Glasgow Art Fair

would a Bruce Nauman sound installation actually work above the average Scottish fireplace?

Feature by Jasper Hamill | 11 May 2007
After a century long trend for non-commodifiable art, it almost comes as a surprise that artists might actually want to sell some of their efforts. Behind the financial drip-feed of Scottish Arts Council grants and occasional public commissions, the reality is that the art world is a marketplace. And let's face it, only Charles Saatchi has the floor space to give over a whole room to an Ilya Kabakov installation. For the first time buyer or part-time collector, it's the more traditional forms of art that can find a space in their house. As much as we all love what artists can do in the Tate Modern's turbine hall, would a Bruce Nauman sound installation actually work above the average Scottish fireplace?

Therein lies the difference between the two Glasgow art festivals: the biennial Glasgow International and the Glasgow Art Fair, which takes over George Square once a year. The former exists to encourage the city's thriving international artistic profile, whilst the latter is a more demotic scheme, intended to attract new art buyers and seasoned collectors alike. It is the largest event of its kind in Scotland - with 44 galleries selling over a thousand artists' work - and reckoned to net around £1.1million pounds in sales alone. As one gallerist put it: "You'll not get the Art Review power 100 [a list of the most powerful people in the art world] up here, so I guess that this is the pinnacle of the commercial art world in Scotland."

This year, business was booming. A queue snaked all the way around George Square with scores of people leaving, proudly clutching their new purchases. The art fair encourages a certain caprice, as the scale of the event tends to drown out individual contributions. A few gems stood out from the rest, such as Simon Starling's photographic document of an event where he fed an old boat into the fires of its own engine. The reliably excellent old guard of Scottish art was also well represented, with specially commissioned prints from Alasdair Gray and a suite of mega-expensive paintings from Peter Howson, portraying the men of Glasgow in his famously monumental, tough and oddly sentimental style. Thankfully, the sort of yuppie pseudo-pop prints beloved of nineties style-mags were constrained to one Brighton gallery's stand. Likewise, the syrupy landscapes associated with provincial galleries were thin on the ground. Work that seemed to be selling was gently abstract, such as the Gauguin-like portraits of Billy Childish, or photorealistic, such as Jonathon Stewart's view of a hazy Edinburgh morning. As a shallow-pocketed visitor, my picks would have been Robert Whincep's contemplative paintings of young tourists looking at war memorials, or old men gazing at an ancient Greek statue. Another favourite was a collage by Vincent Poole, who rendered the form of a female shopper out of scraps of the bags, signs and icons she would have encountered as she shopped.

But really, the strength of the Glasgow Art Fair lies not in the quality of the work exhibited, but the fact that it exists. Nick Barley, former editor and head of the Six Cities Design Festival put it aptly: "Glasgow is no longer a faded construction economy, but a thriving information economy." Events of this sort will never have the cachet of non-commercial art projects - specifically Francis McKee's flamboyantly ambitious Glasgow International. Neither should it try. The Art Fair sold a massive amount of paintings, several thousand cappuccinos and encouraged visitors to reappraise their view of Glasgow. Despite the slightly cloying village fete atmosphere of the event, it managed to match the swagger of the city's scene. It probably put food on a few artists' plates too, and that is always to be commended.
The Glasgow Art Fair took place from 19-22 April.