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London Art Fair: Interview with Jonathan Burton

Marek Claassen, Jonathan Burton from London Art Fair

This is a interview with Jonathan Burton, the Director of the London Art Fair.

AfN: Hello Jonathan, is this the 20th edition of the fair?

Jonathan Burton: It certainly is. We are one of the most established fairs in the UK, and we wanted to make people aware that we have been here for 20 years but without dwelling too much on the past. So on the one hand, we have taken stock and taken this opportunity to review where the fair has come from, but also to look to where we would like to be in the future. As I have said earlier in the week, there is this danger with anniversaries that they become terribly nostalgic, unnaturally. We want to make sure that we do not just wallow in the past, but also, in some ways, that kind of taking stock of what has come before and also looking to the future is very similar to the fair experience as a whole. What I mean is that the fair offers Modern British work from the last 100 years, but we have got the most recent of contemporary work within the fair as well, and this opportunity to look back art-historically across that time frame and look how one generation of artists have influenced another and those practicing in here and now is quite interesting.

AfN: Are you happy with the outcome of this fair so far?

Jonathan Burton: Certainly. Against the backdrop of people talking about economic bloom, and whether the art market can weather economic storms, we are fairly optimistic.


I think that - and I guess that is also the part of looking to the future with the fair is to say - what sort of sections within the fair do we want to develop and what are the changes that we want to make. Photo50 in its second year has really captured people's imagination. It is a very strong collection of contemporary photography, and we have got work, not just from UK artists and galleries, but also very much from outside the UK as well. [...] It is very much down to the curators to start really with the artists and the galleries that represent them, to present a coherent exhibition but with all of those works for sale. This year, I feel it is being successful because the work is very strong and arresting, and people can buy these pieces after all at the fair as well. The prices range from 150 to about 5000 .

AfN: Just around the corner, there is this peculiar chair on display. I have seen a similar thing at FIAC, and there are some art works that can be seen at the major fairs throughout the world.

Jonathan Burton: Yes, I guess that is probably true of art fairs generally. As the direction of the fair you strive to present something unique but inevitably, there are common artists...

AfN: No, this chair in particular, I have not seen it before...

Jonathan Burton: We work with Greenwich Village UK, and actually, interestingly, they straddle art and design. That is one of their pieces. I think this is not necessarily an area that we choose to develop further within the fair but it adds a texture to the visitor experience to have that sort of piece.

AfN: In the VIP Lounge of this year's London Art Fair I have seen an Gilbert & George exhibition of some very nice early works on paper organized by Bloomsbury Auctions. This was very asthonishing for me as it was the first time that I have seen such a presence of an Auction House at an art fair. Could you imagine further events like this on your and on other fairs?

Jonathan Burton: Sure. Certainly, it has become a life issue. I think earlier in the year, with the Maastricht fair, this issue raised its head, and was perceived as very controversial, particularly about the competition that is perceived to be between the auction houses and indeed the galleries. Suddenly, we are alert to that, and I think we would not ever want to present something that we felt was going to create a threat to the galleries, for our galleries in the main part of the fair to feel that this was in some way going to affect their business during their week at London Art Fair.

But conversely, we are open-minded and have a strong relationship with Bloomsbury Auctions that actually started last year. We did work with them last year on the VIP lounge, but this year, I think in some ways because the works they have chosen to show from the auction house, those pieces by Gilbert & George are a very coherent display, a very interesting work. They have a stronger presence this year, but I think in no way - at the moment certainly in the fair - we do not have any galleries showing works by Gilbert & George this year, and therefore I did not really feel that it was offering direct competition.

The interesting thing is that there are galleries within the fair with this sort of notion that there is this very hard divide between auction houses and galleries is breaking down more at the moment. We often hear of galleries buying works back - that is auctions primarily within the primary market - and as well artists that the gallery represents, who wants to bring back, to take back out of auctions [some works]; but also with the galleries that participate in London Art Fair, they buy works at auctions. Bloomsbury Auctions particularly have some interesting Modern British prints and - I suppose - original works...

AfN: It is to establish new business connections...

Jonathan Burton: Yes, I think that is right. For some of the galleries, it is an appropriate situation to explore, and of course, it works out for the auction houses as well.

AfN: Another coincidence: The Terrence Higgins Trust is the official charity at the London Art Fair and is presenting a show called "Promises", an exhibition and auction of themed work by leading artists including Tracey Emin, Mona Hatoum, Martin Parr and others. The auction was held by Christie's. Do you see any problem in letting the auction houses have a public on an art fair such as yours?

