It is a sunny yet cool morning in the northern part of London where the fifth edition of the Affordable Art Fair is being held. Even though it is a Thursday morning, the place is full of people sipping coffee as they slowly walk between dozens of gallery booths filled with photos, prints, canvases, sculptures and even some installations. Although you can have a glass of prosecco while having a break, this is not the vanity parade you might see at regular art fairs in Europe or North America on opening day.
The crowd here is not one of experienced collectors – these people are not accompanied by their advisers or art-dealers. Most of them wish to find an affordable but tasteful present, or to decorate their office, apartment or a restaurant that they have recently opened. The maximum price tag you'll find at this fair is 5000 pounds, but most of the art I liked cost less than that. 70% of the fair’s visitors say that their primary desire to own art is in order to ‘make their house a home’, explain the organizers.
A visitor of the Affordable art fair in London, Hampstead
“I wish I had more walls to decorate with these”, comments an art fair visitor to a friend as they browse the Will’s Art Warehouse booth. Its founder, Will Ramsay, started out with the gallery format in 1996, and three years later expanded his interest in affordable art by organizing the first fair featuring not-so-expensive prints, pictures and sculptures. Some prints hanging on the walls of the booth cost less than 100 pounds – such as posters with a humorous text like “Panic and give up”. The visitor with no spare walls finally picks a small “Procrastination club” print. Others who had also bought something were already queueing at the wrapping stand despite the early hour.
“Energy” by Henrietta Dubrey
“Icelandic Lava Plane” by Marc Quinn
London is one of 13 cities in which the Affordable Art Fair has been organized since 1999 (it has 17 iterations per year across North America, Asia and Europe). Around 100 galleries set up their booths and attract thousands of people who are looking for art with which to decorate their home or office; undoubtedly, some are even thinking about becoming collectors. “London and New York are known for their highly developed art markets – at all ends of the spectrum – and we have been running fairs in both cities for nearly 15 years”, say the fair’s organizers. In 2012 the fair came to Mexico City, the ninth largest city in the world. However, after three years of fairs, the Mexico City organizers decided to put a hold on the event due to “low levels of art sales, coupled with the current economic climate” in the country.
“Sparkling stars” and “Rest Haven Court” by Joseph
Eric Bille Christiansen
“Take a seat” by Joanne Tinker
Although it is hard to measure the term “affordable” (the top price limit varies from 13000 USD in Hong Kong to 8000 USD in Great Britain, 7000 USD in Italy, and 2000 USD in Russia), this type of art usually includes oil works by young and not-so-well-known artists, as well as watercolors, pictures, prints and photos by little-known artists, or, in some cases, early works by established artists. It is still possible to get a hold of works by well-known artists if the works in question come from editions (although the price would depend on the size of the edition).
And if one does not plan to build a serious collection of limited-edition prints, YellowKorner offers prints of Man Ray’s famous “Le Violin d’Ingres” and posters of Neil Armstrong on the Moon for around 100 dollars each.
“Popcorn” by Romina Ressia
In order to buy affordable art, one should not necessarily wait for the next specialized fair or go to a gallery. In fact, you do not need to go anywhere as this segment is the bread and butter of online art sellers. Some art experts argue that online sales lack two important fundamentals of general art sales – trust and privacy. However, when buying a 200-dollar print, establishing an interpersonal relationship is not all that important.
The online gallery business is flourishing. Some of them exist only on the internet, while others have a brick-and-mortar twin in which visitors can come and experience the art in person (some gallery-owners say that many of their clients still prefer to look at a framed work on the wall instead of meticulously studying it on a computer monitor), as well as communicate with their soul-mates. Most online galleries do not sell expensive works, and they frequently specialize either in prints or in young artists. A medium-sized photograph starting from 20x20 cm is unlikely to cost more than 100 dollars. Most Vogue covers created in the 1920s are sold for less than 500 US dollars in the Condé Nast store. But if your budget is 1500 dollars, you can afford a photo by Maurizio Catelan or Rob Carter, both sold at Eyestorm.
“Graciela” by James Sparshatt
Most people who work in the field of affordable art say that some of their customers are interested not only in decorating the premises they live or work in, but also in starting a collection. “For some of our clients, the words ‘limited edition’ play a special role”, says Maria Ort from the St. Petersburg branch of YellowKorner. “It's like a criterion for people who already have a collection. Others, who have just started to collect photos, stick to one theme – lions, musicians, historical events, etc.”, adds the gallerist. No one, however, will guarantee that a young photographer – say, the one who took that picture you purchased online for 100 bucks – will someday be featured at the Gagosian, and that at some future auction the picture currently hanging on your living-room wall will top the current record set by Andreas Gursky.
“Vincent” by Finn Stone
Discovering a work of art that will bring future profits and prove to be a solid investment is rather the exception. At the other extreme is a common misunderstanding of this popular trend: affordable art is often associated with cheap posters that students put on the walls of their dorms (although auction records show that some cinema posters are not even all that affordable), or with paintings of popular tourist spots. A couple of months ago I had a fierce argument with a famous collector of European and soviet impressionists and modernists. When I said I was planning to attend an affordable art fair, he spouted: “There is no such a thing as 'affordable art'. Art must be expensive so that it separates collectors from other people!” In the end, collectors do segregate themselves from all the rest. However, what makes them different is not the amount of money that they spend on paintings and photographs, but the passion that they feel for them.