As the 2016 edition of the Cape Town Art Fair slowly emerges on the horizon, ArtThrob chats to former art journalist and current CTAF director Matthew Partridge about changing sides, the role of fairs in the South African art world and mending confidence.
ArtThrob: So we’ll start off by talking about you switching sides, moving from journalism (critiquing art fairs) to becoming an art fair director. How did that come about and how have you found adjusting to this new role?
Matthew Partridge: The path to journalism was born of necessity. Coming from a position as an art historian, it felt like a natural fit because it combined art history and contemporary criticism. As I carried on, I became a bit disenchanted with journalism because I’ve always felt that I could do more and wanted to do more. The shift from going over into the commercial world has enabled me to tap into that skillset that I gained from writing about the business side of art. It enabled me to have the vocabulary at my disposal to harness it.
AT: Did you find that your background in journalism has helped with your responsibilities as a fair director?
MP: Absolutely, it’s been a natural fit. Coming from that world and into this one where the necessary business acumen is needed, it feels like I’m doing a paid MBA in many ways. I’ve found the changing relationship with artists and the galleries who represent them quite interesting as well. A lot of the time galleries are somewhat hostile towards journalists. Well, not hostile, but there’s a strange relationship that exists between galleries and journalists because on the one hand you’re a part of the machinery. On the other, they don’t always necessarily let you get too close. So it’s been quite interesting to see that from the other side. Having conversations with people where previously they would usually watch what they would say and wouldn’t just talk.
AT: Obviously a lot of your earlier writing is out there in the Internet sphere. You’ve been quite critical of previous installments of the Cape Town Art Fair in the past. You allegedly referred to the first installment as a “dog show” for instance. Why do you feel that the Cape Town Art Fair has had this struggle to establish itself and its identity in the past? Do you think that it’s managed to move past those teething problems?
MP: The crisis of identity which CTAF had was strapped to a bunch of logistical issues. First and foremost was the fact that we never had a single consolidated venue. So the fair was always adapting to a new venue and the goal posts were always changing for both the organisers and exhibitors. I think that was primarily its biggest stumbling point. The move to the Cape Town International Convention Centre (and we will be there for the foreseeable future of the fair) will really go a long way towards giving the fair the ability to establish a look and a feel.
AT: In his review of last year’s CTAF, Ashraf Jamal quoted you as saying that it was ‘exclusive, exclusionary and not necessarily available to everyone.’ Do you think that you’ve been able to address that on some level?
MP: Look, that’s always going to be the case, especially in the art world. I think that it would be naïve to think that somebody could come in and just solve those problems. That’s always going to exist because of the nature of our fractured society. How would one go about addressing the obvious imbalances economically and societally? I don’t want to say that it’s a mystery but those kinds of questions are bigger than any one event. A lot of it rests in the way that galleries address their audiences and actually, to be frank, the tone of the work. It’s about more than just galleries, it’s about what the artists are doing, who the artists are talking to and what the artists are talking about in their work. It’s myopic to think that places like galleries and fairs are setting these kinds of agendas. As I said, I do think that these questions are bigger than any one event. But I think that the answers to those questions can be found in the spirit of the artists and their intentions.
AT: How do you see the South African art world (and Cape Town in particular) as having shifted since the first installment of CTAF? Has the fair played a role in this?
MP: It’s interesting you know, you have to look at it on a historical trajectory. When people say ‘historical’ you immediately think 50 or 100 years ago. But history is being made every day. In a historical scope, when the Joburg Art Fair came up, people in the country and the market place asked if the South African art world was ready for an art fair. Is the marketplace strong enough to accommodate a fair and be sustainable? It spoke about the parochial, as it existed post-1994 and pre-JAF. And I don’t want to be as bold as to say that we are going to be sitting in a perspective where you are looking at the art world in South Africa pre-Joburg and post- Joburg. I think that’s an unnecessary weight to put onto it. But given that, I think it’s quite interesting to say that there was a point where the art market in SA didn’t have a fair. And when it came about, there were jitters about whether it was sustainable or not. Now what we’ve seen with the emergence of the Cape Town Art Fair is that the same audiences who asked if Joburg was ready came out and asked if the market was ready for two fairs?
AT: Is it?
MP: The answer to that is evident in the explosion of interest in fairs. In the fact that we’ve got two major art fairs now and two minor ones (Turbine and That Art Fair) each with different criteria. And so what I’ll be quite interested in is whether the fair can harness the interest into its trajectory of refiguring what’s happening in the production and trade of art. Because it all boils down to trade at the end of the day; whether we can consolidate that. And I feel very confident that we are starting to see a shift in the way that commercial actions are taking place.
