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London Art Fair - Interview with Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton (right) and Marek Claassen (Director of Artfacts.Net)

AfN: This is an Artfacts.Net interview with Jonathan Burton, Director of the London Art Fair. Hello Jonathan.

Jonathan Burton: Hi.

AfN: Jonathan, can you tell us since when are you directing the London Art Fair?

Jonathan Burton: I took over as director in July 2005, actually. I joined half-way through planning for the 2006 fair. This year's fair is the first year that I have planned from the start.

AfN: And how did you come to the art world?

Jonathan Burton: By a slightly circuitous route. I mean, my background, I have always worked in the arts. And I worked for quite some time for English National Opera in London. I was Head of Marketing. And then, I went from there as head of marketing for the two London Tate galleries: Tate Modern and Tate Britain. So I was there, and I looked after the marketing for the exhibition program at Tate, and also looked after things like their membership scheme and the marketing of their education programme as well. And I was asked - I came to work here in Islington to look after the 2005 fair with a view of repositioning the fair. So I have always had a love of visual arts because one of the things of working in opera - for as long as I did - is that I worked very closely with the creative teams. And opera is a very visual as well as an aural medium…

AfN: ... It's multimedia art…

Jonathan Burton: Totally. And actually in some ways, that was my route into visual arts: working alongside designers in those productions and looking at the influences that they had in terms of the art world, and how that was then translated onto the stage, and then - of course - going to Tokyo and being much more immersed in it generally. The nature of my role here encompasses the sort of marketing background that is and fit with my career to date, but clearly, it's important to be impassionate about the work that we are selling as well here.

AfN: The London Art Fair is a quite an old institution in the art world. How old is the fair actually?

Jonathan Burton: Well, this is the 19th fair. So we are going into our 20th year. I suppose we are, if not the most established fair, well… I think the British art fair is very close to us, but I think we are just slightly older. And yes, the fair has been running here for a very long time now.

AfN: Nowadays we see over a hundred art fairs around the world. What makes the London Art Fair unique in your point of view?

Jonathan Burton: I suppose, at the most basic level, it very much has to do with the galleries that take part, that are selected for the fair. The main part of the fair is just UK based galleries bringing modern British and contemporary work. And I suppose relatively well balanced; I mean the balance between modern British and contemporary work - I would say - is fairly even. The part of the fair that is international in terms of the galleries that are participating is the new photography section that we have this year: photo50, which is drawing on galleries from across Europe and indeed actually, from further afield, from New Zealand, Mexico and the US. And our intention is very much that that part of the fair - photo50 - will have that international range of galleries participating.

AfN: Yes, this would lead to my next question. There are roughly a 100 galleries showing at this fair and the vast majority is from London. So the London Art Fair could be called the Londoner's Art Fair. Why is your focus strictly on British art, on London galleries?

Jonathan Burton: You are right. Of course, a large proportion of the galleries that take part in the fair are from London. That's in some ways inevitable just because of the number of dealers that are based here in the capital. We do have galleries taking part really from all over the UK. There are galleries from the southwest, from down in Penzance, some Cornish galleries, and then from Wales, and also from Glasgow and Edinburgh, and indeed Northern Ireland this year as well. So I think we have a fair that has a national reach, across the UK. We offer a platform for the best of the UK's galleries. I suppose the question also is in relation to other fairs - Frieze for example. We would be asked: how are our galleries different from that of Frieze? And I think, inevitably, Frieze's focus is purely contemporary art; there is some of 20th century and 20th century British work at Frieze, but it's very much in a minority. I think we are sort of a complementary fair to Frieze. A lot of our galleries would not aspire to do Frieze; they don't operate on that kind of international contemporary circuit, and it is important for those galleries to have a strong, high-quality, well marketed platform in London and in the UK. Lots of the galleries that do London Art Fair do indeed do fairs abroad, Bologna and Paris and so on. But it's important that they have a strong sort-of London fair, and - because the fair takes place in January - it's a time of year when actually there are fewer fairs taking place certainly in the UK, and it means that it is an opportunity for the galleries to meet their existing clients at the start of the year, and they can touch-base and talk about their clients for the year ahead. We like to think that we launched the art world here in the UK, and certainly in terms of the galleries that are participating here.

AfN: I will come back to this thing because we always see galleries interested from abroad taking part here and asking us, and we also have a special view on this fair because of the high-quality - and not so much concerning the marketing approach, but the quality of work. It is the work that speaks, and not the marketing that speaks. So a great majority throughout the world works in this manner, strictly on the quality of work, and they do not show off that much. So you are not playing with inviting others over this section?

Jonathan Burton: Well, never say never. But I think for the moment, it is important for us, and it is very much part of our identity that we do have a national focus. You are right. I get phone calls from galleries in Europe saying "Can we participate?", and one of the things that we discussed this year - the art projects section of the fair - if we received interesting applications from galleries in Europe for that section, we would quite happily receive them. The nature of our art projects is that it is a section where it's more curated displays, as our art projects section tends to be - and I don't need to explain what art projects are - there are in some ways exceptions, there are installation pieces, there are uncurated displays. We would certainly welcome applications from galleries in Europe for that section, but I think the main part of the fair is UK-based.

AfN: There's another unique thing about the London Art Fair that is the fact that we see a number of art work shifted around throughout the day. It seems to us that there's a lot of buying and selling with immediate take away of art works. We do not see this elsewhere. Why is this?

