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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.