Like blockbuster exhibitions, a well-organised art fair can provide a major economic boost for the local economy; it can be a boon for the local arts scene and provide a national and international arts focus on the city.
Many years ago, the Drill Hall Gallery did stage a number of biennial mini art fairs, in alternate years to its drawings biennials, but the scale was wrong and the idea failed to find traction. Canberra lacks the infrastructure to justify a huge enterprise such as the Frieze art fairs, which have transformed the commercial art scene internationally, or the so-called Chicago art fair, The International Exposition of Contemporary & Modern Art, where you need a motorised buggy just to visit the 135 galleries from 27 countries. Even the very commercial enterprises of Sydney Contemporary and the Melbourne Art Fair are an unsuitable fit for Canberra.
The Auckland Art Fair does provide a more viable model. Started by a charitable trust about a dozen years ago and run as a biennial, in 2016, with new sponsorship and a new management team of Stephanie Post and Hayley White, the Art Fair was reorientated. As of 2018, it has become an annual art fair with a focus on the Pacific Rim region.
Located in The Cloud, a scenic setting on Queens Wharf in central Auckland, it is a location that also limits the size of the Auckland Art Fair to create an intimate, friendly human scale. In Canberra terms, it is somewhere between Albert Hall and the National Convention Centre.
The nuts and bolts of the Auckland Art Fair operation is that galleries from the Pacific Rim region can apply to exhibit and a curatorial committee of four curators, two from public galleries and two from commercial ones, select about forty galleries for participation. The event, which is held over five days, attracts about 10,000 visitors and generates between $6-7 million in sales.
The Auckland Art Fair costs about $1 million to stage with 90 per cent of this sum raised from sponsorship, ticket sales and gallery fees, the rest a grant from Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development. The public pays an admission fee of between $25-30.
Art fairs are popular with local governments as they invariably attract people and business into the city. In the Auckland Art Fair 2019, held in the first week of May, there were forty-one galleries participating, almost thirty from various parts of New Zealand, the rest from Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Shanghai, Jakarta, Rarotonga (Cook Islands) and Santiago. In terms of sales, within the first couple of hours quite a number of the big-ticket items were sold, including work by Canberra's Patricia Piccinini and Dale Frank from NSW.
Apart from an injection of funds into the local economy from so many interstate and international visitors, an art fair helps to cultivate a new type of art audience.
It is one that generally draws on a younger demographic to that which usually visits the art galleries and art is presented as a fun activity, where ownership of an original work of art is an attainable goal.
It is true that at the moment there is a wave of popularity for all things New Zealand and, if the New Zealand prime minister was to run as a candidate in the Australian federal elections (section 44 notwithstanding), many feel that she would win in a landslide.
In the art world, there is an active exchange of artists, curators and ideas between Australia and New Zealand. Kirsten Paisley, formerly a deputy director at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, last week took up the position as the Director of the Auckland Art Gallery.
I was very impressed that at her first public function in her new role she opened the fantastic Frances Hodgkins exhibition at the Auckland gallery, introducing the event, as is customary, in Maori.
She told me that she is enrolling in evening classes in Maori, so that she will be at least able to keep up with her children who will be learning it in school.
While not all things Kiwi can be transplanted to Canberra, perhaps the idea of a small, dedicated art fair in the context of the international art draw cards located in Canberra may just work.