What is Art13?
It is London’s global art fair. The capital has people from all over the world, living here, working here and appreciating art. The existing art fairs don’t cover everyone. London is a big city of 8 million odd people, it can certainly warrant another. We don’t want people to feel intimidated, it is a friendly fair. The gallery content is very much global; half of our stands are from 25 other countries outside the UK, from Korea, China, Australia, India, all over the world. Many have never shown here or if they have, it hasn’t been for a long time in an art fair, even many of the UK galleries.
Why is it different?
There are people out there who like art and are wealthy individuals and who feel that there isn’t an art fair in London they can relate to. The affordable art fair is about decorative art, filling a hole on the wall with a piece of art and probably not curated. Frieze is vetted and curated, but your average person who buys two or three pieces of art a year at a reasonable level is intimidated when they visit. They don’t feel relaxed. Its focus is a very serious art fair, the character and the atmosphere. Art13 will be a serious art fair, but a friendly art fair with a personality.
How do you make an art fair friendly?
We have employed an architect who is working on the theme, ‘All the Fun of the Art Fair.’ He works on interior design for restaurants and homes, most recently Adele’s house. He understands approachability. If you had an exhibition designer, they would create a design for an exhibition space, it would look like all the others. The prevalence of social media means the look of the place is even more important. You want your guests tweeting, bringing an audience there through the week. If it looks great, busy and a place you want to go, then people will come, word of mouth drives it.
Who do you want to attract?
Art fair audiences are a pyramid. At the top are the really serious art collectors, in the middle are the wealthy individuals who collect art and then the general public who just want a day out. We see all three sectors as equally important and feeling that they are welcome there; they can walk into a gallery and talk to the owner about the art. Maybe they won’t buy today, but they will buy tomorrow.
How did Art Hong Kong begin?
I first had the idea when I was in Australia. I was speaking to Australian galleries who told me they had been up in Hong Kong selling art by taking hotel rooms. It didn’t seem a very smart way to do it so when I heard they had no art fair I went up there. I had never been to Hong Kong before, but I realised there was a gap and decided we should do an art fair. Hong Kong is a hub, Asia is growing, the pieces of the product slotted together
How difficult was it to establish it?
People were very sceptical. We got into month three or four of the project and I said “at what point should we pull it, do we have a fair?” because we were struggling to get galleries in. Magnus Renfrew, the Fair’s Director, just kept on pushing; he had a real vision about how he wanted the fair to be. In the first year the gallery year was almost there, not exactly what we wanted, but it was good enough to build the fair on.
We were determined never to do a deal with any galleries. There is a real temptation to do that, especially with a new art fair, but it can be the kiss of death. If the galleries you give spaces to pull out, it sends the wrong message to others. In London there are still some galleries we would like to be in it, but at the moment it is a good enough base so that the galleries that we want to be there are interested in participating.
Is it easy to set up an art fair?
It has become tougher, probably because of global competition. People look at any fair from a global perspective. A gallery will decide whether they want to show in Rio or Miami now, where as before they would be much more local. It really is about getting your positioning right. It isn’t just about the message of the fair, but also about where and when. We deliberately chose February because we go through the terrible January period, then in February the flowers start to come out, London Fashion Week and the BAFTAs appear, the Oscars start coming and people are looking for things to do. We chose West London because of the wealth around there. If you get those bits right, you can make a great fair.
Have art fairs changed the art scene?
It has changed how galleries sell their art. You look at the sales mix now and they sell it through the gallery, through their website and through the art fairs. If you look at any serious gallery, they will all have at least one or two art fairs in their year. They bring out a different audience they often can’t access any other way. Art fairs are important for the audience too. I have never seen someone unhappy at an art fair. I went to Fiac in Paris in the Grand Palais, it’s stunning. How could you not enjoy that?
What are your concerns?
The concern of anyone running these events is that you want both sides to do business. You want the visitor to enjoy it and buy art and the galleries to sell, either that day in the fair or later on, when people visit their gallery.
I have no problem bowling up to a visitor in the art fair to see what they think. 9 times out of 10 people will tell you and you get an honest answer. Most of my lot are terrified of it, but I love it, that’s how you learn. They will tell you little things, the negatives so that you can react to them.
How did you become involved in running events?
30 years ago I was a photocopy salesman; to this day I have no idea how a photocopier works. I found selling boxes that copy things boring so I changed job to work as a salesman for an events company. I worked my way up and after 8 or 9 years asked the owner if I could ever buy a stake in the business. When he said no, I left to join a new company and started ‘The Money Shows’. We built them up and sold them on which is how it all started.
Have you had any particularly difficult events?
I decided to launch The Clothes Show in London and linked it to Cosmopolitan. The deal was that they lent their brand and I funded the show. We persuaded the companies we worked with on London Fashion Week to take a stall alongside some cool cosmetics companies and held it in Earl’s Court. We got an audience, but they were all kids, 16 year olds with no money, not the 25 year old readership Cosmo described. Normally with fairs, you expect to lose in the first year, make back the loss in the second year and make profit in the third, but with that show, you could never make it back again. Cosmo wanted me to do it again, but I walked away with a half a million pound loss.
Do you always invest your own money?
Yes, always. The art fairs are more challenging than any. You have massive staff costs, over heads, venue costs, promotion costs and you don’t get a penny in for months and months. The art fair at the moment, I doubt we have had £5000 in income.
Do you enjoy the risk?
The house isn’t on the line, but I do enjoy the risk. Like anyone who invests in something I’m always aware that I have to put more in, so you don’t have the painful moment of trying to find that money from somewhere.
What is it that you still love about running these shows?
The satisfaction of seeing it come together. Some shows are nightmares, you nearly pull them, you can’t sell the stands. The buzz that you get at the end of the second day – if you have a strong start it generally follows through – when everyone is happy is great. As a business man, when you have a successful event, you know that is something you can build on. That’s a really nice feeling.
What are you most proud of?
Probably Art HK. I had never done a high end art fair and I had never been to Hong Kong. To create something that Art Basel buys 70% of and be considered in the premier league of art fairs is phenomenal.
Do you collect art?
Bits and bobs. I buy a lot of Australian art because it is colourful, it’s clever and it’s quite good value and I have some Warhols. I quite like pop art because I was brought up in the 60s and 70s. I bought my first Wahol in the late 80s in New York just after I had done a deal. I said to the guy in the gallery “I really like this painting. He’s not making them like this anymore is he?” and he replied “no, that’s because he has been dead 10 years.” So really, I didn’t know anything about art!
Art13 London, 1-3 March, 2013, artfairslondon.com Interview by Caroline Davies