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Counting the cost of a cancelled art fair to Cape Town’s art ecosystem

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

Tumbleweeds are blowing through the Cape Town International Convention Centre. Or at least I imagine there are; I haven’t done a turn there since the last Investec Cape Town Art Fair took place in mid February. The fair would make for an intense week and start to year – with a glut of events in the run up to and during the art fair. You would live on a diet of cheap canapes, bubbles, convention centre food (quiche made with frozen veg) and Panados while trying to remember the names of all the people you met the previous day, journaling all your meetings, looking at a lot of art and gauging how good the sales had really been.

The absence of this event doesn’t only evoke an uneasy nostalgia for art fairs (who would have thought it) or an empty social calendar for February, it brings into stark relief the impact of Covid-19 on the Cape Town Art ecosystem. It is not that its growth and sustainability has entirely rested on this one event – rather its status as a popular tourist destination plays a much more important role. Nevertheless, the absence of all the complimentary events surrounding the fair has ramifications. The sales, networking and relationships that are struck that have long term impact, the substance of the programming, not only give a financial boost to the industry, but also a kind of confidence and discursive buoyancy (through the non-commercial content driven programmes) in the early part of the year that you can’t depict in a graph.

February is supposed to be a bumper month for the South African, and by proxy, the African art market. This is Africa's largest art fair. As the Investec Cape Town Art Fair has come to be more internationalised – via the foreign galleries that participate and the European collectors who are flown in by Fiera Milano (the Italian owners) it has naturally become the centrifugal force around which museum exhibitions, strong gallery shows, auctions and other art-centric events take place. As such it is during this time of year that the city’s status as Africa’s main art capital – a conclusion we arrived at in the SA Art Market: Patterns and Pricing – manifests in an obvious manner.

Vistors to the Kentridge survey exhibition at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African art.

All these events surrounding the Investec Cape Town Art Fair, have also exposed a healthy art ecosystem at work, with an art fair complimenting auctions, gallery exhibitions and drawing attention to the role of museums. Last year, we even had a Triennale of sorts in Stellenbsoch to add some conceptual weight to the spread of art attractions. As a born-and-bred Joburger (who has migrated to this city) it is around this time of year that I smugly revel in being a resident of such a buoyant art capital.

The Investec Cape Town Art Fair – had perhaps reached its apex with over 60 galleries from around the world participating in 2020. There were galleries from Brazil, Austria, Tunisia and Dubai. They didn’t all do very well, with some complaining that South African’s only wanted to buy art they recognised and Italians wanted art only by Africans (or Italians). Yet this international character and influx of visitors was a definite boost to Cape Town’s art scene - that all these galleries travelled so far buoyed by the prospects that this art capital holds at this time of year presented a vote of confidence. Cape Town was starting to feel a little like an international art capital not just an African one.

Overall the art fair week in 2020 was a bumper one in terms of complimentary events. Where in previous years there was only the Strauss & Co Contemporary Art auction timed to coincide with the fair; there were two last year with Piasa and Aspire art auction houses combining forces for a sale a few days before the Strauss & Co one. There may have been ‘blood on the floor’ at the Aspire/Piasa auction, which left people wondering whether two auctions could be sustained at this time but nonetheless they clawed a 59% sell-through rate – compared to Strauss & Co’s healthier 75% sell-through rate.

Prior to the opening of the art fair was the launch of the long-awaited Stellenbosch Triennale. It was not as grand as we expected – how could it be, given it was privately funded - and was largely confined to one capacious warehouse where the dimensions made it tricky to generate a visual journey. But nonetheless, it brought African curators (from elsewhere) and artists to this famously cloistered winelands town and presented a fresh non-commercial event to compliment all the commerce happening in the city. The two William Kentridge survey shows at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art and the Norval Foundation, also offered a big drawcard for foreign and local (from Joburg) visitors.

Given the economy in South Africa was in trouble, the activity in February in Cape Town in 2020 presented a much needed boost not only in terms of sales for the galleries based in South Africa, but morale too. The after-glow of the fair may have been short-lived – it was rumoured that Investec were pulling their sponsorship and the director of the fair, Laura Vincenti was leaving.

Yet, it is such a relief there isn’t a virtual one to replace the real one this year. In truth it would offer a few hours of browsing over the weekend and probably for gallerists a smattering of sales. The digital art world has moved on. Take a look at the South South Veza initiative and auction – put together by a collective of galleries from the global South – launched this month.

Auctions are the new art fairs really; they seem to work better in terms of generating sales online. This South South Veza live-online event with such a broad offering of art from such a diversity of countries evokes a new kind of internationalisation/globalisation of the art market than an online offering of the Cape Town Art Fair could ever have achieved. Clearly, Fiera Milano are not interested in digital innovation – why would they be when live events are their bread and butter. Art Joburg's attempt at digital innovation last year was a huge disappointment. Perhaps Fiera Milano Africa are wise to skip a virtual fair fiasco.

Last year they bullishly announced they would still hold a fair this February and it wasn’t going to be held online. In their newsletter they were adamant that art fairs were events best enjoyed in person. They must have had some trouble getting commitment from galleries, as those local ones that normally would not be offered a place in the fair were being courted. Presumably many of the galleries from Europe and elsewhere probably weren’t biting either.

The fair was then delayed to May 2021. Or has that been cancelled too? It is hard to keep up. Let’s see what happens in May. Strauss & Co don’t have an auction planned for that month, and it is too late for museums and art foundations to perhaps offer something exciting. And given so few South Africans will be vaccinated by then it is hard to imagine it will be worth staging the event at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. If the fair does manifest it will be an isolated art event.

Perhaps at best we can dream of February 2022 – when the majority of the world’s population have been vaccinated. Galleries from Brazil and Tunisia will probably think twice about coming here and taking their chances in a country where the economy has steadily worsened. Will the Cape Town Art Fair become a more local event again, with less international galleries and visitors? Now that true internationalisation of this art market is probably easier to achieve virtually... it leaves real-life ones with different challenges than they faced before.



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