Copyright 2015

  • Andrew McIlroy

Melbourne Art Fair reignites tensions ahead of 2018 launch


Amidst the hype surrounding the announcement last June of the rebirth of The Melbourne Art Fair, gallery owners, art dealers, artists, collectors and art enthusiasts have been anxiously watching and waiting for the release of the 2018 program, including the final list of those galleries successful in securing a place at the temporary structure within the Southbank Arts Precinct, in a gravelled paddock alongside the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.

But with only a few months remaining until the launch of the 2018 Fair, the list of participating galleries and their featured artists remains unavailable, construction of a solid art space is yet to commence, the event's website is outdated, and the phone of the Melbourne Art Fair goes unanswered.

17 January 2018: The empty site of the future Melbourne Art Fair at Southbank

It is not surprising that many are left wondering whether the hype of a new beginning is mere persiflage, with this incarnation scarcely indistinguishable from those of the past. There are those on the other hand who are both excited and hopeful that this biennial art fair will rebuild and go from strength to strength, giving artists and their supporters access to new, valued audiences.

And there is a lot at stake for the struggling art market. Much is to be said about the benefits of a tightly curated and well managed international art fair. The Melbourne Art Fair is ambitiously aiming to “welcome 20,000 visitors over 4 days as the anchor event of Melbourne Art Week; a city-wide program embracing cultural organisations, public institutions, independent art spaces and commercial galleries in the creation of public events, exhibitions, talks and performances”.

Respected Melbourne Art Foundation Director and CEO, Maree Di Pasquale, says “With its highly selective offering Melbourne Art Fair is set to become the premier showcase for leading Australasian contemporary, and will once again be instrumental in driving critical and commercial attention for galleries and their artists”.

If there is to be anything special about this “highly selective” event, it will lie in its ability to reinvigorate and bring together the arts community, and go beyond its stated corporate-like objective “to provide stakeholders with commercial opportunities for the industry and to lead the way in building national and international audiences for the Australian art market”.

Let’s hope so, but the lack of activity and transparency is disquieting. Programming and publicity should be more advanced than it appears.

Alcaston Gallery's Beverley Knight: "You want to see a good fair with marketing, professional staff and it just wasn't happening." Photo: AFR, 22 February 2016

As this event draws closer it again looks set to divide the arts community, with some concerned that this is another step in sidelining galleries that are for whatever reason out of favour with organisers. Many good galleries with great artists have been rejected and understandably they are now voicing their concern, even perhaps questioning the viability of their relationship as a result.

Whilst this may be simply sour grapes emanating from unsuccessful galleries who were for their part notified some weeks ago, the reluctance of the organisers to release a list of the selected galleries and the criteria upon which their decisions were based is troubling.

The previous Melbourne Art Fair fell apart amidst accusations of incompetence, acrimony and claims of a lack of transparency (with many allegations later proving to be without merit), and which in no small part still reverberate today through the Melbourne art gallery scene.

Releasing the list of selected galleries (being asked to expend scarce funds) - and the reasons for these selections, setting out the names of the artists to exhibit, speakers and events and confirming the event's sponsors will go some way to assuaging the arts community. The ultimate success of The Melbourne Art Fair will of course turn on so much more.

The Melbourne Art Fair 2009 at the City's iconic Exhibition Building

Some in the Artworld are holding their breath. There is much good-will, hoping for the show's success. However, another failure may deliver a mortal blow to galleries, whether they have been embraced by the organisers or not.

As a self-styled “cultural event”, The Melbourne Art Fair - unless it can garner wide industry support - may well turn out to be one of the least interesting. Let's hope not.

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Main Photo: Melbourne Art Foundation Director Maree Di Pasquale and Melbourne Art Fair Chairperson, Charles Justin Photo: AFR

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

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