Art forecast for 2010

Can savvy dealers at London Art Fair crack the recession? Annie Deakin meets the fair’s director Jonathan Burton.
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The Independent Culture

Is the art market back on form? Artists, dealers and critics wait eagerly for tomorrow when the London Art Fair (13-17 January 2010) opens for its 22nd year. I caught up with Jonathan Burton, director of London Art Fair to learn how the savvier of galleries have introduced new business tactics in response to the recession. Can tiered pricing, flexible payment and more welcoming stands revive the art market?

While newspapers sparked with occasional headlines of record-breaking auctions in 2009, the market reality was more sober. “It’s been a tough year for galleries. There is a general agreement that prices across the international contemporary art market have fallen by 30-40% in the past year,” states Burton. “Certain artists have held prices but in a broad sense, the contemporary art market has fallen.”

This financial glut has forced galleries to hone their business skills. Gone are the days when art markets were akin to fish markets with people queuing obsessively, barging in and snapping up paintings without so much as a second thought. “Two years ago, the market was crazy,” recalls Burton. “People rushed into art fairs and the first two hours were frantic with people buying work at a frightening pace.” While the cash was changing hands fast (to dealers’ delight), there wasn’t the time for serious collectors or first time buyers to stand back and reflect before buying.

Burton expects art sales in 2010 to be better than last year, just steady and slow compared to 2007. Buying art will be a more considered action, rather than a flurry of excitement – and this, Burton says, is a good thing. “This year, galleries will notice that – and this is particularly so for the more expensive pieces – people will preview on Tuesday and return once or twice during the week before committing to buy.” It will be interesting to see how this week’s fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington pans out; there will be work in all mediums from large-scale installations and sculpture to traditional landscape paintings, conceptual art and photography.

In response to more cautious buyers, galleries are modifying their crowd-drawing tactics. “Galleries need to be business savvy, particularly in this climate and so they have learnt to mix up their prices,” noticed Burton. Visitors to the London Art Fair will see galleries exhibiting work at different prices; there’ll be pieces below £2,500, a few lots at £10,000 and one major piece at £10,000, all at the same stand. This price tiering makes a gallery seem less intimidating; “The aim is to attract very serious collectors spending hundreds of thousands of pounds but also create a welcoming environment for people wanting to buy a first piece of art.”

At the risk of sounding crude, what we all crave to know is: are there deals to be had at London Art Fair? Bargain hunters know to hotfoot to the Print Now space where a high caliber of artists will be flogging work at an affordable price. Established names including the ICA, the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 176 and the Saatchi Gallery bookshop will be selling limited edition prints priced around the £250 mark. For a couple of hundred pounds, you can pick up an edition by Turner Prize nominated artists Mark Titchner at 176. Burton expects this to be a massive hit; “We’re all the same; it’s reassuring to buy something by someone well known.”

But, will there be whopping discounts on major pieces at the show? “Twelve months ago, I would have said yes definitely. London Art Fair 2009 took place in the middle of the economic firestorm. Dealers were offering big discounts,” remembers Burton. “Now, it is more difficult and really depends gallery to gallery.” There has been some kind of price correction in the past twelve months which is why Burton thinks galleries will be less forthright in lowered pricing. In lieu of actual price reductions, he expects sale-hungry galleries to be more flexible than ever before in payment terms.

Looking at the art market barometers (Basel last summer and the Autumn auctions in New York and London), things have picked up considerably since this time last year. Yet enthusiasm within the industry is reluctant. “Galleries realize that there isn’t going to be a return to the huge market boom of 2007,” says Burton. But as dealers modify commercial strategies, London Art Fair might get the rumblings and the art market back on form for 2010.