Made in Britain, bought everywhere else

Art 96 aims to teach the British public to appreciate the artists on their doorstep. By Iain Gale
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The Independent Culture
British art is caught in a paradox. On the one hand, London is being hailed as the new art capital of the world. On the other, the British public are still renowned for their unshakeable conservatism. We don't know much about art, but we know what we like. Or do we? Most of the art made in this country today is destined for export. As always it seems that our neighbours in Europe and the US are able to appreciate our achievements before we can. Clearly something must be done if we are not to let the revolution on our own doorstep pass us by.

An event in London next week promises to help. Art 96 is the eighth London Contemporary Art Fair. It's smaller than before - not, apparently, for want of applications from dealers keen to exhibit, but through deliberate pruning to make it less daunting to the public. "We've cut out 20 stands and reduced the fair to about 100 dealers," says the organiser Lucy Sicks. "Of course the established galleries will be here - Gimpel, Agnews, Marlborough - but we've also got the important relative newcomers." White Cube (Damien Hirst) are showing, as is Karsten Schubert (Rachel Whiteread). There will also be a space where visitors can encounter "art off the beaten track", featuring work promoted by London's "more unusual" dealers, including Anthony Wilkinson and Jibby Beane.

The unique attraction of the fair is that, alongside such cutting-edge mavericks, the public will see more mainstream work, and experience something of the range of art being made in Britain today. It will be a chance to compare the traditional with the avant-garde. According to Sicks, this is a central aspect of the fair: "The British public need to be informed and this fair has an important educational role."

Thus, while the dealers' stands still form the core of the fair, it will also host a new art award for young artists, sponsored by the Wingate Foundation, and a museums' day, when curators from the country's leading public galleries will attend. There will be significant contributions too from the Contemporary Art Society and the Arts Council.

Perhaps surprisingly, the dealers appear to have embraced their didactic role. Daniella Gareh of White Cube says: "The impetus for us here is to create a stronger awareness of British artists in their home market." The fair is creating a new breed of collector, says Sicks. "You can find works here from pounds 75, or you can just come to look. We want to encourage people to enter the world of contemporary art for the first time."

The dealers are aware that the fair does not have the same character as its slick counterparts in Cologne, Basle and Chicago. "In Cologne or Basle," says Benjamin Rhodes of Jason & Rhodes, "you know you're talking to people who are open about their taste and the amount they spend every year on art. Here we have a very nervous art-buying public. They're still reluctant to come into the galleries and this fair gives them an opportunity to browse without compunction."

n Tomorrow to 21 Jan, Business Design Centre, 52 Upper St, London N1 (0171-288 6446)

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