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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

Melbourne's ‘Not Fair’ Art Fair 2017 - An exercise in artist branding or a bold, new experiment

Trumpeted originally as an independent stage for visual artists who are unknown or overlooked, this year’s not fair art fair grand opening in a soon-to-be-demolished Prahran factory brought together a unusual who’s who of Melbourne's mainstream and alternative art scenes.  

But what draws such a mixed crowd of art luminaries, artists, critics, rogues, students and e-taggers out on a Saturday afternoon to sip warm wine at a counter-culture event like this, bringing together in the words of founders Sam Leach, Tony Lloyd and Ashley Crawford ‘50 unknown or overlooked artists … to issue a challenge to the established gatekeepers of the art world?”  What makes this event so attractive?

With the demise of many artist-run spaces and second tier ‘feeder’ galleries over the last 10 years or so, not fair’s less-than-revolutionary aim is “to introduce unrepresented artists to art lovers, collectors, critics, curators and commercial gallery directors” to hopefully put them on the path to money-making success – that it implies has eluded them to date.  A shameless, yet noble ambition in an art world that in some quarters devalues the pursuit of commercial success over the desire to achieve pure artistic merit. 

Certainly, the crowd last Saturday wants not fair to succeed.  But is simply providing an introduction enough?

The curators and artists have combined to put on a memorable exhibition.

The exhibition - with not fair now in its seventh year - is a visual and intellectual feast.  And big.  Featuring works by Robert Hague, Mali Moir, Ara Dolatian, Dale Buckley, Damien Shen, Naomi Bishop and Datsun Tran, amongst many notable others, this expertly curated exhibition does not however showcase artists at all unfamiliar.  This is not necessarily an exhibition of artist's on the hunt for a home.  To my mind, not fair is building on the curatorial excellence of previous years and has now become an institution in itself.  It can afford to be as brave and ambitious as the works that dominate the concrete floors of its Prahran factory.

 Ara Dolatian, Controlled Instabilities (2017)   Photo: Not Fair Art Foundation

So can not fair succeed where others perhaps have failed to reboot the careers of their artists?  Is success as an artist - boosting an artist's audience, with its financial and critical benefits -  dependent on much more than the sole goal of gaining representation in a commercial gallery?

As the art market staggers along and more galleries face the likelihood of shutting their doors for good, gallerists continue to shy away from taking on artists lacking standing, leaving the task of building a career and reputation solely to the artist themselves or to other disruptors such as alternative art fairs.

It is naive to think that in the current challenging commercial environment galleries will take on artists, in this case up to 50 of them, without them already possessing a solid reputation and a track record of success?

With this in mind, are alternative art fairs in the absence of a broader strategy potentially setting up their artists for failure? 

Changing art world calls for new thinking

This week also saw the launch of an important new book by Brad Buckley and John Conomos, Who runs the Artworld: Money, Power & Ethics.  The publishers say,

Who Runs the Artworld examines, using transdisciplinary strategies, the economics and mythologies of today’s global artworld.  It unmasks the complex web of relationships that now exist between high profile curators, collectors, museum trustees and corporate sponsors, and the historic and ongoing complicity between the art and money markets.

It also examines alternative models being deployed by curators and artists influenced by the 2008 global financial crisis and the international socio-political Occupy movement.  With a particular focus on a renewed activism by artists, coupled with an institutional and social critique led by groups such as Liberate Tate, the Precarious Workers Brigade and Strike Debt.

An insightful and timely collection of essays.

Alternative art fairs denote an activist sensibility, bringing with them high expectations.  Does Melbourne’s not fair fall into this category, railing against those gatekeepers?  Or does not fair with its insight represent something else entirely?  Is this the beginnings of a new movement; a collegial response by a group of renegade artists to the failing of the art market and gallery system? 

Against this background, it is worth asking can the artist succeed alone and without help, without doing something radical to gain and build upon his or her audience?  Is the idea then of building an artist’s reputation an exercise in branding?  Cue artists’ outrage. 

Yet is it such a big deal?  Art schools themselves are including in some form a unit or two in marketing in their degree offerings these days.

Rethinking the 'artist as product'

Writing on The Conversation, authors Kim Lehman and Ian Fillis argue,

The idea of "person as product" is not new but does not sit well in the arts.  Many in the arts community are alarmed at the idea of art being "packaged" and many more are scathing of the "branded artist", gallery and auction house in the contemporary art market.

Would an emerging artist, without commercial gallery representation, be more inclined to embrace independent marketing strategies in order to move up to the next level in their arts practice?  Of course, artists each have their own way of viewing the world and those around them and may prefer to keep their distance.  But interacting with their audience and their market in some ways is inevitable, and arguably, even just for critical success, necessary

But, how they do that, and the extent to which they utilise self-marketing, does appear to relate to matters of personality.  Artists who do not have the “skill set” required rely on their commercial gallery to be their marketer.

Artists without the skill set and without gallery representation may find themselves without an audience for their work.

(Kim Lehman & Ian Fillis, Survive in the art world: market the brand, sell the product, The Conversation, 4 August 2014).

So it appears not fair is on the right track to facilitate gallery representation for artists (although I note some are indeed well represented in this show suggesting perhaps a shift in direction) using a traditional art fair model, despite their heretical title.  Those behind not fair understand the importance of the gallery system to the commercial success of an artist.  But that is perhaps not enough in the face of such a tight commercial art market to guarantee that artists are taken up.  

not fair art fair launch on Saturday Photo: Sam Leach

Building a reputation takes more than an annual outing for a selection of talented artists.  Bringing together this group of brilliant, forward-thinking not fair artists into a new cohesive, dynamic art movement will do more to promote them to new audiences – the point of difference is to embrace marketing strategies perhaps less confrontational than simply tearing at the establishment.

Despite the misnomers and by actively pursuing a wider mission, not fair may well succeed in moving its avant-garde group of artists in a new direction after all.

The not fair art fair runs until 19 November, at 14 James Street, Windsor in Melbourne.  Free entry.

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia 

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