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Softly softly builds an art fair with balls

Gina Fairley

The word from the top is that Sydney Contemporary is looking to adopt the Frieze and Miami model.
Softly softly builds an art fair with balls

Photo Artshub.

Sydney Contemporary first blossomed as an idea about ten years ago, but took another four to gestate, said fair founder Tim Etchells, who was in Sydney this week for the opening of what has become Sydney’s hottest art event.

But success does not come over night. ‘It was a “softly softly approach” because we wanted to make sure we didn’t overcook the market and that we got the right mix of galleries and collectors,’ said the fair entrepreneur, who runs like-events in Hong Kong and London.

Over 500 artists and 90 galleries and art spaces have congregated at Carriageworks over this weekend for a multi-dimensional art experience. Etchells believes that part of the success of Sydney Contemporary is the venue making it attractive internationally.

However, he admits that the fair is still working hard at growing both attendance of international collectors and top overseas galleries. The offshore participation has been sitting flatly at around 23% since the fair started six years ago.

One of the reasons they haven’t pushed that prematurely is to ensure the ground swell was ready. Etchells explained: ‘We just wanted to make sure the timing was right; the market was right, and that there was enough business here.'

One thing punters will notice is the fair has a more elegant feel from past editions. The reason? Returning galleries have taken larger booths and there are more solo exhibitions.

Barry Keldoulis, fair Director and CEO, Art Fairs Australia, added: ‘It is not a huge fair and that is one of the good things about it … It is an incredible snapshot of what is going on now. Museums will take years to put together major survey show but with the fair we can do that annually.’

Keldoulis and Etchells have become somewhat a tandem star act, collectively blending business and entertainment under the banner of global art.

‘When we are selecting galleries for the fair, we are interested in looking at work that is an expression of what is going on in their contemporary art scenes – that is an important part of that international aspect to an art fair, that we are looking at that cross cultural dialogue,’ said Keldoulis.

For this edition there are galleries from Tehran, Santiago, and a strong representation from New Zealand. The representation of galleries from Asia still remains on the light side, perhaps overshadowed by the success of Singapore and Hong Kong fairs.

'There are a number galleries here that come up to Art Central in Hong Kong. It is an obvious stepping stone. The market in Australia is a certain size and for a gallery that wants to do more business, it is natural that they should head to Asia,' said Etchells. He sees Sydney Contemporary as an important cog in that bigger picture.

However, he warned: ‘You can get it really right, and you can get it really wrong. It is about finding the right work to show. At Sydney Contemporary we work really closely with the galleries to make sure they bring the right work.

‘I have seen on many occasions where a gallery has brought the wrong work and it hasn’t sold, and then the year later bring the right artists and it has. We understand the market,’ he concluded

Photo Artshub

Is Sydney ready for a Miami-style art week?

Etchells said that you have to make sure that the art market is at the right level to support more than one fair before you push that. ‘Certainly in early years of Hong Kong it couldn’t.' Is Sydney past those early days also?

He added: 'It is a compliment that people think that a fair is a good size and strength that a satellite fair can go on the side. I am of the opinion that it adds luster to the cluster, and that it makes for more things people to see. The main thing is that the quality of those fairs need to be at a reasonable level.'

Etchells is keen to work with the city to build an art week around Sydney Contemporary not unlike that established in London with Frieze and in Miami.

‘You see this massive celebration of all things that link into the art world, and that is my vision for Sydney as the fair builds.’

He continued: ‘In Miami now there are about 25 satellite fairs – I don’t think we will ever get to that stage,’ but was quick to add that he sees the potential for Sydney Contemporary to grow into a major international fair with this added city wide engagement.

And when asked whether the return of Melbourne Art Fair would pose a threat to Sydney Contemporary's growing annual model, Etchells said: 'Melbourne Art Fair needs to reestablish itself first and work out what it is … It will have its challenges because since MAF disappeared in 2014, Spring increased in size and a couple of other satellite fairs have worked well so the reestablishment of the MAF is now going into competitive waters which has nothing to do with us in Sydney.'

Sydney Contemporary continues this weekend at Carriageworks, and will returning annually with 2018.

About the author

Gina Fairley covers the Visual Arts nationally for ArtsHub. Based in Sydney you can follow her on Twitter @ginafairley and Instagram at fairleygina.

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