Money talks: In art, now, the cart pulls the horse

By philip
10 March 2015

The rapid growth of “art fairs” globally could either be the upside or downside of the future of the art industry, writes Melvyn Minnaar, who looks at the two recent fairs in Cape Town.

Gallerists never talk about money. Not in public anyway. In their swanky showrooms these days, prices aren’t even mentioned on the exhibition list. Backroom deals are the business.

The rituals of today’s art trade often suggest to the naive art-lover the maxim “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it”. The implication is obvious: artwork ownership belongs to those with the bucks.

It’s a sad state of affairs but, culturally, also a dangerous one and the rapid international growth industry of “art fairs” is the upside (for those in the money) or the downside (for genuine creativity).

A late bloomer after the Joburg Art Fair started eight years ago (the next one’s in September), Cape Town Art Fair has just had its third art fair this year. Entertainingly enough, a kind of salon de refusés style “alternative” one was plotted at the same time – That Art Fair.

Also on during the jam-packed arty days were the Guild Design expo and the talk shop and show of the Design Indaba. And, because this is the way of art things nowadays, a glamour ball was held in association with the yet-to-be-opened Zeitz Museum of Contemporary  Art Africa The smell of money was in the air everywhere.

Quite a few people have been getting worried about this Faustian contract between art and money.

If you looked closely during the Cape Town Art Fair – which just ran its white-tented, air-conditioned course in the V&A Waterfront amid parked billionaire yachts – you would have spotted those “advisers” in their tight, tailored black suits. In between air kissing and sips of Wade Bales big-glass wines, there was very little art talk of significance.

It was somewhat less of a hide-and-seek at the other one, the That Art Fair, held in a recently constructed yet unused parkade, slap-bang in Salt River’s motley community, corner café at the ready.

Here niftily dressed Neo Matloga and Pebofatso Mokoena, young Jo’burg artists, were on hand to write out, there and then, an invoice for whoever wanted to pay for some of their crafty etchings. Real deals, for the love of art, at a fair price.

You can be sure no one at the Cape Town Art Fair or the other one is going to talk about the money they took in.

One of the ironies of this art fair was the attendance of the charming RoseLee Goldberg as official guest. Well known for her work in performance art, it did strike a few observers that her field of art expertise is exactly the kind that cannot be sold. Is there a hidden lesson here?

See full review by Melvyn Minnaar in Mail & Guardian