The 25th edition of the Melbourne Art Fair bubbled with fresh new energy, delivering impressive attendance and satisfactory sales. 

After a disappointing 2012 edition of the biennial fair, Melbourne Art Fair 2014 reinvented itself to make a solid, promising comeback.

Valerie Sparks & Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, 'Outland' (installation view), 2014, photographic collage and hand-carved sculpture, variable dimensions. Image courtesy the artists and Melbourne Art Fair.

Valerie Sparks & Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, ‘Outland’ (installation view), 2014, photographic collage and hand-carved sculpture, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artists and Melbourne Art Fair.

The Melbourne Art Fair 2014 closed on 17 August 2014 after a week-long programme of events. Over 75 galleries participated, displaying works by more than 300 established and emerging artists at Carlton Gardens’ Royal Exhibition Building.

A fresh face for the fair

New director Barry Keldoulis was responsible for the fair’s renewed energy. He revamped the floor plan and opened up the ground floor to introduce more space for visitors and collectors. Adelaide gallerist Paul Greenaway, who counts the art fair as the seventieth of his career, told Artnet that the new pathways through the booths were a particular success.

A former dealer, Keldoulis directed the inaugural Sydney Contemporary art fair in 2013 and is active in developing exhibition proposals by first-timer galleries like New Zealand’s Paulnache.

As The Sydney Morning Herald reports, lively events and festivities kept up the buzz at this year’s Melbourne Art Fair – including a speed-dating event, the spectacular presence of performance artist Luke Roberts and identical male models starring in a Michael Zavros installation, complete with a shiny new Rolls Royce.

Youth and diversity

As Vogue reported, the 2014 fair’s noticeably more adventurous programming included:

a greater diversity of media […] a stronger acknowledgement of emerging talent […]

Michael Zavros, 'Homework', 2014, C-type photograph, 112 x 150 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Starkwhite and Melbourne Art Fair.

Michael Zavros, ‘Homework’, 2014, C-type photograph, 112 x 150 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Starkwhite and Melbourne Art Fair.

This was achieved through an impressive range of works spanning paintings, photography, sculpture, new media, installation work and live performance pieces. In addition, The Guardian reported that:

Melbourne Art Fair offered curated exhibitions of video art and exhibition booths to artist-run galleries. This altruistic gesture created a nice sense of community and offered new potential for conservative collectors […]

Coinciding with the wave of emerging talent on show, Artnet observed that “big pieces were thin on the ground”. Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Pearl Lam Galleries were among those who held the fort.

Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore-based Pearl Lam Galleries, a first-time participant at the fair, showcased works by Ben Quilty, Zhu Jinshi, Joana Vasconcelos, Qin Yufen and Gonkar Gyatso. Roslyn Oxley9 featured major large-scale pieces by Isaac Julien, James Angus, David Noonan and Nyapanyapa Yunupingu.

Meanwhile, a host of other galleries showcased new artists, including:

  • Lucienne Rickard at Beaver Galleries
  • Zoe Croggon at Diane Singer
  • Sam Smith at Ryan Renshaw
  • Abdul Rahman-Abdullah at This is No Fantasy
  • Lucas Grogan at Gallerysmith
  • Sam Leach at Sullivan+Strumpf
  • Karl Wiebke at Liverpool Street Gallery

According to Artnet, these adventurous galleries:

used the fair to introduce younger artists […] brought some of the fun back.

Sam Leach, 'Rhinos with evolution of colour terms', 2014, oil and resin on wood, 76 x 132 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Sullivan + Strumpf and Melbourne Art Fair.

Sam Leach, ‘Rhinos with evolution of colour terms’, 2014, oil and resin on wood, 76 x 132 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Sullivan + Strumpf and Melbourne Art Fair.

Affordable art and steady sales

Artnet observed that most dealers

kept their presentations within more affordable price ranges and the strategy appeared to pay off. Early in the vernissage, the magic price appeared to be AUD10,000.

Soon, however, higher prices came through. Large paintings by Sam Leach sold for just under AUD50,000, with smaller pieces at AUD20,000-30,000. Sydney dealer Joanna Strumph of Sullivan+Strumpf told Artnet after the first day of sales that:

Quite a lot happened in the first half hour and then it was just steady after that. We were thrilled with last night.

Sydney’s Watters Gallery sold Ken Whisson’s Two Aeroplanes and One or Two Birds (1975) for AUD55,000, while the largest of four Cressida Campbell pieces also fetched AUD55,000, sold by Melbourne’s Sophie Gannon.

At the more affordable end of the spectrum, Melbourne’s Mora Galleries sold seven of Brian Martin’s Methexical Countryscapes – large-scale charcoal tree drawings – for just under AUD11,000 each. A Juz Kitson installation was sold by Adelaide’s Greenaway Art Gallery to a new collector for AUD11,000.

Baden Pailthorpe, 'MQ-9 Reaper' (video still), 2014, digital video, colour, sound, 4 mins 39 sec ed.5 + 2 AP, variable dimensions. Image courtesy the artist, Martin Browne Contemporary and Melbourne Art Fair.

Baden Pailthorpe, ‘MQ-9 Reaper’ (video still), 2014, digital video, colour, sound, 4 min. 39 sec., ed. 5 + 2 AP, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist, Martin Browne Contemporary and Melbourne Art Fair.

Recent Archibald prize winner Fiona Lowry sold two large canvases, one for AUD28,000. Meanwhile, Baden Pailthorpe sold a double-channel video work for AUD18,000, three times the asking price for his work two or three years ago.

Promising trends 

According to Artnet, exhibitors consider this year’s Melbourne Art Fair a “commercial success” and dealers are “jubilant” about sales achieved. In particular, Marita Smith of Gallerysmith was quoted in saying:

It was the best vernissage in 10 years.

The success of the fair also represented a promising outlook for emerging artists and, correspondingly, the future of contemporary Australian art. Audience and buyer enthusiasm together demonstrate a rebound of the art market from the pressures of the financial downturn:

Given the climate and the budgets of many collectors at this year’s fair, artists at early stages of their careers did remarkably well […] they show a growing audience for art in Australia and a continuing relevance for this event.

Culture versus commerce

In terms of style, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that

works with a deeper historical resonance stand out and suffer no fatigue.

Ben Quilty, 'Jug (Nose)', 2014, ceramic, 23 x 23 x 23 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries and Melbourne Art Fair.

Ben Quilty, ‘Jug (Nose)’, 2014, ceramic, 23 x 23 x 23 cm. Image courtesy the artist, Tolarno Galleries and Melbourne Art Fair.

Citing the example of Ben Quilty’s ceramics, the Sydney Morning Herald also claimed a receding dominance of painting in favour of less commercial media, which nevertheless stand out with cultural significance:

Now that the dominance of painting is receding, the promise of greater receptiveness to other media is a consoling thought.

Andrew Frost from The Guardian, however, has opposite views:

[…] no matter how much publicity new media might get, or how relevant performance art or relational practices might be, in the commercial scene painting still reigns supreme.

Ultimately, art at an art fair needs to be commercial. Artists who still wish to be subversive, such as Kristin McIver at James Makin, might ask, as McIver does through a sign:

Is selling my art the same as selling my soul?

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Australian contemporary artart fairs, market watch, business of art, events in Melbourne

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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