Manchester Contemporary opens in Manchester this month, and for the fourth year running one of our north west network members, The International 3, are taking on the role of curatorial coordinators. Paulette and Laurence talk through their involvement and their approach to inviting emerging galleries to this year’s Fair.
How did you become involved as Curatorial Co-ordinators for the Manchester Contemporary?
In 2008, the inaugural edition of Buy Art Fair took place at URBIS in city centre Manchester, (the building that has now become The National Football Museum). We were approached prior to the fair opening by one of the then curators of URBIS, who was interested in having something take place within the building at the same time and within the context of Buy Art Fair. We were approached and offered the opportunity to take up the challenge.
In collaboration with the Buy Art Fair team and URBIS, The International 3 organised a curated selling exhibition of recent graduates who had been selected from degree show visits. The project was also delivered in partnership with students from the MA Curating course at MMU, who helped to research and deliver the exhibition. The exhibition was called 'Places to Play Are Scarce' and took place on the top floor of URBIS alongside a handful of other artist-led and emerging commercial initiatives.
As a project 'Places to Play Art Scarce' sought to give profile to emerging artists in the region and to introduce challenging contemporary art into the market place. It was a great opportunity that saw us selling to the University of Salford's collection as well as to private individuals. For the 2009 edition of Buy Art Fair, Ceri Hand was approached by Buy Art Fair to expand this section of critically engaged exhibitors under the title The Manchester Contemporary. Then in 2010 we were approached to take on this role.
Starting as an artist-led gallery in 2000, The International 3 had, since 2005 and with support from Arts Council England, been participating in national and international art fairs such as Zoo Art Fair, Preview Berlin and VOLTA Basel, so we had started to gain knowledge and experience of the art fair landscape for challenging and critically engaged contemporary art. We were also increasingly becoming involved in the ambition to develop the UK's art market outside London.
We had started to work closely with Mark Doyle of Contemporary Art Society North and Kate Jesson of Manchester Art Gallery's Collectors Circle to encourage locally and regionally based collectors and so we felt we were well positioned to take on the role of curatorial coordinator for The Manchester Contemporary. We saw The Manchester Contemporary as having the potential to act as a catalyst and a critical mass opportunity for this broader strategic art market development work. We continue to be excited and engaged by the possibility that The Manchester Contemporary offers and by the impacts that we are beginning to see it have, so we are delighted to still be undertaking this role four years on.
This is now your fourth year in the role, how has the Fair changed from its inception?
From the outset we were aware of new models occurring within the conception and delivery of art fairs; most notably those described as 'open-space' and 'curated' art fairs. In these fairs, the standard architecture of white walled booths along avenues are readdressed and curatorial engagement is brought to the selection of galleries and design of the space. Aware of these new models, we wanted The Manchester Contemporary to sit within and contribute to that dialogue, but also to develop something that recognised the specifics of our emerging market context.
Rather than an open selection process, The Manchester Contemporary is an invitational art fair which gives us the opportunity to choose galleries that we feel sit well with the ethos and ambition of the fair and with each other. Over the years, in addition to our own ideas about who might be relevant, we have also begun to solicit recommendations not only from the broader TMC steering group, which comprises Kate Jesson (Manchester Art Gallery), Mark Doyle (Contemporary Art Society North) and Thom Hetherington and Clare Tams (Buy Art Fair), but also from previous years' TMC exhibitors. With each year, we have therefore been able to develop an increasing sense of peer group engagement in TMC.
Rather than everyone getting the same booth layout, we have tried each year to be flexible and sensitive to what might be shown as well as trying to give space for the audience and the work to breath. So we often have two-walled rather than three-walled booths, and make open spaces within the fair for larger works and for people to gather and talk. The physical venue for the fair has changed year on year since we became involved and so by necessity we have had to be flexible and responsive which has has meant different decisions each year about how to best use the space available. The build process has also changed over the years. Rather than using a regular trade fair package TMC has become more bespoke and is now undertaken by a team that builds walls for Manchester Art Gallery and Cornerhouse amongst others.
