MEL­BOURNE ART FAIR V SYD­NEY CON­TEM­PO­RARY

Artist Profile - - CONTENTS - by Michael Young

EAR­LIER THIS YEAR, AS THE 2017 EDI­TION OF SYD­NEY Con­tem­po­rary (SC) art fair hit its straps, one vis­i­tor among the many at­tend­ing the four-day event could be seen at­ten­tively nav­i­gat­ing her way be­tween the spa­cious booths. That was Ma­ree Di Pasquale, the re­cently ap­pointed CEO of the Mel­bourne Art Fair (MAF) who has been charged with res­ur­rect­ing the bi­en­nial MAF, the last edi­tion of which was can­celled in 2016 at short no­tice among ac­cu­sa­tions that it had be­come mori­bund and ir­rel­e­vant.

Many thought MAF’s con­di­tion ter­mi­nal, but it will re­turn to the art fair cal­en­dar on 2-5 Au­gust 2018 at South­bank Arts Precinct, just a few weeks be­fore SC tran­si­tions from a bian­nual to an an­nual art fair. Both fairs will be vy­ing to at­tract the same col­lec­tors, buy­ers and in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors and com­pe­ti­tion is bound to be fierce. For Di Pasquale, vis­it­ing SC was an op­por­tu­nity to re­fine her views on how best to re­po­si­tion and res­ur­rect MAF in a rad­i­cal new liv­ery.

The col­lapse of MAF in 2016 was pre­cip­i­tated by the with­drawal, just a few months be­fore the fair’s open­ing, of four high-pro­file gal­leries – Roslyn Ox­ley9, To­larno, Al­cas­ton and Anna Schwartz – caus­ing MAF’s then CEO, Anna Pap­pas, to is­sue a terse can­cel­la­tion state­ment. With­out these big-ticket gal­leries, the fair, ac­cord­ing to Pap­pas “would not at­tract col­lec­tors and buy­ers and there­fore, was un­vi­able”. Pap­pas re­signed from MAF, sev­eral board mem­bers elected to step down, while oth­ers were at the end of their term and went qui­etly.

How­ever the fair was not fin­ished by a long way. Plans were be­ing qui­etly laid to strip down the dowdy old lady that MAF had be­come and re­launch it as a youth­ful, rein­vig­o­rated con­tender for the Aus­tralasian art fair crown. Di Pasquale’s ap­point­ment was to be the key for suc­cess, sig­nalling gen­er­a­tional change among MAF’s lead­er­ship. New CEO, new board, new venue, new vi­sion and a new way of do­ing things was Di Pasquale’s re­mit.

At SC – en­joy­ing its third edi­tion – Pasquale paused to chat with var­i­ous gal­lerists and MAF 2018 was high on her agenda. Her fair would re­turn in Au­gust 2018, she ex­plained, as an­chor of Mel­bourne Art Week and there were sev­eral new ini­tia­tives to be con­sid­ered too.

Both MAF and Mel­bourne Art Week are owned by the non-profit Mel­bourne Art Foun­da­tion.

Artist Pro­file spoke to Di Pasquale as well as sev­eral gal­lerists at SC about the pos­si­bil­ity of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween MAF and SC in 2018. “MAF was post­poned, not can­celled, so we have just come back into our reg­u­lar time slot af­ter hav­ing taken a year off. It is the be­gin­ning of a new era,” she says. “I talked to a lot of gal­leries at SC about MAF and a lot said that next year they would do both MAF and SC. We have … se­cured their ver­bal sup­port and we are very pleased with the sup­port from the arts in­dus­try. Al­ready we feel we have a very strong line-up. We are treat­ing 2018 as a foun­da­tion fair,” she adds, while re­ject­ing any sug­ges­tion that the two fairs will be in com­pe­ti­tion. The list of par­tic­i­pat­ing gal­leries will be an­nounced at the end of the year.