Jonathan Burton: That is a really interesting point. I think you are right; that is absolutely the case. It has very much to do with the sort of visitors that come to the fair. There is a very loyal base of visitors that have been coming to the fair for some time. And the nature of our visitor experience is such that it's a very welcoming and approachable fair. I think that we give people time to consider their collecting. They are coming at the beginning of the week, they might come back. Later on, we can look again and come back with wife, partners, husband and so on before making a decision. But actually, there are a lot of very regular collectors who perhaps only buy one or two pieces. They thought about it long and hard; they perhaps would have done some sort of research in advance. They may have a relationship with the gallery outside of the fair. Once they have made that decision, in some ways it's no different to anything else: if you have made the decision, you paid with your credit card, we can wrap it for free on-site, and actually you can get it home. I think it's great for people to be able take it with them. I mean: what is more thrilling than leaving with a work of art under your arm?

London Art Fair

AfN: Yes. You don't see that very often on art fairs. You see the works, you see the galleries, but you don't see a constant coming and going of works of art.

Since several years you've introduced a project space for some 20 galleries which are specially invited by your curatorial team. This year you've introduced a show for emerging young photographers called photo50. Will you continue to strengthen the contemporary part of the London Art Fair?

Jonathan Burton: Yes. I think certainly in the first instance of doing that in the reverse order. Photo50 is not necessarily an emerging artists' section. There are some very established figures within the section, so I mean photo50 has works by Philip-Lorca diCorcia for example, a very established photographic artist. But the thing that we are pleased with, with the section, is that there is a range of artists at different stages of their career within photo50, and for us with that section it means there is also a range of prices, from £650 up to just over £18,000.

AfN: And they are all represented by a gallery.

Jonathan Burton: Absolutely. The reason for presenting photo50 and the way that we have done it, is: yes, we want to extend what we offer on the contemporary side, and doing that sort of photographic exhibition, in that way - I think - does extend what we do on the contemporary side of things. But more than that, we know from research that we have done in the recent years that about 50% of our visitors are interested in collecting photography. They are also slightly suspicious of it as a medium; they have got questions about value and status, and we actually looked at how we could reassure those potential collectors, and look to see what information we needed to provide them, so that they actually did start collecting photography…

AfN: That's interesting and leads us to the next question. The London Art Fair has a "Talks and Discussions Programme" where you present traditional subjects like landscape and practical issues like an introduction to collect art. When we summarize the way you present art in shows, walks and talks at the fair. How would you describe your targeted audience?

Jonathan Burton: In some ways, the talks are very representative of the visitors across the fair which is actually a very broad mix. The fair attracts a lay collector who has a significant amount of money to spend and is not very experienced. I don't like to think that, in some ways, if someone is coming to the fair, and they are experienced, that something like photo50 is that we can stretch people's collections, we can work with them and actually give them the information, and then they might want to take the collection into a different direction and provide them with the information or the ideas to do that. But I think, more generally with the sort of talks and discussions, it is recognising the fact that there are visitors who on the one hand, are very well informed, very experienced collectors, with an art history background, and on the other hand, there are novice collectors who perhaps don't have an art history background, and we want to support them and that range within the fair, give them the information that they need. So buying the work here is enjoyable. And in some ways, the talks and discussions that we have done this year, there are introductory level pieces that cover art history, classicism, modernism, contemporary work… An then there are more academic discussions as well, and also pieces that have more of a broader reach if you like, so the art fund discussion is taking place tomorrow afternoon, looking on how you spot a contemporary masterpiece. I am picking the issues that there are with such a very strong contemporary market, particularly where to buy artists of renown on the international circuit selling so quickly. How do you get into that market?
If you are an institution looking to buy contemporary work, the same issues face you as well. How to get in there quickly enough? How to spot something before it's sold and has disappeared in the market that is moving so quickly?

AfN: Last year you've had more than 25,000 visitors?

Jonathan Burton: Just a little less than that. We are hoping to reach 25,000 visitors this year. Last year was about 21,500 visitors. But to put that in context, if we achieve 25,000 visitors this year, attendance will have gone up by 30% in three years, which is a sign: the market is strong, on the contemporary side, as we know, but also the modern British market is very strong. We see the values of those modern British works, particularly recently at auctions, going up very quickly, but I think the interest of the people in that work has grown as well. And also it has something to do with people's confidence in the fair more generally.

AfN: I do not know the other numbers, but is the fair growing in terms of audience and turn-over. Will you invite more galleries in future?

Jonathan Burton: Well, in some ways, we can't. Because of the building… we are pretty full. We utilise - I would say - at least about 97% of the space that we have here. Years have gone by, of course, the fair has stepped back and gone: "should we remain in this building?", "would there be an opportunity to move somewhere else?" And actually, we would not do that. The building is so much part of the identity. It is a beautiful late Victorian building, and it is part of the impact. One of the nice things is that the building has also slightly different levels, and it means the visitor experience is broken up in that way. And coming into a building with that sort of huge arched roof means that actually it has an impact. We are serious in intent, but there is a certain informality that comes from that as well. And I think, on the one hand, as director of the fair, my aim is to present the highest quality works, but also to make people feel at ease when they are here. And actually, the building is part of that.

AfN: So the number will stay?

Jonathan Burton: Yes, I think so. And we have some scope to expand upstairs, but we would be talking of half a dozen galleries, no more. But we'll see…

AfN: Dear Jonathan Burton, thank you for the interview.

Jonathan Burton: Thank you.

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