Posted 7th November 2019
Contemporary Art Fairs Interview - The True Value of Art
After over fifteen years of success they are one of only a handful of truly influential art fairs in the country.
Every year the events have gone from strength to strength and the secret to the fairs' success is the dedication of the co-founders and co-directors, Sarah McAllister and Deborah James – and most importantly, to their shared passion for art.
They started out with just one fair and 25 stands. Next year, there will be 4 events including the new autumn show at Sandown Park Racecourse, Esher where 130 stands will feature over 160 curated artists, printmakers, photographers, sculptors, ceramicists and selected galleries - bringing together a rich array of art from all over the country and abroad, creating a powerful emotional creative experience. This is in addition to the successful spring show also at Sandown Park in March.
These two women revolutionised the art fair experience by inviting independent artists to exhibit alongside galleries and they are still here. While some have come and gone, Sarah and Deborah's innovative vision to produce a truly distinctive experience is as exhilarating as ever; part educational, on some level edgy, and always exciting,
'We believe art isn't just something to put in your home, it makes us notice the world around us. We are trying to show an array of choices and styles that make us think and feel' says Sarah.
Deborah agrees. 'You generally have a response to a piece of art and when we see someone's face light up with wonder and joy, we know we have got it right.'
Both women bring formidable credibility to their enterprise: Deborah has an economic history degree and worked with the very first micro-computers. She started out in international trade importing hazelnuts from Turkey and was delighted to be asked to source art in the UK for a gallery in Spain.
A pioneer from the start, Deborah then opened a gallery in Windsor specialising in photography; her uncle was head of photography at The Tate at the time so it was natural to see its value as equal to any other art form. However, she was one of only a handful brave enough to hang photography alongside work by Sir Terry Frost, Sandra Blow and Anita Klein.
Studying a History of Art degree at the University of East Anglia, Sarah was surrounded by art while working in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts there, a groundbreaking place of visual communication in a building specially commissioned from Norman Foster. She went on to work at Christie's Contemporary Art Galleries, the world's leading publishers and galleries specialising in original limited-edition prints.
Sarah brings to CONTEMPORARY ART FAIRS her ethos of wanting to make genuine, high-quality, contemporary art accessible and affordable to the wider community.
It all began for them on the side of a rugby pitch, watching their sons play an away match. They found their passions and combined experience to be a natural fit; they had both owned galleries and Sarah brought framing to the enterprise, which she still does and they haven't looked back since.
They had both noticed that many more artists needed a gallery space than was available and they plunged into creating an exciting place for more artists to show and sell their work.
They apply the same high standards of curation to the Art Fair as they would to their gallery spaces: 'We both still get excited about art and we take what our Art Fair offers very seriously. It has to be right for the artist and an interesting, fresh mix for our visitors so that both get the best possible experience. We actively look for new talent, support emerging work and appreciate the value of established, well-loved artists', says Sarah.
'It is 100% our choice and our instincts have proved right over the past fifteen years - year on year the show just gets better. The fact that we're still here proves we know what we are doing,' says Deborah.
Their relationships with their artists is one of their under-appreciated talents; they have launched careers while attracting successes back year after year, because they are just as caring about the artists themselves. 'We are always aware we are dealing with people and we carefully look for the fit. We are also trying to get the best out of people,' says Sarah.
In a world focused on the bottom line, maximising profits and stripping costs, people who are truly passionate about what they do and what they believe in, have a special feeling and ownership of a company. There is an integrity and sense of purpose that creates a different philosophy and culture.
'We treat people with respect, which is fundamentally necessary to benefit from how they deal with you. We don't take things for granted and always consider the relationship important,' adds Deborah.
This same belief underpins all their relationships, from the artists to the buyers, to their staff, the contractors and the venues, local schools and the art community. It's what makes them stand out. They are balancing all these different areas with an overarching value for the relationships.
'We like to think that integrity develops trust, building a solid relationship base into the future. This is necessary to build robust, mutually beneficial partnerships.'
The secret to their success may be as simple as their attention to detail; they are very hands-on, visible to the artists, staff, contractors and venues. They invest in better quality for every area of the event, they have high expectations and they want what is right; all underpinned by traditional values of respect, fairness and integrity.
'We are always working to improve the experience for all involved and we're evolving in the art market; we are not in competition with other fairs, we are doing what is interesting for us and best for our artists and visitors with a long-term view.'
It may seem old-fashioned, but Sarah and Deborah believe that any enterprise should add value to the world. They have structured and designed their whole venture to have a positive impact. Their event is visionary and participatory; it supports the Prince's Trust - raising over £75,000 so far - it offers educational workshops, talks and inclusive experiences for adults and children while providing a successful sales platform for their artists, a truly great day out and an exciting cultural experience for their visitors.
They are truly passionate about art, and they want us to love art too. Their approach is probably in some sense bordering on philosophy and spirituality, but they have undoubtedly established a national space for a gathering of artists, galleries and art lovers, full of colour, energy and affirmation of what has meaning for us all. They have created the world they want to live in.
The fairs host a full programme of talks, workshops and activities including free art valuations by Bargain Hunt regular Thomas Forrester and his team from Special Auction Services, plus an opportunity to join in creative workshops run by Watts Gallery - Artists' Village.
CONTEMPORARY ART FAIRS - WINDSOR 8th-10th November 2019 | Royal Windsor Racecourse
CONTEMPORARY ART FAIRS – SURREY Spring 13th-15th March 2020 | Sandown Park Racecourse, Esher
CONTEMPORARY ART FAIRS - NEWBURY 1st-3rd May 2020 | Newbury Racecourse
CONTEMPORARY ART FAIRS – SURREY Autumn 25th-27th September 2020 | Sandown Park Racecourse, Esher