END OF AN ERA: 2016 Melbourne Art Fair cancelled

The biennial Melbourne Art Fair (MAF) run by the non-profit Melbourne Art Foundation has a noble pedigree. Every second year since 1988 it has dusted off its petticoats, let down its hair and filled Melbourne’s magnificent heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Centre with art. It may not always have been cutting edge work but was at least acceptable. However its fate deserved something better than the terse statement issued by MAF’s chairperson Anna Pappas last February signalling its end: the 2016 edition planned for August 2016 was cancelled until further notice. It was the end of MAF, or so we all thought.

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The Melbourne art fraternity went into overdrive, casting its net wide to apportion blame: there were suggestions that the fair suffered from mismanagement, it was too establishment, there was a lack of direction, and opportunities were missed. But the truth of the matter was perhaps more simple. MAF was brought to its knees by the take-no-prisoners ideology of the 21st century art market. It was a case of mammon versus culture in a marketplace focused almost entirely on money. The non-profit model of the Melbourne Art Foundation which owns MAF was no longer sustainable.

Pappas’ announcement, released the day that galleries who had booked booths were due to pay their 30 per cent deposits, cited the last-minute withdrawal of several high-profile galleries for the cancellation. They included Anna Schwartz, Roslyn Oxley9, Tolarno and Alcaston, “high-profile galleries attracting well-known collectors from at home and abroad,” Pappas told me. For good measure Pappas also took aim at the economy and the global shift in the art market. “It made the fair unviable,” she says.

However it also had much to do with a new commercial player entering the Melbourne Art Fair landscape in 2012. That year, Tim Etchells, owner of Single Market Events’ parent company Art Fairs Australia (AFA), wanted to buy MAF but its not-for-profit status prohibited this. Instead AFA was taken on by MAF to manage the fair on behalf of the Foundation. AFA’s 2014 edition of MAF was a success, with 20,000 people visiting, but one year into a 20-year contract they were out. He was, according to Anna Pappas, “A very aggressive entrant into this art area. But he is a businessman. He runs a for-profit company whereas the Foundation is a non-profit organisation.” Pappas cites philosophical differences for Etchells’ removal but it came as no surprise to many when Art Fairs Australia abruptly left the Melbourne scene.

The devolution of the relationship between MAF and AFA signalled the beginning of the end, according to Alexie Glass-Kantor, director of Sydney’s Artspace, who for 10 years worked at MAF as a gallery assistant with Galerie Gitte Weiss. Beverly Knight of Melbourne’s Alcaston Gallery, who has been in every MAF bar one, had been feeling uneasy about the event since Etchells’ removal. “We were very happy with the one-off 2014 edition … run by Art Fairs Australia and very surprised that the Foundation sacked them,” Knight says.

Etchells is no slouch when it comes to running contemporary art fairs. He also owns and runs the Sydney Contemporary biennial art fair, whose first edition in 2013 proved successful if slightly chaotic, while the second edition in 2015 was a huge success. Along with co-founder Sandy Angus, Etchells started ArtHK in 2008, making it almost overnight the region’s leading contemporary art fair. Art Basel bought a controlling interest in ArtHK in 2011, rebranding it Art Basel Hong Kong. Since then AFA has started contemporary art fairs around the world and has returned recently to Hong Kong where it has launched Art Central.

Etchells is an urbane and likeable yet assertive businessman with an entrepreneurial approach to art fairs, and Melbourne was simply the latest city to feel the tentacles of his art fair expansion. At a press conference held on the eve of last year’s Sydney Contemporary Art Fair, Etchells responded to a question from this writer on the fair’s current biennial status. Are there plans to take Sydney Contemporary annual? “No plans … but never say never,” he said at the time.

Within five months MAF crashed, as the galleries withdrew their support four days after Barry Keldoulis, CEO of Art Fairs Australia, had spent the weekend in Melbourne. “When I’m in Melbourne I always visit galleries, but I was there to attend a friend’s birthday,” Keldoulis says.

One imagines spruiking the benefits of an annual Sydney Contemporary art fair was also on Keldoulis’ agenda. Among the galleries he visited that weekend was Beverly Knight’s Alcaston Gallery. “He was certainly talking up the idea of Sydney Contemporary going annual (but) several galleries had been pleading for it to go annual since 2013. Once MAF cancelled we asked if it was possible to go annual this year but he said it wasn’t. But he was telling us that Sydney Contemporary was going annual,” Knight says.

Keldoulis’ position on Sydney Contemporary becoming an annual event remains a bit ambiguous. “No decision has been taken yet but we are listening to the galleries and those that I have talked to want it to be an annual event. So maybe from 2017 we will go annual,” he says.

There are as many opinions on what will be the impact of MAF’s demise as there are gallerists to offer them. Melissa Loughnan of Melbourne’s Utopian Slumps has exhibited at both MAF and at the alternative satellite fair Spring 1883 which began life in 2014 when it took over the Windsor Hotel in Melbourne to show 26 invited galleries. “MAF became a little too decorative. It is very much the establishment. Maybe it (the cancellation) is a good thing. Opening up the next chapter in its history,” she says. The way Loughan curated her booths for MAF and Spring 1883 says a lot about MAF. “At MAF I had a solo presentation of William McInnes’ large landscape work, typically catering for the establishment. At 1883 I showed video and sculpture work that was more experimental in nature,” she says.

It may well yet be premature to write off MAF and certainly too soon to recite eulogies over the corpse. Speaking after a MAF board meeting in April, attended by representatives of chief funding bodies the Australia Council for the Arts and Creative Victoria, Pappas said they remain committed to exploring alternative iterations of the fair. “The fair will bounce back. It may not be in the way we know it, but it will be resurrected,” she asserts.

That’s good news indeed for the many galleries and artists who had been left high and dry by MAF’s sudden disappearance. What remains all too clear is that the loss of MAF remains a major blow to Australia’s art landscape. It is not just about artists showing product, it is also about the art fair being a forum in which to exchange ideas.

“What fairs provide … (are) spaces where people can meet to talk about ideas, introduce the works of artists to new audiences … that is what supports artists,” says Glass-Kantor.

It is a view endorsed by Shaun Gladwell, one of Australia’s most successful moving image and installation artists, who bubbles with ideas and whose work is endlessly experimental. Gladwell was slated for a solo show with Anna Schwartz at MAF this year, which will now not happen. “I have to respect her decision, even knowing that decision … influenced the decision of the art fair itself. I lament the fact that we are losing an institution,” Gladwell says, speaking from Art Brussels where he is exhibiting.

Whether art fairs in Australia are sustainable weighs heavily with local collectors who now are just as likely to hop on a plane to art fairs in Hong Kong and Singapore. Dr Gene Sherman, one time commercial gallerist and executive director of the current Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and one of Australia’s biggest collectors of contemporary Asian and Australia art, says, “I imagine there are enough art fairs worldwide to satisfy most collectors. Sydney is the more obvious place for an art fair given the greater international traffic through the city. Hopefully Sydney Contemporary will take its place increasingly as an important Asia Pacific hub for acquiring art from the region.”

Perhaps here lies the key for Australian art fairs generally and for MAF’s resurrection specifically. Their success in the crowded art fair forum will be their ability to attract international galleries and international collectors that follow.

Image: Melbourne Art Fair, 2014, courtesy of Michael Young.