This year, Ian Hislop is officiating at the opening; and, like Hislop himself, although the Fair does not throw a cultural shadow of immense weight it is also now something of a market leader. Presiding over 3,000 square metres of the Business Design Centre's vast glass and iron warehouse in Islington, north London, it has experienced both the heady days of the art boom and the doldrums of the early Nineties.
Last year, Art '96 reported pounds 2.5m worth of sales and 30,000 visitors. The wine and the canapes flowed, and with Paloma Picasso officiating at the opening, it was as if there never had been a recession. Eighty dealers took part and the public swooped in, buying programmes and jamming the escalators up to the main exhibiting hall. Five thousand four hundred works of art were carried away over five days.
There were even murmurings that the London Contemporary Art Fair could eventually grow from a metropolitan shop-window into a major international art event on a par with fairs at, say, Chicago. But is it really about much more than a semi-smart event on the north London social calendar? Those who have tried to sell works of art in what was London's old Royal Agricultural Hall are divided as to whether the Contemporary Art Fair is just another meat market.
Dealer Bernard Jacobson certainly thinks it's an asset. Jacobson is the sort of dealer any fair would be delighted to have. He's well known; he has a classy stable of high-quality British artists, and yet is not too grand to bring them out from the rarefied air of his Cork Street environment.
"I exhibited at Islington for the first time last year," he says. "I just sold William Tillyer; we sold some small things, but selling wasn't really the point. It was all about being there. The fair doesn't have the style and the size of Chicago; there simply aren't enough committed collectors in the UK. But I hoped to encourage people. There was a huge crowd; I had lots of conversations with people, and afterwards I noticed that some actually did come slipping into the gallery throughout the rest of the year."
Jacobson has clearly chosen to adopt a missionary spirit, rather than the hard sell. He doesn't even mind that he doesn't flog very much. This year he's back with an exhibition of Maurice Cockrill, but he'll only show Cockrill's smaller, more financially accessible pieces, not the whoppers with an equally heavy price tag which would have people beating a hasty retreat to Islington's flash Italian cafes for a reviving cappuccino.
The public still aren't comfortable with contemporary art," says Jacobson. "But they feel less intimidated coming into your booth than having to walk into a private gallery. I think it's something to do with having to pay an entrance fee; people have paid to be here, and they'll jolly well get the most out of it. So they come up to you on the stand and demand to know what the work is all about. Which they would never do in my gallery."
Matthew Flowers, whose east London gallery, Flowers East, has shown at Islington for the past eight years, is a committed believer. "It's highly accessible; it's a great shop window for us. And yes, we sell. Last year we took about pounds 100,000; most things we sold averaged at about pounds 10,000, but we had some good follow-up from serious buyers."
Flowers East sells exactly the sort of work which goes down well at Islington; mid-price, fashionably challenging work from artists such as John Keane, John Bellany and Alison Watt. They are painterly, popular and figurative. There's even a sexy element to the stand; Patrick Hughes's large, reverse perspective paintings have people gawping in huddled groups around the stand all day.
"I don't think pure abstract work does well. Nor does difficult contemporary stuff," says Flowers. "People just don't feel confident with it." It's the same with difficult dealers; the fair may have the word Contemporary in its title, but not if contemporary means what some would call inexplicable. "Waddington and D'Offay have both dropped out," Flowers continues. "It's a great shame. Waddington is not deemed accessible by the public, yet he represents artists like Patrick Heron, who would have a great audience here. I think all British dealers should support our only British art fair. It's very frustrating, because every time the fair improves, someone major drops out."
But if you're not selling, why bother? The stands are expensive and for many dealers fairs have a lot more to do with profit than with any moral imperative. Rupert Otten exhibited at the fair for the first time last year. His west London gallery, Wolseley Fine Art, which specialises in 20th-century works on paper, took a stand on the first floor. "I wanted to develop a market for contemporary European works on paper. We didn't bring our traditional range; the English stuff, the Eric Gills, and so on. That was a mistake. The stand was very expensive and we didn't do great business," says Otten. "Islington only succeeds for dealers showing modestly-priced figurative stuff. The audience is a smart, fashionable bunch only interested in brightly coloured things which have immediate appeal. No one wants to buy anything cutting edge. In fact, the only spirit of adventure I noticed was shown by well-known dealers who I'm sure were encouraged by specially reduced-price stands. I won't be going back. No one was keen on anything with an intellectual aspect," Otten adds, perhaps unintentionally defining the innate spirit of Islington all year round. "They only wanted the purely decorative."
This might be unfair on some of the dealers, but certainly for the smaller galleries, the Fair's volume and cost has a somewhat dampening effect on its potentially wider benefits. Clearly if you do not have pole position in the main hall, the business of re-educating 30,000 people in the more challenging aspects of fine art is simply a waste of time and money.
Even for the established, the effort of dealing with the smartly dressed yet uninitiated who love swarming around big arty events can sometimes be too much to bear. Especially if there is the whiff of semi-blue in their veins.
"I was at a fair in Europe," says Bernard Jacobson, "and Fergie came over. Apparently she had demanded to see my stuff. Anyway I was showing a wall of [Ben] Nicholson paintings, and she pointed at one and said, 'Oh, that's not art. My daughter could do something like that.' I told her that was the sort of remark I would expect from my cleaning lady. And I didn't care if I was hanged at the Tower for saying it. This artist got the Order of Merit, for God's sake." He pauses. "But you go on hoping that the public might start, slowly, to try a bit harder. And so you keep on coming back"n
Art '97, the London Contemporary Art Fair, opens tomorrow at the Business Design Centre, London N1 (0171-359 3535). To Sun
Rosie Millard is the BBC's Arts correspondentReuse content