The Joburg Art Fair
by Cara Snyman
The Joburg Art Fair, held at the Sandton Convention Centre, was the first art fair to specialise in contemporary African art and indeed, the first art fair on the continent. It was also the biggest single art event staged in the City since the Johannesburg Biennales of '95 and '97. Though, as organiser Artlogic insists, the Fair had little in common with these predecessors. The Joburg Art Fair made no claim to further art, only to sell it.
The South African art world tends to be a little skeptical of larger-than-life art events, but there was much anticipation and excitement about this art fair on home soil, primarily because its establishment was a tacit acknowledgement that the contemporary South African art market has at last grown big enough to support such a venture. Or so we hoped.
When R24-30 million worth of art sold at the Fair, nobody was more relieved than Ross Douglas, director of Artlogic who initiated and produced the event. Last year he admitted that he was worried that there would be many admirers, but no buyers. Comparison with other fairs can be misleading, but Douglas points out that the ten-year-old Glasgow Art Fair only managed 1.2 million Euro (R19.4million) this year. The Everard Read, Goodman and Michael Stevenson Galleries were the top earners at the fair and, according to Douglas, all galleries broke even.
Perhaps the single most important goal was to broaden the market, an absolute necessity for both the survival of the fair and the sustenance and growth of the South African art world. Elisabeth Laloeschek, artistic director of the October Gallery, pointed out that though there were quite a few South African art collectors, a broader-based, general buyer was lacking in the market. While trade fairs are far more accessible than gallery spaces, the ticket prices and the corporate branding of the Joburg Art Fair might have been less inviting. And although there are no statistics to confirm this, one hopes that of the 6 500 people who visited the fair, a significant number were new buyers.
'South African galleries sold South African work to a South African audience. And that was the bulk of the work that sold at the Joburg Art Fair', said Peter Herrmann, who has been in the business of selling contemporary African art in Germany for the last 18 years. 'Walking around the fair there could be no doubt that South African art dominated - not that there was an intentional theme of 'Südafrika über alles' - South African galleries, who made up the bulk of the fair, just understood their market.'
The South African art market sees precious few artists from north of the Limpopo and, for this reason, many are unwilling to invest in African art from further afield. According to Laloeschek, there was a positive response to artists such as Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah, who was featured on 'Africa Remix' at the Johannesburg Art Gallery recently. 'It is no different anywhere else in the world, people buy what they know', she concluded.
With the number of art fairs staged globally, the lack of local interest in contemporary African art could become an issue for the Joburg Art Fair. Since galleries are unable to attend all the fairs, they are inclined to support the ones that generate the biggest earnings and as such, the Joburg Fair could lose support from African and international galleries, becoming a strictly provincial affair or having to rely heavily on foreign collectors.
Some South African galleries voiced disappointment that they saw few or no international collectors. It will take time and an incisive strategy for the Joburg Art Fair to become a major drawcard abroad, but with features on the Fair on the Art Forum and Art Review websites as well as other media, one can hopefully expect more foreign buyers next year.
Curated shows, as well as fringe events, add value at art fairs and create a space beyond the commercial sphere for practitioners to engage with each other and the public on aspects of contemporary art practice. Robin Rhode's video booth was a popular contemplative space, while Simon Njami's curated show, 'As you like it', garnered mixed reviews. The fringe programme, which comprised talks, performances and an art party, was small and standard fare. These events were fairly poorly attended and ultimately a financial loss for Artlogic. Douglas indicated that he will not invest in supporting events next year. He is hoping that the city, the Department of Arts and Culture, various cultural organisations and the galleries themselves will come on board to organise fringe events in support of the next Fair.
Although the Joburg Art Fair made a loss of R1million, Douglas is confident that this will be recouped next year. And except for a couple of technical glitches - expected in a first time event of this magnitude - the Joburg Art Fair was slickly and professionally staged.
Only time will tell what the lasting effects of this, the very first fair of contemporary African art, will be on the South African market and art world. The Joburg Art Fair offered the local scene an opportunity to step back a little and take in the broader picture. If nothing else, it was a generous promotional campaign for South African contemporary art, and the dialogue it generated with practitioners and the public, was most valuable. One hopes that that the energy created ultimately fosters stronger relationships within South Africa and abroad. The Joburg Art Fair was a brave step towards making art in South African bankable. The biggest vote of confidence in the Fair is that all the galleries and sponsors have already signed up for next year.
Opens: March 13
Closes: March 16
Sandton Convention Centre
Tel: (011) 482 4459