Fairs Market United Kingdom

London Art Fair still struggles with its identity

Exhibition of British Modernism suggest a return to the event’s 20th-century roots, but most sales are for newer art priced under £10,000

London Art Fair, held at the Business Design Centre

The London Art Fair, despite being in its 26th year, continues to divide opinion—not least because the fair’s organisers seem still to be struggling with its identity.

This year’s event (held at the Business Design Centre, 15-19 January), suggested a return to its 20th-century, British art roots with a well-received booth at the fair’s entrance dedicated to “Barbara Hepworth and the development of British Modernism”, which was curated by Frances Guy, the head of collection and exhibitions at The Hepworth, Wakefield.

At the same time, newer art, on offer for under £10,000, is increasingly becoming this fair’s raison d'etre—and accounts for the majority of sales. The professional, middle-market buyers, who have been largely absent since the economic crisis hit in 2008, seemed to be back this year and this fair suits them well. “There are too many fairs that target the same few collectors, whereas the bulk of buying is more at this level,” said John Martin, the London contemporary and modern art dealer. He sold several editions from Rory Carnegie's “Port Meadow dogs” series of photographs (after 2010), for £2,800 each.

Other dealers were also quick to praise the often-overlooked local buyer. “You may not get the mind-blowing installations or performance pieces at this fair, but people come here to buy and we need to sell,” said Olivia Wright, the manager of London’s Pertwee Anderson & Gold gallery, who had done well with playful works by Nancy Fouts—an artist who currently has a display in the window of the flagship Selfridges department store. Editions of her Eve & Eve, 2014 were popular, and selling for £2,700 each.

The fair’s exhibitors certainly know their customers. Prices were clearly displayed in many of the booths—a rarity at higher-minded trade events and a welcome change. Several dealers brought smaller works, in keeping with a clientele that is looking for works to live with rather than display. Jack Bell, London’s leading African contemporary art dealer, presented what he called a “salon hang wall” of small works by six of his artists that proved popular. Several works on paper by Aboudia, an Ivory Coast artist, sold for around £2,000 each.

This art fair is never going to win over those looking for consistently high-quality art or a luxurious environment in which to view it (the Business Design Centre seems to get shabbier every year). But buyers with a budget should get what they are after. “You needed to look a little harder again this year for quality works,” said Mervyn Metcalf, a London-based investment banker, who managed to find two such photographs priced at £250 each by Chloe Rosser, one of the 2014 Catlin Guide’s promising art school graduates.

The most out-of-character booth came courtesy of the newcomer Whitestone Gallery, which had come from Tokyo with a stand dedicated to the Gutai group and with works priced up to £1m. Artists such as Chiyu Uemae and Kazuo Shiraga vied for attention with the British modern artists at the fair’s entrance. And Uemae’s Untitled, 1978-79, priced at around £70,000, sold at the fair, according to Minako Ishii, Whitestone’s international sales representative.

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