Roslyn Ox­ley – one of the with­draw­ing par­tic­i­pants in 2016 – con­firmed to Artist Pro­file that she would do both art fairs next year. “I have been in ev­ery Mel­bourne Art Fair since 1990,” says Ox­ley. “I am com­mit­ted to both and I’m pretty ex­cited.” With her shock of vividly white hair, Ox­ley is a highly vis­i­ble stal­wart of the art fair scene and one of the most in­flu­en­tial and re­spected gal­lerists in Aus­tralia.

Bev­er­ley Knight of Mel­bourne’s Al­cas­ton Gallery, also one of the gal­leries that had with­drawn from MAF, cites a long-rum­bling dis­con­tent with the board and with the way the fair was with­out a di­rec­tor. She has reser­va­tions about MAF in 2018, adding that a lack of in­for­ma­tion about the new fair was be­com­ing an im­ped­i­ment to mak­ing an in­formed de­ci­sion as to whether or not she would be in it. Even so she liked the idea of the fair’s re­turn. “We all knew that it had to change to sur­vive. It was head­ing nowhere,” she says.

The lack of in­for­ma­tion about MAF’s res­ur­rec­tion also con­cerns John McCor­mack of Auck­land’s Stark­white Gallery, who at­tended SC. “Aus­tralia is im­por­tant to us and it is a big mar­ket here and if MAF gets it right with a dif­fer­ent kind of fair with a point of dif­fer­ence from Syd­ney, then yes, I would con­sider do­ing both. But I don’t know much at the mo­ment. They are talk­ing about a bou­tique fair that will be cu­rated,” he says with a be­mused look.

It will es­tab­lish it­self again as the lead­ing show­case for Aus­tralasian con­tem­po­rary art.

Ma­ree Di Pasquale

SC is owned by Lon­don-based art fair czar, Tim Etchells. In Aus­tralia the ur­bane Barry Kel­doulis is his right-hand man who over­sees SC ex­pertly. Di Pasquale, is, Kel­doulis says gra­ciously, “smart, charm­ing and per­sua­sive. But she has no gallery ex­pe­ri­ence.” It is his view that gallery ex­pe­ri­ence is crit­i­cal for suc­cess­ful art fairs, not only from the point of view of mak­ing con­tacts but also for cu­ra­to­rial nous. Pre­vi­ously Di Pasquale had worked for Etchells as co-di­rec­tor of Art Cen­tral in Hong Kong – one of his sta­ble of global art fairs – and also at SC. Her new em­ploy­ment at MAF is seen in the Etchells camp as an act of be­trayal. Artist Pro­file asked Etchells if he is up­set over his for­mer em­ployee tak­ing on the role of MAF’s CEO? With­out hes­i­ta­tion he replies, “Yes. It was re­ally not ap­pro­pri­ate for her to take the job.”

In 2013 MAF gave Etchells’ com­pany Art Fairs Aus­tralia (AFA) a 20-year con­tract to run its Mel­bourne fair. Etchells be­lieved that run­ning both fairs would al­low him to al­ter­nate each. It was an ar­range­ment that quickly went sour af­ter AFA’s first, highly suc­cess­ful edi­tion in 2014, with lo­cal sen­ti­ment sug­gest­ing that Mel­bur­ni­ans didn’t want their fair run out of Syd­ney. Etchells was quickly shown the door. MAF’s de­ci­sion, he says, was the trig­ger be­hind SC go­ing an­nual.

As owner of sev­eral highly suc­cess­ful art fairs around the world – he started ArtHK in 2008 in Hong Kong which he sold to Art Basel in 2014 – Etchells re­mains con­fi­dent in SC’s suc­cess, a con­fi­dence that has been re­warded. Over the four days of the fair, there were 26,500 vis­i­tors, 90 plus gal­leries show­ing work by 400 plus artists, and art sales of $16 mil­lion, ce­ment­ing SC’s po­si­tion as Aus­trala­sia’s premier in­ter­na­tional con­tem­po­rary art fair. “It can only en­hance Syd­ney’s rep­u­ta­tion as an in­ter­na­tional city that cares about con­tem­po­rary art,” Etchells says.

