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Directing the Fair - Q & A with Cape Town Art Fair director Matthew Partridge

by Marilyn de Freitas posted on October 15, 2015.

Matthew Partridge © Cape Town Art Fair 2014

There's no question that the art fair has become an entrenched role in the way art galleries conduct its business and marketing. International fairs has seen some major galleries make as much as two-thirds of their sales at fairs - broadening the contemporary art market to a wider audience beyond the limited gallery space.

The Cape Town Art Fair presents its fourth edition at its newly appointed home, the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC) in February 2016. In 2015, the Fair attracted over 7000 visitors, with galleries recording upwards of R20 million in sales. We caught up with the newly appointed Fair director, Matthew Partridge, on what we can expect from next year's art fair, buyer trends, and art he likes to collect.

Can you tell us about yourself and what the role of Fair Director entails?

I'm originally from Pietermaritzburg, a small town in the foothills of the Kwa-Zulu Natal midlands where the visual arts scene is rather small with limited opportunities so, after my undergrad at UKZN, I went exploring. After a stint teaching Art History, I found myself living in Johannesburg, writing art criticism and working as a freelance journalist. During this period, I enrolled at Wits to complete my MA.

My role as Fair Director entails both the creative and commercial development of the Fair. As Director I wear many hats, but the overarching theme is really how to facilitate every aspect that goes into raising the standard of the Fair so it can compete with other international events of its kind.

What, in your view, is the focus of the Cape Town Art fair - or the fair's niche?

The focus of the Cape Town Art Fair, or of any art fair in general, is the sale of art. The focus of the Cape Town Art Fair is contemporary art and the galleries that service such a structure. We aim to nurture that structure by providing a commercial platform for such business to take place.

The 2016 edition sees a move to the larger space of the CTICC. What can vistors and buyers expect to see? What will set it apart from previous editions?

The first thing is the bigger walls. Whilst the walls of a fair are essentially invisible because they provide the setting for the art, I am proud to say that this year will feature 3.6m high walls in the main exhibition booths. These are of international standard and will provide a clean, slick appearance to the Fair.

Another thing that people can expect to see, is a dedicated Special Projects area. I've really wanted to distil the Fair into the absolute essence of what an art fair is, so we will only be having two Special Projects this year.

The first is our talks program, with some really amazing speakers. Secondly, we have a co-curated Special Project titled 'Tomorrows/Today' by Director of Lagos Photo and Head of the African Artists' Foundation, Azu Nwagbogu and Professor of Art History at Rhodes University, Ruth Simbao. Consisting of eight solo representations by young and emerging artists, this promises to bring some of the most cutting edge production of contemporary art from the continent and the diaspora to Cape Town.

© Cape Town Art Fair 2014

What are some trends you've noticed with art buyers and collectors and how they have approached buying work at art fairs?

For me, art fairs are amazing places, because they put everyone under one roof so you are able to get a real cross section of a particular marketplace. The key trend that I've noticed, is that buyers and collectors are doing their research and are constantly looking for good deals. Slowly, South Africans are looking at the practice of collecting art more holistically and are turning to patronage as a sustainable model of investing.

By sustainable, I mean that more than investing in the object or the product of an artist, they are investing in the career of the actual artist, which is enormously encouraging. Fairs give us the room to make comparisons and the platform to start assessing what's available, allowing us to get to know an artist's work more extensively and start following their career.

You have stated that art fairs have "done much to enliven the economic sector of the SA art world, attracting international buyers keen to snap up the latest and greatest." What do you think makes the Cape Town Art Fair important to the art industry in South Africa and Africa as a whole?

The plain and simple fact of the matter is that, in the middle of February, Cape Town is one of the most attractive places in the world to visit. Coupled with the fact that it boasts a lively contemporary art scene, it also is a specialist destination that demands to be consolidated. More than just important, the Fair has a responsibility to do just that. It's putting our best foot forward and saying to the world, "this is what we've got". At the same time, my aim is to initiate conversation about what contemporary art from Africa means as part of the wider global interest in the resources of our continent.

What art do you collect? What have you bought in the past?

Personally, I love photography and painting. I do have a growing collection of works on paper because this is often the best way to start accumulating work. I would love to collect sculpture, but it's a little too expensive for me right now.

A thing to remember is that collecting is not about the names that hang on your walls, but rather about how in love you are with the objects that adorn your life. If something makes you see the world a little differently or even makes you smile once a day, then it's worth a whole lot more than the money you paid for it.

What have you learned the most about the South African art scene since joining the Cape Town Art Fair team?

I am learning every day and it's amazing to see the art world from the angle that I do. I still pinch myself every time I walk into an art gallery. But the art world is bigger than any one person or any one gallery; it's about the way that it all comes together. The Cape Town Art Fair is part of that process.

The Cape Town Art Fair opens at the CTICC from 19 - 21 February 2016.

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