In 2012, the 20/21 BRITISH ART FAIR celebrated its 25th anniversary. It is still the only fair to specialise exclusively in modern and contemporary British art. It was founded on the premise that Modern British art (with the exceptions of Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Ben Nicholson) was undervalued and needed a flagship. At that time the market for international modern art was booming and British art was gathering momentum in its slipstream. The age-old inferiority complex about the superiority of French art and, more recently, American art, was disappearing and the art schools were turning out the artists who became the YBA movement, headed by Damien Hirst and his contemporaries.
The fair, known until 2000 as The 20th Century British Art Fair, was created by Gay Hutson and Angela (Bunny) Wynn with the help of a small group of dealers and for the first three years it was held at The Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch. The fair’s focus was, and always has been, historical and modernist, with a taste of the contemporary and works not considered to be ‘in the spirit of the 20th century were vetted off. By 1991 it had moved to the prestigious galleries of the Royal College of Art, rightly known as the spiritual home of British art as it boasts such internationally recognised alumni such as Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Tony Cragg, Chris Ofili, and Tracey Emin – most of whose work can usually been found at each fair.
Having survived the depths of the recession in the early 90s, business has thrived but few could have predicted the enormous rise of interest there has been in art since then, both in the UK and globally. Attitudes to buying art have also changed dramatically; twenty five years ago it was more the domain of the elite, but, with the advent of the YBAs and the phenomenal success of Tate Modern, art now appeals to a very broad audience and the 20/21 British Art Fair has undoubtedly played its part in this development.
The dealers are the backbone of the art trade. Look into the archives of some of the oldest established exhibiting galleries – such as Agnews, Austin/Desmond, Beaux Arts, Jonathan Clark, Crane Kalman, Gimpel Fils or Redfern - and you will find evidence of their early support for many of today’s most sought after names. The importance of the dealer’s role is sometimes overlooked, but their years of nurture and support through good times and bad, building up artists’ careers by mounting and curating exhibitions, organising print editions, catalogues and publications should not be overlooked.
The fair has in all some 55 dealers exhibiting, almost a quarter of whom were at the first fair back in 1988 (although some have dipped in and out). The wealth and depth of knowledge which these specialists bring to the fair is the foundation of its strong following and excellent reputation.
The art world has changed radically since the Boundary Gallery was founded 26 years ago in Boundary Road, London NW8 – just a year before the first 20th Century British Art Fair (as the 20/21 fair was known then).
Back in the late l980s, everyone was much more formal. As a dealer, I used to go to auctions to purchase Modern British masters for the gallery’s stock. Catalogues were distributed to special clients only who were all galleries. At auctions, one was surrounded by other gallery owners; there was hardly a member of the public to be seen.
Twenty-five years ago, 95 per cent of the art trade was conducted from galleries – though not every gallery mounted exhibitions like the Boundary Gallery did (at least nine a year). The dealing side took place in the back of the gallery, where I had an office cum storeroom and art library.
Art fairs were a way to increase and improve one’s mailing lists and it was hard to get into them because there were so few. The 20th Century British Art Fair was a most desirable one and it was so oversubscribed that I had to wait two years before I managed to get a stand.
Since then, I have never missed this fair. It was at one of the fairs that someone spotted a Self-Portrait by David Bomberg; two weeks later, following a telephone call, a gentleman appeared at the gallery and purchased the painting. In two minutes! Apparently, his family trust owned a matching self-portrait but in charcoal and they wanted the painting.
At another fair I was exhibiting another Bomberg Self-Portrait that brought me luck. It did not sell there but two weeks later a lady walked into the gallery, enquired after it, then introduced herself as curator of the National Portrait Gallery and to make a long story short, they acquired it.
During the past ten years the scenario has become completely different. This is due mainly to computers and the internet, along with the growth of art fairs. The fair has in all some 55 dealers exhibiting, almost a quarter of whom were at the first fair back in 1988 (although some of dipped in and out).
The wealth and depth of knowledge which these specialists bring to the fair is the foundation of its strong following and excellent reputation.
The internet has allowed the public to become much better informed and hence more self-confident and opinionated. Galleries have always been somewhat intimidating and that is why art fairs became so popular. It has been like going to a supermarket – seeing everything under one roof without being seen to look, a chance for comparative shopping.
The most radical change has been the use of computers. Images can be stored in these magic machines and transmitted to potential customers.
In fact, it is not so necessary to have a gallery anymore: with a good website and participation at art fairs, many dealers manage not only to survive but thrive.
So the most obvious action was to close the gallery and work from home and rent a storage space but I didn’t follow the example of so many colleagues and close the gallery until the end of September last year.
Why did it take me so long to decide?
It was the love of art and keeping in touch with living artists that stopped me and all the people who wanted to look at pictures in a gallery. But then I realised that I could create a situation where I could still meet lovers of art – at art fairs! Of the art fairs, for the Boundary Gallery, the best one is the 20/21 British Art Fair – which has concentrated on British artists from 1900 onwards – and where the visitors can witness the high standard of displays thanks to a thorough vetting process.