Optimism shines through at Melbourne Art Fair - Art Collector

17 August 2010 | The doom and gloom of recent times may well be lifting according to gallerists who participated in the Melbourne Art Fair earlier this month.

"We've definitely seen a confidence in buyers at the fair, as opposed to the uncertainty of the last few years," says Sydney gallerist Sarah Cottier. First-time exhibitor Tim Melville, whose gallery is in Auckland, agrees "there's been such electricity in the air, the sales have been terrific."

The enthusiasm was borne out in sales. Anna Schwartz Gallery, which presented a solo exhibition by video artist Daniel Crooks, sold every piece on opening night and the vernissage was also a success for Tolarno Galleries, which presented two side-by-side solo exhibitions of Peter Atkins and Peter Graham. "We were off to a very happy start when we received confirmation by email on the eve of the opening, that Corbett and Yueji Lyon purchased the entire Peter Atkins' Hume Highway Project for their Lyon Housemuseum in Kew," says Tolarno director Jan Minchin.

Other successes included a sell-out exhibition of Chris Bond's work at Nellie Castan Gallery; Sydney's Breenspace confirmed sales of a full set of Tim Silver photographs to a major collector in the United States with another full set to a significant collection in Sydney; and Auckland's Tim Melville Gallery placed an Elliot Collins painting in the Chartwell Collection, held at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.

At the Ryan Renshaw stand, Peter Madden's work was placed into the James Wallace collection, with all pieces selling except for the major installation piece, and Martin Smith's work sold out with one piece destined to join the MONA collection.

Orexart's solo exhibition of Richard Lewer's work also went well. "As a first time Melbourne Art Fair exhibitor, in this current climate, we were a little worried, but it has been fantastic," says director Rex Armstrong. "We have sold three quarters of what we exhibited."

Melbourne's MARS Gallery also secured a significant commission for Sam Tupou, which will involve a large installation across the glass back doors of a collector's home.

Others spoke of wide-scale exposure offered by Melbourne Art Fair. "Being at the Melbourne Art Fair has exposed all our artists to a broader audience," says Melbourne gallerist Helen Gory. "In some ways, the Melbourne Art Fair is less about the sales and more about the exposure, but that said, we are extremely happy with the sales we achieved over the fair!"

Outside the confines of the fair, Sydney's Grantpirrie was also finding success with its mobile Mel O'Callaghan exhibition. Instead of taking a stand at the fair, the gallery toured O'Callaghan's work around Melbourne on the back of an eight-metre truck. Each mineral flake of that night filled mountain featured photographic and film projection plus a sculptural installation. "It was really great to be bringing art to an audience rather than the other way around," says Grantipirrie's Lauren Reid.

As the fair wound down, two key trends emerged. The first was the popularity of pared-back presentations, involving either solo exhibitions or group exhibitions featuring the work of only a few artists.

Among those finding success with this strategy was Sydney's Liverpool Street Gallery. "We chose to exhibit only 4 artists – Steven Harvey, David Serisier, Aida Tomescu and Karl Wiebke – as our motto was 'less is more' this time around, and the response to the stand was very positive. Sales were good, given the market of late, and the overall atmosphere was fun, energetic and optimistic," says Sarah Hetherington.

The second major trend to emerge was the collector focus on the more affordable end of the spectrum. Of the $11 million generated in artwork sales at the fair, 76% was achieved for works under $10,000.

In line with these results, Tim Melville reports three quarters of his sales were for works under $10,000.

Similarly, Sydney gallerist Martin Browne says that although his gallery's sales equalled those achieved in 2008, there were more sales by volume. "In 2008 our total was made up of 11 sales to 11 different collectors with the bulk of the paintings and sculptures in the $30,000 to $50,000 range. This time – although we sold a couple of big ticket works by Peter Booth and Tim Maguire – the bulk of our 19 sales were in the $5,000 to $20,000 range with works by a whole range of the artists we represent attracting attention."

He believes it's a trend that points to better things ahead. "It seems to me that the general feeling was that many people are bored with doing nothing about their collecting passions and had decided that it was OK to cautiously put their toes back in the market."

The optimism is welcome relief for Australian gallerists, and as Browne puts it: "I just hope that it gives some impetus to see us through the rest of the year!"

Jane O'Sullivan