Initially, when it came to the art market very often there was a sense that real business was done in Joburg and Cape Town was where the majority of the artists lived. I really think that CTAF is bringing the scene together in Cape Town in such a way that as to bring about a new era. Well maybe not a new era, galleries will always exist in spite of fairs and fairs aren’t necessary for galleries to survive. It would be hubris to assume that. But I do think that the presence of fairs can help the galleries, not only in establishing themselves (definitely in their relationship to collectors) but in relation to the international community as well.
AT: Who do you see as being the target audience of CTAF?
MP: That’s where we get into difficult questions, I mean the audience for art in South Africa is very small and art is often looked at as a niche thing. You can’t get away from that fact but I think that the important question that galleries need to be asking of themselves is how to re-address audiences. An art fair is only a vehicle for that to happen. So the internal question needs to start with the galleries and how they address who their audiences are. We’re just the vehicle that can hopefully assist in that process.
I don’t want to talk about demographics and racialise things because it’s too easy to do that. But we need to start looking for new audiences and younger audiences and I know a lot of galleries are concerned about that. It’s the fair’s vision to be a place where audiences can begin to understand art better because they can understand what galleries do better and the product that a gallery presents and sells and in such a way that they can understand museums better at the same time. Ultimately the real goal of the fair is to get people into our museums and our galleries. Because again, it’s a way of consolidating what they do. Rather than looking at who the audience is, looking at what are we enabling the audience to do, what kind of lens we are providing them with.
AT: Does the move to the CTICC run the risk of precluding any unique character the fair might have? What then separates it from Joburg and the Sandton Convention Centre?
MP: There’s always going to be a different type of tone to the one in Joburg, it’s very important to differentiate the two models. Cape Town Art Fair is not as it happens in Joburg. Cape Town is a seaside town and it’s very different. So obviously the fair is going to be different because hopefully it will reflect a different kind of character. That being said, it’s not going to try and define itself in opposition either. There’s a certain model of fair, ‘this is what art fairs do’ and ‘this is what art fairs look like’ internationally and so at the same time we (‘we’ being the fair) aspire to work within the best international practices.
AT: Have you taken any interesting architectural approaches to how you will be using the CTICC space?
MP: Actually this is the first time I’m speaking about it. I wanted to make the fair very clean and to distil the messaging of the fair. The benefit of the CTICC and the layout of the venue really just facilitates that sort of smoothness. Initially as you walk in, you will notice this year that the fair is book-ended by two sections. The first thing that you see is the young artists section Tomorrows/Today curated by Azu Nwagbogu and Ruth Simbao with eight booths featuring solo representations of young artists. So you walk into that section which is quite open and compartmentalised and then you walk through that into the main commercial space. This year we have 3.6m walls in the commercial section – which is again maintaining international standards- so it’s really quite a powerful environment for the galleries to present work in. At the back end of that is the Past/Modern (not postmodern) section.
So we’ve got the young artist section, the commercial section and the past-modern in a row. And then we’ve got our cultural platforms which this year is very exciting: we’ve got the national gallery of Namibia, national gallery of Zimbabwe, national gallery of South Africa, alongside other important cultural institutions like the AVA, Bag Factory, Greatmore Studios and they’ll be joined by others. As I said, the idea is to help audiences understand galleries and the broader infrastructure behind the fair. And then we’ve got a section for prints and editions [Where ArtThrob can be found. Shameless punt -ed]and bookstores.
AT: Can you tell us a bit more about the Past/Modern section?
MP: In my experience with fairs, you walk through and its contemporary, contemporary, contemporary and then suddenly somebody like George Pemba or Sekoto or older work pops up and it confuses the messaging of the contemporary work. And so the section for Past/Modern is designed to accommodate that and it’s also designed to clarify what you’re looking at. Broadly speaking, it’s nice to see things historically categorised. And it’s also going, I suppose, to mend some of the lack of confidence which the fair was greeted with in 2015 where it was separated between two sections. This way everything is cleanly categorised, it’s kinder on galleries and more specifically, and more importantly, kinder on audiences.
It goes back to that thing of what are we doing for audiences? We are trying to help audiences understand what they are looking at. Obviously there are different tiers which you service. Our clients are the galleries. We provide them with a space to sell, but we bring in the collectors; so those are the next tier. We would also like to see works placed in institutional collections and in our public art museums. When our public cultural platforms are faced with institutional neglect at the hands of our current dispensation, places like fairs will hopefully encourage collectors– in the absence of acquisition budgets –to make donations into those public institutions.
Cape Town Art Fair 2016 will run from 19 – 21 February 2016 at the CTICC. More information can be found here.