Another change that has happened is with regard to the distance that has existed between Buy Art Fair and The Manchester Contemporary. At the outset it was felt very much that it was necessary for the two fairs to be seen as two distinct and separate fairs, both physically in terms of the spaces used and also in marketing terms so as to send a clear signal with regard to the exhibitors and the area of the market that we were trying to develop i.e. the market for critically engaged contemporary art. Over the years, however, we have become equally interested and involved in creating opportunities for audiences between the two fairs to cross-over. This year for example the two fairs will happen not just in the same building but have also been marketed together much more than in previous years. Contemporary Art Society will also have booths in both fairs, showing on their booth in Buy Art Fair work from TMC artists.
Increasingly we also see that TMC is becoming embedded within the visual art ecology in the north. Last year, curators from the city's public galleries led audience tours of the fair, something that will continue again this year – this is a really important development that sends a clear signal of stakeholder support for the fair. This year's curator programme has had an increased take-up with regional, national and international representation and our collector programme has also had an increased level of interest.
Along with the year on year increase in sales, the continued growth of our audience and the continued support from Arts Council England as well as other sponsors, we feel TMC has real momentum and a broad level of support from both the commercial and publicly subsidised arenas.
Looking at the galleries involved in the last four years, you can see a clear move from London Galleries dominating to a greater spread of young emerging galleries from across the regions. What does this tell us about emerging commercial galleries in the UK?
We have always wanted to invite those galleries that we see as the most appropriate to the ethos and ambition of the fair, whether they are based in London, Manchester or Worcester. However we are also led by a commitment to showcasing what is happening regionally as part of our drive to develop the market for critically engaged contemporary art outside London. The fact that increasingly we are able to invite regionally based initiatives to take part we think reflects a growing interest in the market as both income generator, networking and professional development tool.
The Arts Council have been very supportive of market development activity and this I think has fuelled a lot of R&D with regard to engaging with the market. Last year we had the opportunity to devise and deliver an art market knowledge transfer project called Market Share funded by Arts Council England. This was a pilot project which provided the opportunity for a small group of regionally based emerging commercial initiatives and individual artists to access information about and practical involvement in the art market. Platform A and Untitled Gallery were two of the participants within the project and have now become regular exhibitors within TMC. There was a lot of interest in Market Share, so much so that we hope to run it again.
What are you looking for in an emerging gallery when you are considering them for selection?
We want to highlight galleries that have a developmental relationship with their artists, not just a sales/consignment relationship. We look for galleries and their artists that are making a difference and having impact at a local level within their own networks as well as at a national level with regard to the peer group relationships that they are building. We are aware that relationships with collectors take time to build so we want to work with galleries that are looking to have an ongoing developmental relationship with TMC rather than a one-off participation.
However, we are also conscious that we need to be ensuring that the fair keeps providing opportunities for new discoveries and so we try to maintain a balance between familiar and new faces each year. We are also interested in supporting galleries that want to engage with and develop relationships with the visual art ecology here in the North, not just with the collectors based here but also with curators and artists so we also look for that within the ambition of any potential TMC participant.
What are your future plans for Manchester Contemporary?
In collaboration with the rest of the steering committee we want to continue to build the reputation and impact of the fair so that we can begin to attract international participants. If we want the fair to reflect the most relevant and impactful exhibitors out there, then we need to be able to do that on an international level too. The fair's success rests on our ability to continue to grow the market and develop collectors, as without sales, galleries will be reluctant to renew their exhibiting relationship with us. We need to consider year round activities therefore which link each annual edition of the fair and which seek to develop cross-over relationships between purchasers at Buy Art Fair and The Manchester Contemporary.
We are keen to keep looking at ways in which we can encourage and develop the confidence of those interested in accessing challenging contemporary art but haven't as yet begun to purchase it. We need to continue to embed the fair within the ecology regionally and nationally to ensure that we are getting the best representation we can of curators attending – sales are important, but galleries also recognise that curatorial outcomes for the artists they are exhibiting are also an important result from participation in a fair.
Manchester Contemporary takes place from 26th to 28th September at the Old Granada Studios; visit www.themanchestercontemporary.com for more details.