I am an International Art Fair virgin. Having never attended the Melbourne Art Fair (MAF) it was with great excitement and a defined set of expectations that I visited the 2010 edition in August. However, the disparity between my expectations, largely shaped by the all-pervasive media campaign which preceded the fair, and what I encountered highlighted a number of anomalies.
With its carefully constructed aims/purpose/claims and self-projected image, the Melbourne Art Foundation describes the fair as "Australia's premier international visual arts event... a biennial exhibition of leading contemporary art, presented by over 80 selected national and international galleries". To the uninitiated, this suggests that the MAF is on par with international art fairs such as The Armory in New York, the Hong Kong Art Fair or Art Basel.
What does it mean to be an international art fair? In this instance, at least fifty percent of the galleries participating should represent countries other than Australia. By this definition, the 2010 edition of the MAF failed to qualify: only seven international galleries choose to participate. Possible mitigating factors should be noted; for example the Global Financial Crisis, and competing events such as Art Hong Kong, which seems to be cementing its position as the leading contemporary art fair in the Asia-Pacific region.
Also disappointing was the lack of cutting edge contemporary art and groundbreaking new works associated with curated international art events. 'Names and Frames' were aplenty, with works by emerging, mid-career and established artists shown by a large number of similarly characterised galleries. Overheard mutterings stamped the MAF as too conservative; that the vast majority of galleries had chosen to salon hang a number of their artists rather than presenting stands focused upon strong curatorship; and that much of the artwork had been exhibited previously.
It is important to acknowledge that the MAF is essentially a commercial venture. The point of the entire exercise is to sell. This aim often leads to condemnation and quips such as 'money sullies art' and 'crassly commercial'. The artists who participate in the MAF are the future of Australian contemporary art, and like all of us, they have to make a living. Supporting these artists, and buying their work, is as vital to the growth of the entire industry as events such as the Biennale of Sydney or exhibitions like the Museum of Contemporary Art's Primavera.
I can only hope that in years to come the MAF will embrace the fact that it plays a vital role in promoting Australian contemporary art. Regardless of its standing internationally, the MAF needs to accept its strengths and weaknesses in order to become confident of its own identity, and continue to grow.
I consider myself an International Art Fair virgin still.