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The Cloud at night. Image: Josef Scott.
The Cloud at night. Image: Josef Scott.

SocietyMay 21, 2019

The Price of Admission: On the Auckland Art Fair 2019

The Cloud at night. Image: Josef Scott.
The Cloud at night. Image: Josef Scott.

Megan Dunn looks back on this year’s Auckland Art Fair and what the fair means to New Zealand art galleries, buyers and artists.

A curator friend recently said to me, “everyone loves to hate art fairs.” True, but only because everyone loves to go to them. In 2018 there were over 260 art fairs in the world. The art fair is a global phenomenon: part spectacle, part one-stop-shop.

In 2003 the annual Frieze London opened in Regents Park. I lived in London at the time and my ex worked the event. One of his jobs included rolling down a fake indoor hill titled Slope, a project, by the Italian artist Paola Pivi. The art fair is a moveable template. In 2014, Frieze New York and Frieze Masters rolled out and in 2019 Frieze Los Angeles.

“Frieze created a moment when the art world looked to London,” said Stephanie Post, co-director of the Auckland Art Fair, remembering the inaugural Regents Park event. She is quick to point out that the Auckland Art Fair is not aspiring to be Frieze, and yet it is clearly aspiring. In 2016 North Port Events bought the Auckland Art Fair, previously owned by a charitable trust, and appointed both Post and Hayley White as directors. In 2016, they ran their first Auckland Art Fair with only a few months lead-in. Their second in 2018, attracted 10,150 visitors – a 10% rise on 2016 – and art sales of NZ $6-7 million. The 2018 fair also brought an additional estimated $1m into Auckland.

And now in 2019, the Auckland Art Fair has gone from a biennial to an annual event. It’s a move that signals confidence: in the status of contemporary art in Aotearoa and in the City of Sails as a destination. “Going annual is about ingraining the event into the calendar,” Post said. “It’s not just about selling, it’s about the arts being healthy, respected and applauded.”

Fair enough, but it’s hard to get away from sales at an art fair.

Auckland Art Fair, installation view of Nikau Hinden’s installation ‘Te Uru Aute’ commissioned for the 2019 projects. Photo: Josef Scott.

This year a general admission ticket cost $30 ($25 early-bird). Over five days in The Cloud, 41 galleries from the Pacific rim exhibited and sold contemporary art. Thirty galleries were from New Zealand, the rest from Australia, Shanghai, Jakarta, Rarotonga, and Chile.

For the gallerists, booths retailed in three sizes: regular, large or premium; extra walls and fittings are additional costs. The Auckland Art Fair earns approximately 40% of its revenue from the galleries, 30% from ticket sales and 30% from sponsorship.

“We’re not there yet and we’re not complacent,” Post said of their overall vision.

Beyond selling, the Auckland Art fair also included a Projects Programme, curated for the third time running by Francis McWhannell and featuring ten commissioned artworks, mostly by emerging artists. Outside The Cloud, in a shipping container, screened China Import Direct, a showcase of nine Chinese digital and video artists, whose work has not been seen before in New Zealand. Inside The Cloud, significant floor space was donated free of charge to Ngātahi, a collective of non-profit Auckland galleries.

Samoa House Library used this space as a temporary reading room and also staged an exhibition of affordable artist’s editions – Samoa House Library is a response, in part, to the imminent closure of the Elam School of Fine Arts Library. Upstairs on the mezzanine, a book shop traded 140 specialist fine art titles. And discounted booths were occupied by three new galleries: Auckland’s Mercy Pictures, the Wellington artist-run space play_station, and Weasel Gallery, a new dealer from Hamilton.

So far, so fair.

Samoa House Library Reading Room at 2019 Auckland Art Fair, Photo: Josef Scott.

2019 was my first time as a visitor to the Art Fair. The Pacific lapped outside, the weather was swell, the donuts in the onsite café plump and sugared. What surprised me wasn’t the art; the quality was mostly conservative, but never less than fair. What surprised me was my total ignorance about how art is sold.

I graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in 1998 and have written about contemporary New Zealand art for the past 20 years. Yet I seemed to have missed an important point: the red dots.

On the preview night I found dealer Ivan Anthony sitting behind the desk in his booth, dark glasses on, nursing a small glass of rosé. Behind his desk was a large Andrew McLeod painting.  “Art fairs, good for the soul,” he joked. Gallows humour unites artists and dealers at the fair, the business of retailing culture exposed for all and sundry. Price lists are common (not always the case in a dealer gallery) and many booths are populated by red dots, but the red sticker isn’t always the sign of a sale.

Installation view of Bill Hammond painting on Ivan Anthony stand at 2019 Auckland Art Fair. Photo: Josef Scott.

The Ivan Anthony booth was dominated by a massive Bill Hammond bird canvas, a pair of Peter Madden collages, ceramics by Tanja Nola, and on a plinth near his desk, a small herd of dainty Francis Upritchard Shibuichi centaurs. Three days later, the McLeod had sold for $46,000. “We could have sold it 10 times over,” said, Tamara Rakich, the gallery manager.

