Will Ramsay is the owner of Affordable Art Fairs, Pulse Art Fairs and the co-owner of Art HK and India Art Fair. Bhavna Kakar met him at the launch event of Art HK 2011 and had a brief tete-a-tete on his footing in the art world.
Bhavna Kakar (BK): The Affordable Art Fair (AAF) was launched in 1999, three years after Will’s Art Warehouse and today you are a host to art fairs in eight countries spread across four continents. Tell us a little about this ambitious ride.
Will Ramsay (WR): The last 30 years have witnessed a huge expansion in art, the atmosphere becoming much more user friendly. The idea behind Affordable Art Fair was to make collecting art an accessible affair. My aim was to break down the barriers of the sometimes stuffy and intimidating art world, making it friendlier and within the means of those who were apprehensive about the towering prices of art. I wanted to create an atmosphere where people could enjoy and collect art in a fun and informal atmosphere. The fair has a ceiling price of £4,000, with 75% of works at each fair between £100 and £3,000; the average selling price at previous fairs has been £700. The formula has worked: since 1999 AAF has welcomed over 783,000 global art lovers through its doors, who have spent over £123 million, proving there is a demand for accessible and affordable art. AAF is now a global brand, with fairs taking place all over the world. Affordable Art Fairs now take place annually in London (x3), Bristol, Amsterdam, Milan, Brussels, New York, Los Angeles and Singapore, with an affiliate show in Melbourne.
BK: You are also the co-founder of Art Hong Kong with Sandy Angus, the chairman of Montgomery Worldwide. Since Angus co-owns the India Art Fair with you, I foresee a great business association you both share!
WR: Sandy Angus is chairman of Montgomery Worldwide and has worked in the exhibition industry since the late 1960s. His subsequent career has embraced all areas of exhibitions including international show organising, contracting, venue management, marketing and senior general management. His network of connections throughout the contemporary world of exhibitions, event organising, show venues and host cities is probably unequalled.
BK: Are art fair business models a success? How long does it generally take to recover costs?
WR: I believe that there are essentially 3 levels of fairs. Basel, Frieze, Miami, Armory, Art HK, FIAC, ARCO are global fairs and fetch visitors from all over the world. India Art Fair, Art Stage Singapore, Art Brussels, Korea International Art Fair (KIAF) and Art Cologne are examples of regional fairs. Affordable Art Fair is a fairly local fair with a defined price ceiling i.e. £4,000 pounds in UK, 8000 SD in Singapore. It takes almost 2 years to put a fair together. If one is not able to recover costs in 3 years, it is better to fold up.
Traditionally, in difficult economic times the middle market of the art world struggles while the top and bottom are fine. Evidence shows that the top end is hunky-dory and the Affordable Art Fair proved that all is fine at the lower end of the market.
BK: Another in the list of your acquisitions is the India Art Fair marked to happen in February 2012. What drove you to invest in this Indian fair?
Two reasons: I was very impressed by Neha and what she has achieved. Second, India is such an amazing and growing economy that it would be foolish to ignore.
BK: The India Art Fair will take place a few days before the Hong Kong International Art Fair, in February. Since you host both the fairs, don’t you think the two fairs will be in competition? Also the Hong Kong Fair is more famous for the moment. How do you perceive this and do you have a balancing strategy to counter this?
WR: There’s never a perfect time for a fair. It is a frantic season. Short-term changes have happened. The Hong Kong fair had moved its dates from May to February, but now moved back to May. February is to the Chinese what August is to the French: a serious holiday season. The Hong Kong fair is now in the same month as the first Frieze New York and that city’s major auctions, and very close to Art Basel. India Art Fair will take place in February as scheduled.
BK: The galleries anyway promote art and art works. What do you think is the role of fairs vis-à-vis inculcating the culture of art?
WR: People dislike walking into a silent, wooden-floored gallery where you feel self-conscious. An art fair is a great place to lose yourself among the throng and to browse on and off the stand.
BK: India is a rapidly growing economy and this fair (IAF) is getting bigger and needs more aggressive management and promotion. Akin to auction houses and galleries, fairs have started behaving like corporations. Do you agree?
WR: Art Fair organisers have to be professional, yet must not be ‘corporate’ at the risk of losing touch with the art community.
BK: With a collective giant fair machinery under your control, do you ever feel the risk of event homogenization?
WR: No; each fair has to be right for that market. We make great efforts to engage the local art community to ensure that the fair echoes the local tastes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bhavna Kakar is an art historian, curator and arts advisor with an MVA specializing in Pre- Modern Art from M.S University, Baroda with a decade’s experience in researching and editing publications on modern and contemporary art. She essays dual roles as the Founder/Director of Gallery LATITUDE 28 and Editor/Publisher of TAKE on art, based out of New Delhi.