Jonathan Burton: Not really. I think that Terrence Higgins Trust have an ongoing relationship with Christie's themselves, and that is their involvement. The relationship that we have with Terrence Higgins Trust is very much one where we offer them a platform for them to be able to raise funds, and it works well. They, the charity, approach the artists or the relevant galleries to solicit the works, and from that point of view, they managed to get some terrific pieces. I think the auction in the end which took place in the preview raised - I think - just over 80,000 . We give them the ticket revenue from that evening; that is, from the tickets that we sell on Tuesday evening, we give that charity the money as well. The benefit to the fair is that it creates a buzz, an excitement that comes from that sort of event, but also as a charity they reach visitors and attract people to that auction that are relevant for the rest of the fair.

AfN: There's always been a rivalry between galleries and auction houses. The Art Basel statet in an interview that will never invite a gallery owned by an Auction House. This quote was refering to Haunch of Venison owned by Christie's. Would you affirm such a position?

Jonathan Burton: I think we would treat all situations on a case-by-case basis. We have not had a situation like that here. I tend to be slightly more open-minded at the moment, and I think that what we are seeing is a great, symbiotic relationship between auction houses and galleries. It is hard to deny that that dialogue takes place between the two parts of the market. We would not necessarily have a very hard and fast rule for the fair here but I mean each fair has a different set of circumstances they must consider, and Basel operates in a different sphere to London Art Fair...

AfN: You can be more relaxed...

Jonathan Burton: I think we can, yes.

AfN: But if you were in their position, would you still be that relaxed?

Jonathan Burton: I think I would... It is very hard. They have a different set of circumstances which they must consider... I suspect probably, had they not taken that position, they would have found themselves having some quite difficult conversations with other galleries that were participating in the show, and therefore, I think, they are probably responding to their exhibitor base.

AfN: The London Art Fair is a very relaxed place. I personally like this special atmosphere here. By digging for interview questions I found this in the Daily Telegraph: "The London Art Fair opens tomorrow in the Business Design Centre in Islington, north London. In its 20-year history, the fair has battled to be international and purely contemporary, but succumbed to the greater success of Frieze and Zoo and has now settled for a quieter compromise of local galleries that show at neither, and others that deal in historic 20th-century British art. The result is a healthy mix of highbrow and lowbrow to suit all tastes." Would you affirm to this statement as well or do you see your fair misunderstood?

Jonathan Burton: I think we do feel slightly misunderstood by that piece. I mean, in some ways the fair has never been purely contemporary. Certainly the balance within the fair between Modern British work and contemporary work has shifted over time. Somehow I also think it is in response to people's taste and to the people that are coming in and buying at the fair. And in some instances that has been down to the galleries that participate who choose to show both contemporary and Modern British work; in some ways the balance between the two is something that they have control over.

AfN: I must say, I like this sentence referring to "a healthy mix of highbrow and lowbrow", maybe "to suit all tastes" is a bit mean, but why not? Everybody will find something here.

Jonathan Burton: Absolutely! If we took half a dozen different people they would all find things that they like and equally things that they hate. Amongst those people you would also find those who find certain parts of a certain art to be much more critically engaged than others. But these things are very subjective, and I think that we do offer a broad range of work, but at the end of the day, the underlying impulse within the fair is to present high quality work. In quite a wide range of styles, and I think that we have taken that decision to have galleries that show such a wide range of work to be of use to the range of visitors that come through the doors. The fair attracts visitors who are looking for absolutely critically engaged, cutting-edge contemporary work, but equally there are people who are coming to buy a piece by L.S. Lowry. And in a price range, you can come, buy a piece by Lowry for 1.6 Million - I think that's the top price this year - but then you can buy a contemporary photography for 150 . And that is that sort of breadth, that I think is one of the strength of the fair.

But at the same time,the fair still has focus because by saying that it is British and contemporary, it does have a distinct feel. And whilst the contemporary content is quite international - it is not just UK-based artists - there are more UK-based artists. And the galleries that participate in the fair are drawn from all over, all over the UK in the main part of the fair and from our projects internationally. So I guess in a local sense, it is true that we are not a fair like Basel or Frieze that draws in visitors particularly from all over the world; for us it tends to be visitors from London and the South-East and then from further afield in the UK, but let's not forget that London is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, so the width and breadth of visitors is enormous.

AfN: Yes. And in this time there are not any other fairs around. There are some in LA, and that's it.

Jonathan Burton: Yes, exactly, and when so many people are talking about the market, this fair is in a position this year where people are considering it as the litmus test for the art market. Will the market slither? Continue unabashed? Will people continue to buy work? And because we are in such a good position in the year, this is a good test for the UK market certainly.

AfN: And you would not consider moving in the direction of the February auctions?

Jonathan Burton: No, it is a good position. It sits so well between what else is going on abroad. Later in the year, there are so many more events taking place.

AfN: Jonathan, thanks a lot that you took some time to answer my questions.

Jonathan Burton: Not at all! It was my pleasure, as always.

Interview: Marek Claassen

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