When I eventually found my way in to the Year_07 Art Fair yesterday it’d only been open for about an hour and they still hadn’t put any signs up. Everyone I met on the way there was also lost, and once inside there was still a fair amount of confusion. Refreshingly, it felt about as slick as a degree show – or even less so, with artists’ names pencilled straight onto cubicle walls – though it may be that things are going to tighten up in time for the big money over the weekend.
Year_07 only started last year and its rapid growth (from 32 stallholders in 2006 to the current 55) added a buzz to the proceedings. It’s getting bigger but it’s still by no means big, which is a pivotal phase for an art fair: which way to go from here? It claims to operate an anti-hierarchical selection policy which allows it the curatorial freedom to include challenging new work regardless of its commercial viability. For me it felt more tentative than that, with nothing I’d call genuinely risk-taking.
Perhaps it was because despite the good intentions of the organisers, some of the gallerists were a bit off-message. One stallholder helpfully let me know that if I liked this drawing “there are three more in the range”. In the range?? To his credit, I think it made him wince too, ever so discreetly. And another stallholder let slip that a certain stack of paintings had crossed the Atlantic with them because the artist in question has a show on in the proper gallery at the moment and they had some “extras” left over (wince). If the relatively low status of Year_07 makes gallerists reluctant to show their best work there, then there’s a real problem with the system.
It’s difficult not to compare every London art fair to Frieze, particularly as most of them are explicitly set up as alternative versions of it. But what hope is there for these smaller fairs when all they’re doing is aspiring to the lofty heights of the Regent’s Park? In its fourth year now, Zoo (originally billed as anti-Frieze) is inviting ever-more established artists and institutions, and its impressive list of big-name major sponsors has Saatchi at the top. Every year it exhibits more and sells more, and its cut-off point for what it calls ’emerging’ mysteriously rises every year. It’s fast becoming the new Frieze: a path that it looks like all the younger fairs are aiming to follow.
So what are the implications of being “the London art fair scene’s fastest-rising star“, as Year 07 describes itself? I’m afraid at worst it makes the enterprise of setting up new art fairs seem just a bit pointless. It looks like the future of the fair is just to keep swapping the names round: Zoo becomes the new Frieze, Year 07 becomes the new Zoo, someone new steps up to become the new Year 07 … and round we go again.
The fairs are following the well-worn trajectory of the artist whose once-challenging practice becomes accepted and subsumed into mainstream contemporary culture. But if they claim the squeaky clean agenda of taking risks to uncover and support new, untested talent, then that isn’t the right trajectory to follow. Art fairs have a sufficiently flexible structure to allow them to be as nimble as they need to be if they’re to present exactly and only artwork that fulfils their criteria, but as they get bigger their reactions seem to slow. I wonder whether there’ll ever be an art fair so genuinely immune to commercial pressure that they actually drop galleries and artists if they become too much of a sure thing?