Tonight I'm heading to Sydney to help set up the Constance ARI stall at the Sydney Contemporary art fair. Constance was invited as one of two ARIs to showcase work by local emerging artists, which is an indicator of the gallery's national reputation (unfortunately, we just found out that the recognition doesn't extend to the state funding body - the gallery will not be financially supported from January next year. But that's another story...). I've never been to an art fair, but I've wanted to ever since reading Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World, which profiles over seven 'days' the auction, the crit, the fair, the prize, the magazine, the studio visit, and the biennale. It's an amusing snapshot at a world full of contradictions, myths, personalities, and most fascinatingly for me, the commercial art scene. I read it in 2008, the year I commenced my PhD. I realised that although I had an honours degree in fine arts and was a budding arts writer and artist, I really had no idea what went on in the commercial art world. I had never been to a high-profile art auction, the Venice Biennale or an art fair, and most commercial galleries I entered made me as nervous as entering, say, an Hermès shop.
Five years on and I have a PhD, I've been to the Venice Biennale twice, and I write for Australian Art Collector. I feel more comfortable walking into a contemporary commercial art gallery (the ones with Picasso paintings on the wall like the one I ventured into on Rodeo Drive earlier this year still freak me out), and I've been to one dodgy art auction. Hell, I've even bought art from a commercial gallery, even if minor. But I still feel very much an outsider. I am part of the academic edge of the art world; I'm a maker, a writer, a museum invigilator, an ARI committee member and, most significantly, I live at the end of the world: Hobart (or at least that's how some of the international articles about MONA like to call it).
My first Venice Biennale visit was in 2009. I was lucky enough to receive a travel grant from the University of Tasmania to present a paper at a conference held in conjunction with the biennale. It was during the peak visiting season - late July - and it was crowded, hot, massive, and super exciting. My second visit was in 2011. I worked as a team leader at the Australia pavilion during the opening month. The vernissage - the three days of private viewing before the hoi poloi are let in - was overwhelming. It was a scene that not even Thornton's book had prepared me for. You could smell the wealth and exclusivity. Women stumbled over the gravel giardini in their ridiculous heels, men in full suits sweated (artfully, of course) in the June sun (although one man made a point of wearing a toilet seat around his neck), and I even saw one collector walk through the curated pavilion with what was presumably their buyer, pointing at a sculpture meaningfully. Mega yachts parked outside the giardini venue, the largest of which was occupied by a single man wearing a pair of gold speedos to match his bronzed and buffed skin. Openings were held in ornate of Venetian palaces, and the guests were largely those who had donated enough money to the art foundation in question, which essentially 'buys' you a ticket.
Will the Sydney Contemporary art fair be like the Venice Biennale? Of course not. We don't have that kind of wealth in Australia, nor the draw of the biennale itself. However, I predict I will feel like an outsider. I'm looking forward to expanding my art education by attending the four day event. I look forward to people watching, some of the talks (if I have time), and of course viewing the hundreds of artworks on display.