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Turning over the the Turbine Art Fair

By Michael Smith

September 23, 2019

It’s no secret that art fairs have become the cornerstone of the global art market. In 2018, the Financial Times reported that there were more than 260 fairs worldwide, averaging out to ‘around five a week’. This year, Art Basel reported that art fairs account for as much as $16.5 billion of global art sales in 2018. Estimates and situations vary, but many galleries report doing between 40 and 60% of their annual revenue at art fairs alone. The art fair model is proving to be massively successful. But why is this model, which is oft-derided as the WalMart-isation of the art world (even Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel, said in a recent panel discussion that the art fair was rather like ‘a department store’) beating out traditional gallery exhibitions for eyeballs and card swipes?

As is often repeated, the rich, the super-rich and the ultra-rich (because, of course, these aren’t the same people) are money-wealthy but time-poor: art fairs offer collectors, their art advisors and procurers, as well as curators, the opportunity to scour the market within a concentrated space and time-frame. 

Yet, much of the concern in recent years has centered on the true health of the art market. Just a handful of record results for marquee works at fairs and auctions can skew the global sales figures and mask the fact that the middle and lower segments in many regions have suffered decline. Locally, this decline is certainly real, as many galleries find that they’re not immune to the general slowdown in retail sales. Certainly, the past few years have seen a couple of Cape Town galleries open spaces in Johannesburg, and then find traction difficult. Those without a footprint or outlet in other countries are at the mercy of currency fluctuations, political uncertainties and the seemingly endless stream of emigrants from South Arica’s middle class (in 2018, a local relocation company reported a 22% uptick in emigration inquiries from the previous year). 

So, the model of the RMB Turbine Art Fair, which aggressively and intelligently targets the emerging and mid-level collector base, is a heartening one. If done correctly, it could result in the creation of a market for original fine art that simply wasn’t there before. And, from my discussions with fair founder and director Glynis Hyslop, it seems the TAF is certainly doing it correctly. 

Of the buyers polled at this year’s fair, 60% said they were first-time art buyers. In any market or commodity sector, this would represent exceptional growth. For art, in a country teetering on the brink of a technical recession, it is simply phenomenal. Crucially, though, it also represents the development of an appetite for art. Buyers at this fair are unlikely to stop at one or two works: even a dabbler could end up with ten to twenty works in their collection; and although this pales in comparison to the world’s top collectors (Widewalls calculated in 2018 that just five private collectors own $11 billion worth of art), the point is that a healthy market can’t sustain itself if sales only happen at the top end. 

The TAF’s concept is based on the ‘affordable art fair’ model, which pegs the values for works shown below a certain price point; the TAF’s ceiling is nominally R50 000, although Hyslop says, ‘galleries do like to bring one or two larger works at a higher price.’ And while galleries are not obliged to disclose their sales figures, Candice Berman Gallery sold a painting by Juan Stockenstroom for a reported R65 000, while young powerhouse gallery Kalashnikovv saw a sculpture by Jake Michael Singer change hands for R55 000. Prices go as low as R1000, and from my unscientific survey of the walls on the Saturday of the fair, many works in the lower end of the price bracket were moving quickly.

This affordability necessarily filters through to the hard costs to the galleries: Hyslop informed me that space rental varies from ‘R0 to R2200 per square meter’: this pegs the TAF firmly in the middle of what other fairs are charging (Latitudes Art Fair, the new fair on the block, is running a reduced rate of R1300 per square meter, but the Investec Cape Town Art Fair is charging R2590 per square meter in 2020.) Spaces are also a lot smaller than the available configurations at most fairs, helping galleries and dealerships to be present without bleeding out on rental costs.

Another innovation in this model is the admission of dealerships and print studios without bricks-and-mortar gallery space into the fair. Traditionally, fairs only consider galleries for inclusion; this is a subtle way of maintaining market status quo, and ensuring that only those sufficiently capitalized to run space get to trade. But, as Art Basel reports, online sales represented up to 9% of total art sales around the globe for 2018: this segment could theoretically find access to art fair markets through models such as the TAF’s. And while quality and vetting remain key to the market’s perception of any fair, an investment in retail space doesn’t necessarily ensure these. In 2016, South African-born, LA-based dealer Stefan Simchowitz said on a panel discussion at the Nasher Sculpture Center that he believed bigger galleries were over-investing in retail space. The inference is that market agility, increasingly important in an ever-more competitive industry, is not served by slavishly sticking to old ways of doing business.  

Asked about the overall health of this segment of the art market, Hyslop informed me that some exhibitors turn as much as R500 000 in a single weekend at the TAF. For a smaller or mid-tier gallery, this is a very tidy sum indeed. Given that smaller spaces know how to run leaner, arguably better than their larger counterparts, half a million rand in sales can go a long way to helping them stay in business, developing their artists and growing the market for another year. 

So, is the TAF planning to expand? Hyslop tells me their tagline for 2019 is ‘ART on the MOVE’. As such, they’re planning a smaller pop-up incarnation later in the year.

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