Art Essays

Melbourne Art Fair 2012

Published August 11, 2012

Another Melbourne Art Fair, another chance to take the unsteady pulse of the local art market. With no hard data about turnover, a hasty prognosis would suggest the sector is still feeling the pain, although smiling through tears.
Every year the Fair commissions a major work that is subsequently gifted to a public gallery. This time it was a large assemblage called Clouds, by New York-based Australian artist, Ian Burns. Better described as a contraption rather than a sculpture, Clouds contains 20 ladders, 8 video cameras and a couple of large monitors. It looks like a Ferris wheel on surveillance duties. The Art Gallery of South Australia will be the new home for this device, which spoke of artifice rather than art.

There was such a sense of fatalism at the 2012 Fair it was almost inevitable that many dealers did better than anticipated. Expecting to sell nothing much, they did reasonably brisk business. Over the course of four days rehangs were frequent, as works walked out the door with their new owners, to be replaced by fresh stock.
There was nothing strained about Martin Browne’s grin, after he had sold a series of huge coastal landscapes by Neil Frazer. Mossgreen sold everything by painter, Kate Bergin, and were quick to shoot out a press release. It was also good news for the boys from Chalk Horse – still poised somewhere between alternative and mainstream – who had paid for their trip to Melbourne before the first day was over.
From the balcony on the second floor, Paul Yore’s bizarre kitsch assemblage from Gertrude Street faced off against elegant pine tree silhouettes by Kylie Stillman at Utopia Art. From many solo exhibitions, Aida Tomescu at Liverpool Street was probably the stand-out painter, along with James Morrison’s painstaking works at Darren Knight’s. Nicholas Folland’s cut glass works at Ryan Renshaw were also attracting considerable attention.
Established galleries such as Watters, Niagara, Roslyn Oxley and Tim Olsen relied on group exhibitions, showing a broad cross-section of their stables. Indigenous art was represented by a predictable core of Gabrielle Pizzi, Aboriginal and Pacific Art, Alcaston, Suzanne O’Connell, FireWorks, and Mossenson.
There were plenty of things that should have sold more readily. Bill Gregory of Annandale Galleries was in the black, but mildly surprised that buyers didn’t respond more enthusiastically to his exhibition by South African artist, William Kentridge, the subject of an acclaimed survey at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image earlier this year.
Sullivan + Strumpf, who have enjoyed dizzying success at the Hong Kong Art Fair, were finding the going a bit tougher with a strong show of eX de Medici’s work. The prices may have discouraged some buyers, as Australians have notoriously stingy ideas about what they should be paying for a work of art.
The first case feeds my skeptical view that people profess more passion for art than they actually feel. There would have been a lot of self-proclaimed art lovers in Melbourne who meant to see the Kentridge show, but didn’t actually make it. The second case reveals our distance from the rest of the world. In Hong Kong this year, buyers snapped up works by young painter, Sophie Cape, for AUD$16-20,000, from Tim Olsen, thinking they had a bargain. In Australia the same prices are considered very steep.
It’s not that Australian buyers lack the funds to acquire expensive works of art – they are just not interested. It would require a miraculous conversion on the road to Mount Tom Price for most of this country’s super-rich to become avid collectors, with a well-known Fairfax shareholder presenting only the most obvious example of this indifference.
Little by little we are catching up with the rest of the world, but it is a slow process. There is a widespread idea in Australia that being an art dealer is not a real job. It is a hobby, a luxury, a self-indulgence, a con – call it what you like. The resistance begins with the mythical ‘man in the street’, and stretches all the way to the upper echelons of government.
This is one of the hallmarks of our cultural isolation. For while Europe and the United States struggle to cope with crippled economies, the art market in both places remains surprisingly strong. In Australia, where our two-or-three-speed economy is nevertheless healthy, the art market is limping.
In Europe or America, no matter how bad business becomes, there always seems to be private and corporate money for art. In Australia, no matter how rich individuals and corporations become there is rarely a dollar for collecting art or for arts philanthropy. This may be changing, but it is always a three-steps-forward, two-steps-back affair. Am I exaggerating? Ask Simon Mordant, who donated $15 million to the Museum of Contemporary Art, about his efforts to extract funds from tight-fisted peers.
