In 1988 the “First Australian Contemporary Art Fair” was held at the Royal Exhibition Building. It was the year of the bicentennial and the new art fair was presented by the Australian Commercial Galleries Association and the Bicentennial Authority. Since then, every two years, the Melbourne Art Fair (MAF) has been held in the Royal Exhibition Building. Now it is over, not with a bang but a whimper of an announcement.
The announcement of the cancellation from Anna Pappas, chair of the not-for-profit MAF came on Friday 19 2016. Art Guide and The Age scrambled to publish this major story that day. The Guardian waited until it had discovered who the “high-profile galleries” that Pappas referred to in her statement. The Age had made an informed guess that this might include Diane Tanzer Gallery, but this proved not to be the case. Melbourne may not have an art fair any more but it does have more than one major commercial art gallery.
There are still many unanswered questions about the cancelled art fair. Is this the beginning of a trend or just one of the common variety of administrative debacle?
Suggesting that the cancelation of art was due to an administrative debacle is the fact that in August 2015 the MAF had severed its contract to manage the fair with Art Fairs Australia. If that is the case then we can expect that MAF will be re-established in a couple of years.
However, there are reasons to think that it is the start of a trend away from the art fair model. Barry Keldoulis told the media at the opening of the MAF 2014 that “art fairs may not be the best way to see art but they are the best way to see hell of lot of art.” If art fairs are not be the best way to see art why would they be the best way to buy art or sell art. Although art fairs were promoted as the mega-art market there are serious commercial art galleries in Melbourne who have done the math and decided that the MAF is not worth it.
Considering the last MAF two years ago in hindsight I should have been spending more time at the Not Fair rather than the MAF. Not Fair was the alternative satellite to the MAF. It was curated exhibition in Collingwood at 12 Peel Street and The Grace Darling Hotel. Its curators, Sam Leach, Ashley Crawford and Rebecca Richards had put together an exhibition that has been mentioned more times to me in the last two years than the MAF.
The loss of the MAF is not a disaster for Australian art. Australian art has changed so much in the three decades since the art fair started. Looking at the 1988 art fair catalogue Patrick McCaughey’s introductory essay about the Australian art in the eighties was about a contemporary art scene that had just emerged. In the 1988 art fair where there was only 21 galleries involved. Of the Melbourne galleries that were exhibiting in 1988 only Australian, Niagara and Tolarno galleries are still operating. Tolarno Galleries is one of the galleries whose non-participation this year ended the MAF.