Di Pasquale out­lines her vi­sion for MAF’s fu­ture. She is bullish and as­sured, and presents a for­mi­da­ble con­fi­dence in her abil­i­ties to cre­ate and run what MAF’s web­site claims will be Aus­trala­sia’s lead­ing

con­tem­po­rary art fair and to re­turn it to be­ing the most sig­nif­i­cant plat­form for Aus­tralasian con­tem­po­rary art. “It will es­tab­lish it­self again as the lead­ing show­case for Aus­tralasian con­tem­po­rary art,” Di Pasquale says con­fi­dently.

It’s a lofty claim, and cer­tainly one to which Etchells takes im­me­di­ate ex­cep­tion. He chal­lenges the state­ment. “The suc­cess of Syd­ney Con­tem­po­rary makes it the lead­ing art fair in the Aus­trala­sia re­gion and we in­tend to stay that way. Six­teen mil­lion dol­lars in art sales gives it the largest con­cen­trated art sales of the year in Aus­tralia. That in it­self dis­putes Di Pasquale’s claim,” he says.

Not­with­stand­ing such claims from his boss, Kel­doulis is more mea­sured and prag­matic in his as­sess­ment of where MAF will fit in the art fair ecol­ogy. “This is not a com­pe­ti­tion,” he says. “MAF can say what they want but it is im­ma­ture to be so com­pet­i­tive, es­pe­cially when they col­lapsed in a heap a cou­ple of years ago. For many years they were the only art fair in Aus­tralia. Now we don’t know what they are,” he says.

The res­ur­rected MAF, ac­cord­ing to Di Pasquale, will be a com­pletely new beast com­pared with any pre­vi­ous edi­tion of the fair. It will shift from its long-term home at the Royal Ex­hi­bi­tion Build­ing to the South­bank Arts Precinct, along­side the Aus­tralian Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Art and a stone’s throw from sev­eral other art in­sti­tu­tions.

There will be an up­per limit of 40 gal­leries housed in small booths with 30 square me­tres be­ing the largest, al­though Di Pasquale sug­gests that could stretch to 50 square me­tres, de­pend­ing on de­mand. “The fair will be,” Di Pasquale says, “bou­tique in size”, a eu­phemism per­haps for small, which caused sev­eral gal­lerists at SC to catch their breath.

John Gow of New Zealand’s Gow Langs­ford Gallery has at­tended ev­ery MAF and had a cyn­i­cal view of its rein­car­na­tion. “We al­ways put to­gether what I thought were good stands, but sold very lit­tle. We found it was dif­fi­cult to get a de­ci­sion out of peo­ple in Mel­bourne, whereas in Syd­ney there is a lot more pos­i­tiv­ity,” he says.

One point of dif­fer­ence Di Pasquale is keen to high­light for MAF is its solo shows, some­thing she will be en­cour­ag­ing. Solo shows may not at­tract ev­ery gallery but Jan Mur­phy of Bris­bane’s Jan Mur­phy Gallery sees it dif­fer­ently. Half of her booth at this year’s SC was de­voted to work by Danie Mel­lor. It quickly sold out.

“To do a solo show is like a breath of fresh air. I will def­i­nitely be at MAF. I’m sure it will find its own mea­sure,” says Mur­phy, who also is­sues a dis­claimer. She had been newly ap­pointed to the MAF board and feels ob­li­gated to ex­hibit. Whether she ex­hibits at SC next year is a de­ci­sion yet to be made.

