furniture, art can be presented as an investment. Habitat, as a sponsor of last year’s Frieze Art Fair (where it promoted its Art on Demand digital print collection), ran a crash course on contemporary art at which ‘experts’ dispensed ‘insider knowledge’ and ‘advice on what to invest in’ to help first-time buyers select art ‘to complement their homes and lifestyles’. Anyone who can’t tell art from lifestyle almost certainly needs help, though a furniture store may not be the best place to get it.

The ‘fine-art print’ market, in particular, is crawling with cowboys who can see the art-as-lifestyle posse coming a mile off. First-time buyers would be better off starting out at an old-fashioned fair like Art on Paper — where vetting demands accurate labelling of edition numbers and printings — rather than putting their trust in commercial promotions masquerading as practical advice.

But not all such educational gambits are scams. Will Ramsay, who with his Affordable Art Fairs has done more than anyone to take the ‘fear factor’ out of collecting, introduced printmaking and other demonstrations at his fairs as a way of demystifying art. The Crafts Council are following suit at Collect with workshops in felt-making and contemporary basketry. But, whatever the hook, the fact remains that all these fairs are fishing in the same pool. Is London big enough to sustain them all? Last November a new Modern Collectibles Fair that opened at Olympia on the same weekend as Urban Interiors at the Commonwealth Institute attracted plenty of exhibitors, but no customers. ‘It’s all been very interesting, and challenging,’ said a spokesman. They may not make the investment this year.

For galleries, the question, in an ever more competitive market, is whether they can afford not to. Matthew Flowers, who attends most of the major art fairs and even had a presence at Modern Collectibles, is torn on this point — ‘If you’re at an art fair, you’re not in your gallery’ — but confesses that, taking follow-on business into account, art fairs now account for 60–70 per cent of sales at Flowers’ gallery.

For the public, the advantages of art fairs are obvious. ‘They save legwork, they’re less intimidating, they’re open evenings and weekends, you can compare prices and you can get a feel for what’s out there,’ reels off Gay Hutson, publicist for the Art on Paper and the British Art fairs. More than that, the fashionable fairs have become social events, true heirs of the old Royal Academy exhibitions. To anyone new to the international art scene the spectacle of the opening night of the Frieze Art Fair outshone the art, which was so global in its homogeneity that I lost my bearings and had to beg a passing waiter for the exit. ‘There’s no way out,’ he told me ominously. ‘Stay in the Hotel California.’

It’s a funny thing, but just as the British public, in these days of slick and painless computer crime, is becoming misty-eyed at the memory of the more personal methods of the Krays, the Richardsons and Mad Frankie Fraser, I can imagine a time when I might experience a twinge of nostalgia for intimidation behind the locked doors of Bond Street galleries by good old-fashioned art-world supercrooks.