MELBOURNE ART FAIR V SYDNEY CONTEMPORARY
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 Sydney Contemporary, 2015
03 Maree Di Pasquale, CEO & Director, Melbourne Art Foundation, 2017
04 John Gow, Director, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand, 2017
05 Barry Keldoulis, Fair Director, Sydney Contemporary, 2017
06 Roslyn Oxley, Director, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 2017 06