Di Pasquale’s ma­jor dif­fi­culty will be rein­vent­ing MAF while avoid­ing los­ing sight of its core as­set, which is the art fair it­self. Sev­eral peo­ple Artist Pro­file spoke to sug­gest the brand may well have been trashed be­yond re­pair. Di Pasquale doesn’t see it this way. “It can’t just be an­other it­er­a­tion of old MAF, switched from the Royal Ex­hi­bi­tion Build­ing to the new venue. Some­times these things need to be rethought, re­designed and re­mod­elled. We have taken the fair back to the ba­sics, which is very much about con­nect­ing gal­leries and artists and the pub­lic. Its size, com­pared to other com­pet­ing fairs, namely Syd­ney, and its fo­cus on solo shows will make it man­age­able for col­lec­tors. This is one of the things I am most ex­cited about,” she says. “Gal­leries have been en­thu­si­as­tic about this and these are the gal­leries we want in the fair. What we are try­ing to do is de­velop an art fair that

gives back to the com­mu­nity. As a board we de­cided to fo­cus on strong gallery con­tent and in or­der to do this we needed fewer gal­leries and smaller booths,” she says.

Jan Minchin of Mel­bourne’s To­larno Gallery is not de­terred by small booths and will be in MAF, even though her booth at SC was about 100 square me­tres, one of the largest at the fair. She showed a new suite of large pho­to­graphs by Syd­ney artist Rose­mary Laing on her ex­pan­sive white walls. Of the six works, four sold within hours of the fair open­ing. She paid $470 a square me­tre in Syd­ney, far more than MAF’s pro­posed 2018 price of $395, a low price spon­sored by MAF’s non-profit owner, the Mel­bourne Art Foun­da­tion. “We aim to keep booth prices low,” Di Pasquale says. “The hard part for us is that be­ing bou­tique, we will be­come quite a se­lec­tive fair and that cre­ates com­pe­ti­tion among gal­leries.”

Bev­er­ley Knight won­ders how MAF, with such small booths and only 40 ex­hibit­ing gal­leries, can ever hope to com­pete with the “sheer size of Syd­ney Con­tem­po­rary”. But the more fun­da­men­tal ques­tion is, can Aus­tralia sus­tain two art fairs?

Etchells ques­tions whether col­lec­tors, buy­ers and gal­leries will cross Aus­tralia to visit an art fair with only 40 gal­leries. “It is not the most en­tic­ing propo­si­tion,” he says with some ran­cour.

“When the last edi­tion of MAF was post­poned … the in­dus­try , the city, the foun­da­tion it­self … re­alised that (Mel­bourne) needed to bring back the fair,” Di Pasquale says. Her main task will be to tread that fine line be­tween her new far-reach­ing vi­sion for MAF and its fab­ri­cated points of dif­fer­ence, with­out alien­at­ing its core ca­bal of Mel­bourne sup­port­ers.

Not­with­stand­ing the rhetoric on both sides, nei­ther can agree as to who will have the most im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary art fair. Etchells is con­fi­dent that an an­nual “Syd­ney Con­tem­po­rary is here to stay”. Di Pasquale con­firms that she is think­ing in five-edi­tion blocks and a long-term fu­ture for MAF. Both are con­fi­dent of their own fair’s longevity.

When the last edi­tion of MAF was post­poned … the in­dus­try , the city, the foun­da­tion it­self … re­alised that (Mel­bourne) needed to bring back the fair.

Ma­ree Di Pasquale

01 Charles Justin, Chair­per­son, Mel­bourne Art Foun­da­tion, 2017 01

02

02 Syd­ney Con­tem­po­rary, 2015

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03 Ma­ree Di Pasquale, CEO & Di­rec­tor, Mel­bourne Art Foun­da­tion, 2017

04 John Gow, Di­rec­tor, Gow Langs­ford Gallery, Auck­land, New Zealand, 2017

Im­ages cour­tesy the writer, Mel­bourne Art Foun­da­tion and Syd­ney Con­tem­po­rary

05

05 Barry Kel­doulis, Fair Di­rec­tor, Syd­ney Con­tem­po­rary, 2017

06 Roslyn Ox­ley, Di­rec­tor, Roslyn Ox­ley9 Gallery, Syd­ney, 2017 06

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