This weekend, London will be hosting no fewer than five major art fairs. Every dealer, collector and artist who can possibly make it will be hoping to be part of the action. Forget Basle, Miami or New York. Forget the Venice Biennale. London right now is the hottest place in the world to engage with new art.
The buzz started on Monday with the launch of this year's Turner Prize nominees at Tate Britain, and continued on Tuesday with major exhibitions opening by the Chapman brothers, veteran artist Peter Blake (who has painted an engaging study of Marcel Duchamp with Tracey Emin, marking a bizarre confluence of Britart and pop art), and the legendary conceptual artist Christo.
Every day there are breakfasts, private views, talks and tours of artists' studios. There's a Stockhausen concert on Saturday night and Sam Taylor- Wood is showing her latest x-rated film with a party late on Friday. The leading dealers are competing to host dinners for the select few - last night, Sadie Coles (who represents Sarah Lucas) held one; tomorrow Tim Taylor hosts another for Richard Patterson; and on Saturday Larry Gagosian will do the same for Rachel Whiteread.
The Frieze Art Fair, founded by Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharpe, publishers of Frieze magazine, is undoubtedly the reason for this week's frenzy of activity. (Their VIP dinner, at Nobu on Friday is the most sought-after ticket of the lot).
The fair, now in its third year, has been a massive success, and this time around will showcase 160 of the world's top galleries (chosen by committee) and more than 1,000 contemporary artists. Held in a specially designed tent in Regent's Park, it is open to the public from Friday until Monday, for £10 a day, and last year there were queues around the block.
Dedicated collectors and buyers will fight to get in first at the private view this afternoon - and tonight Jay Jopling, whose White Cube gallery represents major British artists from Gavin Turk to Damien Hirst to Marc Quinn, will host a lavish party, taking over the whole of the Sketch building just off Bond street.
But the events of the coming few days are not just for the A-list, or the rich few. What makes London so vibrant is the convergence of four other events at the same time, all offering opportunities for anyone to pick up art created by someone at the start of their career, someone not yet represented by a dealer, someone who you can discover for yourself.
A short walk across Regent's Park, the Zoo Art Fair will be showing work from 28 galleries, artists' collectives and spaces all under four years old, as well as exhibiting two works specially commissioned from young artists for sites within the Zoo. In the St Martins Lane Hotel, the Scope Art Fair will show work from 50 foreign galleries, and most exciting of all, the Pilot Art Fair has taken over the wonderfully atmospheric Victorian Farmiloe building, in St John Street in Clerkenwell, to exhibit work by new artists who do not have galleries or dealers, chosen by 100 prominent critics, artists and curators. Finally, in Battersea Park, at the Affordable Art Fair, 125 galleries will show works costing less than £3,000 - and what more recommendation could there be than that last year Charles Saatchi was seen buying there.
Contrast this buzzing agenda of exhibitions (where everything is for sale), all with associated talks and events, all open to members of the public, and all generating huge attendances, with the pitiful event entitled British Fashion Week, which took place a month ago. Fashion fills just as many media pages as art does, and even more adulatory piffle is possibly written about British fashion than British art, but the difference between the state of the two businesses is absolute.
Britain, the country that was so proud to have given the world Mary Quant, hot pants, Alexander McQueen and Burberry, now can't cobble together enough international interest in our home-grown designers to attract more than a handful of prestigious foreign buyers or fashion editors to come here and see their work. Not all, but most, of our leading designers work for companies with foreign owners or are based abroad, and have decided for economic reasons to show their collections in Paris or New York.
At the same time, our fashion retailers are going through their worst period for some time - suddenly no one is that interested in changing their coats and shoes just because an irritatingly snooty fashion editor has issued a diktat. Seasons are so passé these days, my dears, as many of the leading designers opt for "continuity" - always a sign of a recession. We are still producing talented designers from our thriving art colleges, but their chosen profession is in decline.
Fashion is still fun, but in a peripheral way - you can shop at Tesco, buy a handbag over the internet, and still get a shot of style, without feeling you've got to make a major investment by ditching last summer's boho look for this winter's military greatcoat or be considered totally sad. All the creative excitement seems to have slipped from fashion right past the moribund music industry and focused instead on art - going to look at it, buying it at these egalitarian Ideal Home-style exhibitions, watching telly programmes about it and reading about the mad antics of the people who do it.
When even the Beckhams own a Damien Hirst, you know it won't be long before every chav in the land will have Tracey's new book when it comes out in paperback, to match their Julien Opie print in the lounge. Wealthy contemporary art collectors like Judith and Richard Greer (with a Sarah Lucas and a Gavin Turk in their chill-out room) said recently they bought art because they liked talking to artists - they found them fun to hang out with. A few years ago, people thronged to the opening of the Versace shop in Bond Street - George Michael even graced this palace to garish opulence with his presence and one floor was set aside for VIPs to chat in private. Now, every retailer from Selfridges to Harvey Nichols wants to work with artists, and everyone in the street has an opinion about the new statue in Trafalgar Square. Art has become part of the water-cooler agenda.
I don't expect the Prime Minister to be attending anything remotely artistic this weekend, but he could perhaps pen a letter of thanks to Matthew and Amanda for bringing millions of pounds of revenue into Britain in a thoroughly enjoyable and positive way.
Hotels will be full, restaurants packed to bursting, bars thriving and taxi drivers smiling. They haven't had to engage "celebrities", like VisitBritain, the authority for tourism in Britain, does, in order to try to sell a theme-park version of our country to foreigners. Through hard work, and chutzpah, they've made art accessible for all.Reuse content