Over the past couple of years, the Federal government has applied an unnecessary blowtorch to the art business with a resale royalty scheme that has cost more to administer than it has netted, and failed to help anyone but a few wealthy heirs of deceased Australian masters. The next refinement was to make the art for superannuation scheme so unworkable it has effectively collapsed, removing a useful source of income for artists, dealers, and associated parts of the sector.
So while the government is prepared to inject many millions into an ailing automobile industry, it has actively undermined an art industry that was only trying to help itself. This reflects a national priority, because Australians will always spend more on their cars than on works of art.
The Melbourne Art Fair represents a rare opportunity for local gallerists to reach new audiences. Despite promotional events such as Art Month in Sydney, there are few people who idly wander into a commercial gallery, and fewer still who buy something. Although most art fair visitors are only sight-seers, for many dealers the important thing is to break the ice, make a few contacts, and hope for better days ahead.
With Hong Kong establishing its dominance over the Asia Pacific region, Melbourne seems to have relinquished any international aspirations. From 84 exhibitors there were nine New Zealand galleries; Yamaki from Osaka; Arndt from Berlin, and the exotic Kaikai Kiki Gallery, with branches in Tokyo, Tapei and Berlin. There were only three galleries from Adelaide, two from Perth, one each from Canberra and Hobart. All the rest came from Sydney and Melbourne, and to a lesser extent, Brisbane.
The costs of participation are prohibitive to interstate dealers. Perth, the home of the mining boom, is swiftly becoming a graveyard for commercial galleries with a succession of closures this year.
Melbourne does not have the client base to attract overseas galleries, but must have been heartened by the contributions of Matthias Arndt, who showed works by French artist, Sophie Calle, and other high profile figures; and Ausin Tung, who showed celebrated Chinese artists such as Gao Xiaowu, Miao Xiaochun and Chen Wenling.
It is hardly surprising that money was a constant talking point. The first subject for discussion was the adult entrance fee of $30, which must have acted as a discouragement to many casual visitors. Meanwhile, tickets to the vernissage cost $175 each, and attendees complained it was a decidedly lacklustre event.
Money considerations also coloured the other great topic of conversation: the new arrangements whereby the Melbourne Art Fair will be run by Tim Etchells, one of the entrepreneurs behind Art Hong Kong and the many versions of the Affordable Art Fair that have popped up around the world. From the end of this year Etchells will manage the biennial Melbourne Art Fair on behalf of the Melbourne Art Foundation, and have complete ownership of a fair called Sydney Contemporary, to be held every other year, starting next April.
The Affordable Art Fair flopped in Sydney, so Etchells has adopted a very different strategy for the new venture. Dealers are being encouraged to sign up quickly to secure places, but many have baulked at the costs, which are comparable to Hong Kong and roughly double what they are paying in Melbourne. Etchells says this is because of the high level of subsidy that underwrites the Melbourne Art Fair, but for emerging galleries this is a moot point. The higher rates are simply not viable. Even if they sold their entire stock they would be unlikely to clear a profit.
Many dealers felt the new arrangements spelled the end of the collegiate relationship that has existed between dealers through their participation in the Melbourne Art Foundation. They looked askance at the new Chair of the MAF, Ken Fehily, a former partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, who has followed his inclinations into the world of art dealing.
Some exhibitors quietly expressed the opinion that Ken remains an accountant at heart, more attuned to the corporate world than the grass-roots realities of running a gallery in this country. The Etchells connection is being touted as a kind of necessary reform, and this may very well be true, but as we have seen in every other sphere of life reforms usually generate a large amount of collateral damage.

Melbourne Art Fair 2012
Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne,  August 01 – 05, 2012
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, August 11, 2012