When is an art fair not an art fair? When it’s an immersive experience
Twenty-five years ago, the Melbourne Art Fair was launched as largely a stock show of commercial art for dealers and seasoned collectors. How times have changed. These days, with a seven-day, city-wide Art Week accompanying the fair at the Royal Exhibition Centre, the organisers recognise a need to draw people into the host city and engage with the cultural life. It’s more accessible, more intriguing, and way less… stuffy.
Partnering with the NGV, ACCA, Linden, Heide, TarraWarra, the Ian Potter Centre, the University of Melbourne and more, MAF now offers behind-the-scenes tours and curator-led talks among its satellite events. “We’re working with the activation of non-art spaces as well, such as shopfronts and bars,” says director Barry Keldoulis, “because a lot of them are already engaged with contemporary art and see the significance in being supportive of the cultural life of the city.” That's in addition to big-draw events, such as keynote speaker Pearl Lam – founder and director of Asia's many Pearl Lam Galleries – on Monday, August 11, and the Vernissage party on Wednesday, August 13 – a celebration of living artists.
With the days of only targeting the art world elite behind them, galleries are formulating more solo shows, lectures and forums to entreat the public in. “We’re also engaging with a number of new sections to the fair,” says Keldoulis, “so there’s MAF Video and we have two young curators – Kyle Weise and Simone Hine – who run Screen Space. Rather than come at it with a curator’s ego and trying to impose their idea onto a ragtag body of work, they’ve really tackled all the works submitted and identified about four quite different threads that are running through the whole body of work. These will be highlighted over the four days of the fair.”
Then there’s MAF Edge, which hosts performance and installation work; MAF Platform, which is a section for younger galleries and artist-run spaces; and the traditional MAF Project Spaces, which is given to contemporary art centres like the CCP in Melbourne and CACSA in South Australia – places which will also show really interesting, cutting-edge work.”
For Keldoulis, art fairs are, more than ever, a necessary platform for art engagement in a globalised, image-proliferated society. And despite the elitist image of a self-contained art world often propagated in the press, he assures that it’s an environment that is a “level playing field”.
“For a lot of people, there is a hesitation to go into a private or commercial gallery because they can be intimidated by the idea that they don't know enough about art,” he explains. “Of course, nobody knows enough about art and it’s constantly changing.”
In fact, Keldoulis is so optimistic about the democratisation of art fairs that he goes as far as calling it a physical manifestation of the Internet – “in 3D and in technicolour,” he jokes.
“Some works perhaps look better on the screen but most screens aren't big enough to encompass a large-scale work or work in which there are large areas of blank canvas, for example; it doesn't translate. Most people still need to and want to engage with the art in the flesh but we’re exposed to work from all over the world through the Internet.”
And good news for those who are looking to buy but don’t want to be put out of pocket – not everything is unaffordable. “There’ll of course be works that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes even more but there are works that are in most people’s price range,” says Keldoulis.
But how should we navigate the precarious terrain of contemporary art when commerce, seen almost as a dirty word, is involved? For one thing, Keldoulis has never liked the term ‘commercial’. “It has a very negative connotation,” he agrees, “but what you’ll find in the gallery scene is that usually there’ll be some shows that do very well that support other shows not be angled towards selling. It oughtn’t have a negative connotation; while there are a lot of ways in which artists can have income, very few are as consistent as representations in the commercial gallery. The art fairs have had to – willingly – open up to show more of how the whole scene works, and hopefully out of that will come some acknowledgement that they are crucial to the operating of the whole scene.”