“Why do collectors love McLeod so much?” I asked.

Anthony replied, “His paintings connect with people on a subsonic level.”

I could have quoted Anthony 10 times over. Anthony has run his dealer gallery on K’Rd for nearly 22 years. In that time, the primary art market has been altered by the internet and challenged by the auction houses. A dealer gallery has a direct relationship with the artist; the dealer provides exhibitions and exposure and typically takes 40% of any works sold. However, auction houses like Webbs and Art + Object have no direct relationship with artists. Instead, auction houses resell works on behalf of art collectors or owners and all the sales made on the secondary market don’t return any cash to the artists.

Bitcoins or Bullion, panel discussion, 2019 Auckland Art Fair. Photo: Josef Scott.

This year, alongside the art, the fair included The Future of Art, a series of three panel discussions devised by Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi director Christina Barton. The first discussion ‘Bitcoins or Bullion’ took on the market and was chaired by Hamish Coney, a co-founder of Auckland’s contemporary art auction house Art + Object.

Coney left Art + Object in 2018 and now works as an independent art advisor. By his estimate there is approximately $100-120 million worth of art sold annually in New Zealand. The secondary market is worth $28 million per annum and, “the balance is my best guess.” Approximately 4,500 artworks are sold in New Zealand each year at an average price of $5000.

Many pieces sell for $5000 or under, offering an “affordable” starting point for first-time buyers. One of the fair’s numerous sponsors is the non-profit organisation, My Art, which offers interest free loans of up to $50,000 for art buyers. Still, I won’t be taking out a loan. And it’s not because I don’t love New Zealand art.

“Art is and can be a fugitive process. There is no such thing as a job as an artist,” Coney said. Sage words. That goes for art writers too – and art dealers. For many small-scale dealers, the art fair is a risk that is written off as an advertising spend. It’s hard to recoup investment on modestly priced artworks.

“The art fair model is a sub-category of the general luxury goods fair market – think cars or other high end fairs. The intent is always to draw attention from the wider population and expand the collector base,” Coney told me. “There’s a lot of window shopping, that’s the nature of the beast, but some of the real benefits of the art fair are an opportunity to socialise and feel like a community.”

True. The Auckland Art Fair is a rare moment when the national art scene is brought together to take stock of itself.

Michael Lett has run his gallery in Auckland for 16 years and represents many significant contemporary artists including Simon Denny, who was the New Zealand representative at the 2017 Venice Biennale. For Lett, “the Auckland Art Fair is a good middle ground between the primary and secondary markets. Every single Auckland Art Fair, visitors come into our booth who know our artists, yet have never been into the gallery and live in Auckland.”

For David Alsop of Suite in Wellington “it’s a valuable opportunity for our artists work to be seen in Auckland and a chance to catch up with the industry: curators, collectors, artists. The move to annual suits us as an out-of-town gallery because it means that we’re able to regularly keep building on relationships with visitors to the fair, many of whom don’t live in Wellington or have a chance to visit our gallery.”

Newcomer Laree Payne of Hamilton’s Weasel gallery: “We were absolutely thrilled to represent Hamilton at the Auckland Art Fair for the first time, as a new gallery of only 14 months old… Although attending the Fair involved substantial risk, it was a worthwhile endeavour on many levels.”

But while there’s general consensus about the collegial value of the art fair, it’s not unanimous. Several dealers were noticeably absent from the 2019 fair, and there have been concerns that our smaller art scene might not be able to accommodate an annual fair. In the Pacific there is already Art Basel Hong Kong, Sydney Contemporary, the Melbourne Art Fair and the small hotel-based Spring 1883.

Auckland Art Fair installation views of Bergman Gallery stand and {Suite} stand. Photo: Josef Scott.

The official results of the 2019 fair are still being collated, but early indications suggest the fair attracted the same number of visitors as in 2018 and for many galleries, sales were the same or better. However, one overseas gallerist told me, “This year was very bad for us and we lost a lot of money,” noting that buyers favoured New Zealand artworks related to local heritage and Māori culture. But still they ended on an upbeat note: “I had lots of fun anyway!”

I had lots of fun too. But my own eureka moment came during ‘Back to the Future’, a panel discussion about the importance of art history.

“We are the storytellers of culture, but do we need to get better at telling our stories and the importance of our stories?” asked independent curator and art critic Francis McWhannell. Good question and I’m sure there’s a fair answer.

I perched on a stool on the mezzanine level as McWhannell spoke briefly about the atrophying of the humanities over the past year. The Elam school of fine arts library is due to be closed and two university art history departments, Otago and Victoria, have downsized.

Outside the Pacific struck silver, but inside for a moment, jeopardy hung in the air. Then a boat horn sounded.

Keep going!