“It’s open plan, it flows. It’s more than that. It’s the floor in the old construction workshop which is covered in paint from a thousand set builds and set designs, and you just look at it and think about what might have been there? Was it a Coronation Street front room or a Cracker murder…?”
Sitting in the iconic surroundings of Old Granada Studios, Manchester, face to face with Buy Art Fair Director, Thom Hetherington on the launch night of the fair. He looks relaxed and comfortable already in the new surroundings, and is waxing lyrical about the place within the first minute of our meeting.
This is the seventh edition of the fair, which takes place annually over three days in September. It’s the biggest art fair outside of London and incorporates The Manchester Contemporary and for the first time this year, plays host to a special exhibition from the Asia Triennial, which also launched in Manchester this weekend.
The Buy Art Fair has re-located five times in those seven years. It has been met with challenges, evolved and expanded, but has it improved and settled now that it has found a new home at Old Granada Studios?
Thom, you are in your seventh year now of running this fair, how does that feel?
“I think we’ve really found our feet. I was pontificating earlier that seven isn’t actually very old. So maybe art fair years are like dog years. Maybe we are hitting out thirties; it’s a new period, were you cast off youthful things, grow up and find your feet in the world.”
Location seems to be a changeable factor in the life span of the fair. You’ve moved every year, with the exception of two. Has this affected development in any way?
“Yes, there have in fact been a variety of places. We don’t make life easy for ourselves by moving all the time! Certainly we have moved around for the last five years. So, every year, you end up making the first year mistakes in a new venue and then you don’t get to learn from them and you move on again, and your back making the same mistakes in a different venue. That’s challenging. Fun. Never boring. Even here, in the iconic Old Granada studios, we’ve had the challenge of being a guinea pig event. We are the first major exhibition fair to be hosted in this venue”.
What was the motivation behind this most recent move?
“The minute we knew that the space was available, we fought tooth and nail to get it. We were lucky that Allied London, the people who own it were willing to work with us. It’s an iconic venue, resonant with cultural heritage and history for the north and internationally really; it has that much kudos attached to it”.
“It’s not just a beautiful building; it’s also the atmosphere. There’s something almost tangible in the air that makes you want to spend more time here and everyone seems to have picked up on it.
It’s open plan. It flows. It’s two and a half times bigger! At Spinningfields we were cramped, at capacity and landlocked. It prevented us from doing things. Art is all about having room to breathe in a space that you want to stay in. Here we can do that and it makes a massive difference”.
The Manchester Contemporary and the Asia Triennial are taking place alongside the Buy Art Fair as we mentioned. What do each of these events bring to Manchester’s art landscape?
“The Manchester Contemporary is also our art fair, although they have very separate identities. The Manchester Contemporary is its own very self-contained fair for critically engaged art and emerging artists. We are also hosting an exhibition as part of Asia Triennial in the space here with us, which is a first, featuring new emerging artist, Bashir Makhoul (a contributor to last year’s Venice Biennale) and we have the Noise Festival here, curated by musician Brian Eno and Tim Marlow (Royal Academy)”.
“Essentially, the Buy Art Fair is the hub in the art ecology here. We generate the footfall and then push people out to all those other fairs and events. We are also here as the name says on the tin: to sell art. There are a lot of fantastic events where you can experience art, the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, Harris Museum in Preston, the Tate, but there are very few opportunities where people can come, spend their own money and purchase a piece of art work they love, take it home and enjoy it everyday”.
What is the appeal of buying art?
“It’s a very visceral and intoxicating thing buying art and people don’t have the opportunity to do it normally”.
What advice do you have for first time visitors to the fair?
“As I mentioned, the two installations from Asia Triennial and Noise Festival are a must see. The work isn’t for sale, but the rawness is absolutely brilliant!”
“In The Manchester Contemporary, it’s got to be the legendary Bill Drummond, who famously burnt one million pounds as part of the ‘K Foundation’. He’s here for the next three days and is either painting or knitting for virtually all that time. Just go and talk to him. It won’t be time wasted”.
What advice would you give to first time buyers?
“It’s the simplest thing in the world. If you can afford it and you really like it, then buy it! It really is that simple. Art is art. You can’t do a price comparison website. If you have fifty pounds, five hundred or five thousand, it doesn’t really matter. Just buy it – you won’t regret it!”
And how is the art market at the moment, given that the Buy Art Fair has endured throughout a recession?
“You wouldn’t have thought there would be a bigger rise in spends on art, but our art fair has grown year upon year through the worst recession in human history”.
“I don’t know whether that was the art market itself or because there was untapped demand which we’re still scratching the surface of”.
What are the barriers to cultivating more collectors in the north: do you think wealth plays a role in that?
“Money? No. I don’t think that’s such an issue. Engagement is the main one. Everyone in the London art world told me no one bought art in Manchester. I thought it was the other way around and there were no galleries about six years ago to buy from; well, there were three in the city, but in a city of two and a half million, that’s virtually nothing! I felt that if we could provide that and give people the experience, take away the uncertainty and lack of confidence, then they would buy it and they do, but yes, there’s still some way to go”.
“It’s a bit like food – everyone has an interest in food now, but twenty-five years ago that wouldn’t have been the case. People would have thought you were mad if you took an interest in the provenance of your olive oil! Now though, it’s acceptable. Food broke through the mainstream. It’s on telly, in magazines and people talk about it a lot more. I’m not saying art will be as popular as food, but things are changing. There has been a shift…I think this fair proves there is no real north vs. south divide and if anything, if you provide something like this, then people will come. Plus, there is a generation now for whom buying art is a normal thing. It’s not snobby or elitist. People are growing up with this and seeing it as something you do”.
And finally, have you purchased any art work yet?
“No, but I will crack like an egg very soon! I have my eye on several pieces and I’m flinching whenever anyone looks at them because they are mine!”
With thanks to Thom Hetherington, Director, Buy Art Fair.
Written by Cat Teague @catmcr @mcrcultureshow