Jo’burg’s art value-mart

The second Joburg Art Fair will have its private opening on April 2 for 1 500 invited guests. That same day the G20 summit meets in London to agree that the world is in a financial mess and to disagree on how to fix it.

But what has this to do with the second Joburg Art Fair?

After successfully producing William Kentridge’s version of Mozart’s Magic Flute in late 2007, Artlogic was able to secure sponsorship from FNB to produce the first art fair in Africa. The bank took a bold gamble on a big event to be executed by a small company that had never visited an art fair, let alone produced one. After visiting two of the big European fairs, Basel in Switzerland and Frieze in London, we started “reverse engineering” our very own fair. Though the bank was bullish, much of the art community was not. Most galleries felt the local market was too small to warrant a fair and that the real action was in London and New York. Some local art journalists felt that an art fair was too commercial and we would be better off with another Johannesburg Biennale, even though this was never an option because of the massive costs.

Not one of the world’s 300-odd art fairs focuses on contemporary art from Africa. Our intention with the first fair was to fill this gap. It’s not that easy. Without gallerists managing and promoting art, artists don’t find the market they need to sustain their careers. As with so much talent from the continent, Europe and the United States provided the opportunities for African greats such as Owusu-Ankomah, El Anatsui and, more recently, Romuald Hazoume to exhibit. Our solution last year was to commission Simon Njami, who captured the world’s imagination with his Africa Remix show and to a lesser extent the Africa Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale. He chose work mainly from younger artists starting to break into the international art scene. Njami’s selection of work, entitled As You Like It, attracted interest but did not sell. By contrast, local galleries sold beyond our expectations. Between R25-million and R30-million passed hands, giving the local contemporary art market a major cash injection.

In May last year we sat to plan the 2009 fair. With the absence of a biennale or any other perennial contemporary art show in the country, there was an opportunity for our fair to play a bigger role than providing only a market for art from the continent. At the same time art NGOs, foreign cultural institutions and development organisations started to approach us, as they were looking for an event that was well managed with high visitor numbers that they could contribute to.

The result is that the 2009 fair has 26 galleries, much the same as last year, and 12 “special projects”, most of which are new. The Gordon Schachat collection will host South African Jane Alexander’s Security, commissioned for the 27th Sao Paolo Biennale and never seen before in her home country.

The Gauteng provincial government provided the budget to commission South Africa-born Tumelo Mosaka, who is now curator at the Krannert Art Museum in Illinois, to select video art from the Global South for a show, titled Here and Now. The BMW art talks taking place inside the fair host local speakers, including artists, curators and the Goethe Institute’s selected guests, Agnes Wegner and Thomas W Eller from Berlin’s Temporare Kunsthalle Museum.

The fair has introduced design on a unique scale. Thirty-two of the country’s top designers have been commissioned to make unique and unusual pieces as part of the Southern Guild initiative. CulturesFrance is bringing out Encounters of Bamako, a selling photographic exhibition from the continent of Africa represented at the recent photographic Bamako Biennale. We raised money from Siemens for Funda, an art school in Soweto, to produce and sell its students’ work at the fair.

Despite an impressive line-up for the second fair, we were still missing one vital ingredient — an influential international audience. The world’s top fairs host the world’s top art personalities with all-expenses-paid packages. We will never have the budget to host this set and, positioned on the tip of Africa, we are slightly out the loop of who the “taste-makers” are.

Shortly after Damien Hirst’s Inside My Head Forever exhibition at Sotheby’s sold $200-million in September, the contemporary art world went into freefall. It is no surprise that New York and London became the contemporary art centres of the world. A seemingly endless supply of easy-made cash fuelled an endless supply of ready-made art. When The Guardian broke the story that Hirst was not renewing the contracts of 17 of the 22 factory workers who make his work, it was clear the party was over.

A seemingly impossible international art market has started to work in our favour. The contemporary art world will not die. Buyers will go back to basics and look for quality and value once again and are prepared to travel to find it. South African-born and educated Mark Coetzee, who headed the Miami-based Rubell collection, was recently appointed programme director for Puma Vision and chief curator of Puma Creative. Wanting traction in Africa, he approached us to assist with the fair. We quickly struck a deal whereby he flies and accommodates 50 curators, collectors and writers from Africa and abroad to attend the fair, giving us the audience we have been sorely wanting.

This year’s fair will showcase the work of more than 400 artists and 32 designers from the continent, with the majority coming from South Africa. As the art world focuses more sharply on value, art from Africa will become of greater interest. To capitalise on this opportunity we need to create art events that last long enough to become part of the international art calendar. The start and collapse of the Johannesburg Biennale and the stillbirth of Cape Africa Platform reinforce negative perceptions of Africa.

The Joburg Art Fair has found an international audience in its second year. With the ongoing support of FNB and secondary sponsors the fair will become the single most important meeting place for collectors, curators and writers and those curious about contemporary art from the continent.

Ross Douglas is the director of the Joburg Art Fair

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