Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Art of Selling Art | South Africa

Source: Mail & Guardian South Africa | http://www.chico.mweb.co.za/art/2008/2008mar/080307-artfair.html
Image: The Jo’burg Art Fair’s Ross Douglas. (Photo: Lisa Skinner)

The Art of Selling Art

Anthea Buys speaks to Ross Douglas about the commercial possibilities of the country’s first art fair

It is not uncommon to find contemporary South African artists and critics who are still suspicious of the infiltration of money into the local art scene. Perhaps this is why it has taken the initiative of entrepreneur Ross Douglas, who lacks purist artistic commitments, to realise an event such as the Jo'burg Art Fair, a local art-buying initiative at the Sandton Convention Centre for three days next week.

Douglas is the producer of the first-ever Jo'burg Art Fair, which also claims the accolade of being the first entirely privately funded art-buying fair on the African continent. The fair will take place from March 14 to 16, but will be cushioned by a programme of non-commercial events throughout Johannesburg in the week leading up to it.

Artlogic, the arts production company of which Douglas is director, has cleverly marketed this as Jo'burg Art Week, attracting the support of the likes of Spier Contemporary, which opens at the Johannesburg Art Gallery on March 15, the Marlene Dumas exhibition at the Standard Bank Gallery, as well as less prolific galleries and individual artists who want to piggyback on the art-fair hype.

Douglas says: "We've managed to package an extraordinarily high-end and internationally acclaimed week with not many resources … I think it will be quite extraordinary to have this sort of thing happening in Jo'burg for the first time, this sort of level of quality events."

Douglas began his foray into art events production in 2004, when he orchestrated the wildly successful screening of William Kentridge's 9 Films in Central Park, New York. This same production, boasting a live ensemble to play Phillip Miller's soundtrack, will be foremost of the art-week itinerary, showing at the Linder Auditorium on March 14. Douglas is also credited with co-producing Willem Boshoff's installation Garden of Words III at the Kirstenbosch Gardens in 2006, and most famously, with getting the South African run of Kentridge's The Magic Flute off the ground last year.

The primary aim of the art fair, Douglas says, is to create "a sustainable annual art event that year by year builds up to becoming part of everybody's diaries -- becomes a milestone in your year, something that you do: Jo'burg Art Fair, Jo'burg Art Week, you're there, you're meeting people, you see art, you buy art … Our intention is not to change the nature of existing cultural events but rather to add a new one to the calendar."

The nature of the event is remorselessly commercial, and Douglas is optimistic about the commoditisation of South African art. "You know, we don't actually realise how well African contemporary art does … the Jo'burg Art Fair has a really important place. It's the only art fair in Africa, it's the only art fair that focuses on African contemporary art. We are commercial. We have every intention of making a profit out of this."

The launch of the fair is not without controversy, however. A great fracas is bubbling between those who see the event as a cattle market and those who expect it, as Douglas does, to fuel a shift in the South African public from being art viewers to art buyers.

A common misconception from detractors is that the art fair is intended as a replacement for the Johannesburg Biennale, which never quite got to round two in 1997 after the withdrawal of state funds.

Douglas objects: "This is not an either/or for us. Ideally what you want is a strong state institution. You want biennales. You want state-sponsored institutions such as Tate Modern or Moma. We're not trying to say we are the alternative to a biennale. We're not trying to say biennales are rubbish things, they don't work, and the art fair is the alternative. We're saying there is space for both models."

Although the majority of serious sales by South African galleries tend to go to overseas buyers, Douglas hopes the art fair will encourage the local art-viewing public to whip out their wallets. "If we could reverse that trend and get about a 50-50 mix [of local and international buyers], I think it would be quite exciting," he says. "I think it's such an important thing in South Africa to show that you can do things on a world-class level."

No comments: