Sydney is to get its own contemporary art fair. These vast supermarkets for selling art are ever more popular: the past two months alone have seen the inaugural New York edition of the London-based Frieze in May; Art HK in Hong Kong just two weeks later; and Art Basel in Switzerland, the grandest modern and contemporary fair of them all, earlier this month. Galleries that took part in all three describe the gruelling sequence as a “marathon”.
For galleries wanting to tap into the growing Australian market, the marathon is about to get even longer. The first edition of the biennial Sydney Contemporary will take place next year, from April 12-14. It will start modestly, according to British founder Tim Etchells, who runs an event management company in Australia. He expects about 70 galleries, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, with a sprinkling of international ones from countries such as Indonesia and Singapore.
“We’d like to get some of the high-end galleries in Sydney like Roslyn Oxley [whose programme focuses on artists from the Asia-Pacific region] and Anna Schwartz [who represents British artists Antony Gormley and Yinka Shonibare, among others] – so far we’ve had a pretty positive response,” says Etchells.
But the goal is to develop the event to attract more international galleries and collectors within a few years. “We’ll try and make it really fun with lots of ancillary programming,” says Etchells. He adds that interest in contemporary art is growing in the city.
“The opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new wing in March was a huge event, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales [which opened new galleries last year to show the contemporary collection of textile magnate John Kaldor] is very successful.”
Etchells has form when it comes to launching art fairs in new markets, with his biggest success to date being in Hong Kong. In 2007 he started Art HK after a chance meeting with an art dealer friend in Sydney. Four years later he sold a 60 per cent stake in the fair to Messe Schweiz, the Swiss company that runs Art Basel and its sister fair in Miami Beach. Messe Schweiz’s annual report for 2011 reveals that the price paid to Etchell and his partners was CHF6.6m.
Etchells believes the time is now right for Australia. “Sydney Contemporary represents the first time this city has hosted a serious, high-end art fair. We expect it to play a significant role in helping to focus attention on the art scene in the same way that Art HK focused attention on Asian art,” he says.
From next year, Etchells will also take over the running of the biennial Melbourne Art Fair in alternate years to the Sydney event. This was founded 24 years ago by a not-for-profit organisation but barely registers on the international map. Running both events, says Etchells, will enable him to devise a coherent strategy to raise the profile of the Australian scene. “If you’re promoting both Sydney and Melbourne on an annual basis, little by little people will start to take notice.”