Archive: Issue No. 127, March 2008

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What�s in it for everybody? The complex business of art fairs
by Tracy Murinik

It goes without saying, still, that Africa is not strongly represented within most contemporary art contexts around the globe. Which is not to say that work from African artists does not feature in important showings, at various biennales, specialist exhibitions, and the occasional art fair. It also does not assume that when that work is shown, it does not find a passionate audience, because it regularly does, as well as a hungry collector base.

But outside of the likes of initiatives such as �Dak�Art�, the long-deceased �Johannesburg Biennale�, �Cape Africa Platform�, and Africa review exhibitions such as �Africa Remix�, until now there has never been a comprehensive commercial sphere, outside of individual galleries, where work from the continent might be viewed as well as also potentially purchased. Which means that the stakes just got higher with the anticipation of the imminent Joburg Art Fair (JAF), poised to be the largest commercial showing under one roof of modern and contemporary African art.

So what makes an art fair different to a biennale, or a museum exhibition, or a commercial gallery show? Well, several things. Variety, for one, or so one hopes (in the case of the JAF, this promises showings by 22 galleries, as well as three special projects and a curated exhibition); and useful competition, demanding quality (or so one hopes). It is that strangely awkward confluence of artworks and the market that relies upon, drives and sustains their public existence; a type of 360 degree view of the art world in its entirety, from conception to selling, with all of its incongruities and disjunctures.

This is not the museum exhibition purity of art for art�s sake. This is art as economy, as commodity. It is the stark reality of what keeps artists, gallerists, art consultants, collections, biennales alive and functioning. Art fairs are not about euphemism.

They are about recognising and celebrating that creativity and vision, and on the other side of it, about the economies that function within and around that artmaking. It is the process of art that becomes commodity with an external life unto itself. The fairs are opportunities to launch art stars, and make star gallerists; to add to and grow important collections, alongside the wealth, and egos, of collectors who get it right. They are about creating and debunking trends in the market, where everything, literally, is under the spotlight.

The challenge for all galleries involved, necessarily, must be about gaining the edge over their competition. And selling work. Galleries pay large sums of money to appear at art fairs, and need to sell work to make it worthwhile. What is called for is a keen sense of quality work on offer and the business acumen to anticipate their buying audience in terms of what will ultimately prove to be saleable.

For the galleries that have shown on art fairs before, this is possibly less of a challenge. And yet in this instance, the fact that the JAF is the first art fair anywhere on the planet dedicated to African art, requires a different edge still. Do you show that which has shown repeatedly before? Or do you make a point of conceptualising a quality space with new, bold surprises? And can the artists deliver enough on demand? What are collectors going to be looking for?

One imagines not only the work that they can pick up in New York or Berlin anyway.

Tracy Murinik is a writer and the Editions for ArtThrob Manager