Joburg Art Fair 2009: step, pause, look, consider (purchase?)
by Warren Siebrits
Writing about the second Joburg Art Fair 2009 from an art dealer's perspective has its challenges. The thing that makes it tricky is that the commercial art world remains one of the most guarded and secretive areas of commodity exchange. Even when 25 galleries converge under one roof, it is difficult for me as an insider to gauge the success or failure of each exhibitor after a gruelling three day event. However, a bit of digging combined with clarity of thought reveal some troubling aspects about 2009's Joburg Art Fair.
Damien Hirst recently summed up his early recollections as a collector in four words 'step, pause, look, consider'. This sums up how it felt for me this year as an exhibitor. I saw a great deal of pausing and stepping from one stand to another and much considered thought, but much less buying than I did at last year's event.
Every single visitor that I spoke to seemed very impressed with the higher standards of organisation and logistics evident at this year's event, and in this regard I must join the public in congratulating Art Logic in raising the bar substantially. The one ingredient that was missing however was serious international collectors, promised as an incentive to exhibitors by the organisers. Before this begins to sound like a gripe from my side, let me say that our gallery had a very successful fair, selling more than forty paintings, drawings and prints. Our gallery, however, seemed to be one of the fortunate few, and during the course of the three day event I heard many grumblings from colleagues and fellow exhibitors that sales had been slow or, in a number of cases, non-existent. Many South African galleries, and handful from abroad, had made an effort to be there; thus, it was a blow to not make enough or indeed any sales.
Damien Hirst had therefore left one important word from his maxim on collecting, and that is the will to 'purchase'; this proved to be the missing ingredient for a number of exhibitors this year. I heard numerous people say that they felt the art at this year's fair was expensive. They were probably spot-on, but this observation hides a deeper causal problem: this year's fair cost our gallery twice as much in rental alone than it did last year. I discussed my reservations concerning substantial price increases with Ross Douglas at our gallery in September, in the hope that these prices could be amended. As it happens this was before the international financial meltdown which is dramatically affecting the international contemporary art market.
Despite the crisis, what I couldn't understand (and still don't) is how our rent bill, for the same size stand as the previous year, had risen from R66 000 to R113 000? No clear answer was ever given to me on this question, except that Art Logic had run at a loss last year and needed to increase their prices. This is precisely why I give little credence to First National Bank and the various other sponsors of the Joburg Art Fair in their public relations claims that they support art and culture. Why is the effect of the sponsorship not reaching the galleries, the artists and ultimately the art buyers by providing funding that will reduce the financial burden on the participating galleries and thus lower prices to the art collector? At current art fair costs galleries have to charge higher margins to cover these costs, making the art more expensive to purchase. The glue of a successful art fair at the end of the day is the galleries themselves and the quality of work produced by their artists. Without this pivotal ingredient the sponsors, organizers and public have little spark on which to generate an aura of excitement and success. If galleries of high calibre representing quality artists are lost as a result of a lack of serious collectors and escalating costs, the Joburg Art Fair is not sustainable in the long term. Judging by the rentals our gallery paid to participate in this year's event, the exhibitors alone contribute over 2 million rand, plus the door money from over 6 500 visitors and the revenue received from many corporate sponsors in addition to First National Bank. How is it possible then that there is a money shortage and the organisers made a loss last year?
I have been sensing for sometime now that the art fair suffers from a 'gold-plating' syndrome where many things including the art seem unnecessarily expensive or inflated in value. These issues are difficult to prove without many of the financial pieces of the puzzle (known only to the sponsors and organisers). One puzzle piece did, however, fall into place for me on Saturday. Wanting to celebrate a good day's trading I asked Leigh-Anne Niehaus who worked with me on Saturday if she wanted a glass of wine. My request had been motivated by an advert taken by Meerlust on page 357 of the Joburg Art Fair catalogue that illustrated a bottle of 2003 vintage Pinot Noir with the message 'Meerlust Supporting The Joburg Art Fair'. This is one my favourite South African wines and I have bought many cases of it over the years. You can therefore imagine my surprise when, on ordering two glasses of Pinot Noir, I was presented with a bill for R224.00. It therefore seemed like a treat to go to Thrupps in Illovo on the Monday after the Fair and pay R167.95 for a whole bottle. Makes one think, doesn't it?
Johannesburg, 14 April 2009
Warren Siebrits is the owner and curator of the Warren Siebrits gallery. ArtThrob invited his participation in the site to garner an art dealer's perspective of the Joburg Art Fair.