Article: DIN HEAGNEY INTERVIEWS ASHLEY CRAWFORD, TONY LLOYD & SAM LEACH

NOTFAIR is a satellite event to the Melbourne Art Fair to be held from 4-8 August at 79 Stephenson St Richmond. What makes it interesting is that this is a curated commercial show featuring artists short-listed by largely non-commercial curators. The project is pitched as ‘combining the curatorial notion of a major biennale and the commercial potential of an art fair’.

The three founding directors — curator and writer Ashley Crawford, recent Archibald winner Sam Leach and fellow painter Tony Lloyd — recently presented a test run version of NOTFAIR at Art Melbourne, the ‘other art fair’. While we all lament at only ever having had the one Melbourne Biennale — maybe ‘biennale’ means something different from what we think it means — we now have to make do with the highly commercialised Art Melbourne and Melbourne Art Fair. Just don’t get them mixed up — the latter is exclusive, the former is not, but they are still trade shows by any other name. The fact that these two large scale events, both held in the old Exhibition Building, dominate the local art calendar may one of the reasons Melbourne has so many small galleries and independent spaces, we like things understated but not underrated.

The real difference though, is that while NOTFAIR is unashamedly commercial, it has gone through a solid curatorial development, with the Advisory Group verging on a veritable who’s who of local contemporary curators. Fancy some names? Alex Baker, Steve Eland, Mark Feary, Alexie Glass, Simon Gregg, Brodie Higgs, Melissa Loughnan, Chris McAuliffe, Carrie Miller, Nick Mitzevich and Lisa Sullivan. Each curator was asked to select a number of artists they considered important but undervalued for a final list. The directors then voted for each artist with the highest scored artists getting a spot. It’s almost something of democratic art love-in for the selected artists, but a glance at the names included reveal that this salon-style show will pack some heavyweights — Bernard Sachs, Paul Quinn, Akira Akira, Mimi Kelly, Vito Manfredi, Topologies, Rob Brown, Taiyo Onorato, Nico Krebs, Simon Pericich, and the impressive list goes on…

Din Heagney: So is NOTFAIR just a supplementary commercial event? Do we really need another big commercial art gig in town? And how does this kind of non-fair setting create a commercial difference for artists still working within a critical framework?

Ashley Crawford: It’s not anti art fair, not at all, the thing was there was a feeling that obviously the Melbourne Art Fair has a very strong emphasis towards commercial galleries, it is your world of Roslyn Oxley, Anna Schwartz, Tolarno, etcetera. We just felt that it would be much more interesting to focus on individual artists and put them in a curatorial premise that is still for sale, still commercial, but it doesn’t have the kind of commercial imperative that art fairs by their nature have to have.

Sam Leach: We wanted to bring it back to the art.

Tony Lloyd: The name NOTFAIR is not made to be any kind of political statement, what we’re actually saying is it’s not the fair. And also the name itself came from an anagram of a website we were writing for, artinfo.com.au, and converted to an anagram it becomes NOTFAIR and it stuck.

SL: It was either that or ‘no fart’.

(Laughter)

TL: The idea began when Sam and I were in London at the Frieze Art Fair, and we saw all the satellite art fairs that were happening at the same time as the main event. That’s what we decided to do in Melbourne because nobody else was doing it.

AC: The other idea of NOTFAIR is we only require a ten percent administration fee but the rest of it, the other ninety percent, goes directly back to the artists. So there’s no take from galleries and so forth, and the galleries that are in there — because of some of the artists we’ve chosen already being represented — those galleries have actually offered to put in their percentage back into NOTFAIR, which in turns give that back to the artist. So it’s all about looking after the artists and being fair to the artists. And if you want to infer from that the gallery system may be slightly unfair, then go for your life.

SL: But of those galleries who have artists involved, three have said they will forego their usual commission.

AC: The response from artists, commercial galleries, from everyone really, has been a hundred precent positive. We had one gallery mutter but that was the one out of all of them. Everyone else says how exciting it is. You know Sutton Gallery, Dianne Tanzer, Jan Minchin they’re all behind us.

DH: So how do you price the work?

SL: It’s up to the artists really.

AC: Well obviously we’ll discuss it with them. We had a preview with Art Melbourne, and some of the works there were considered underpriced and that will probably still be the case with NOTFAIR, so it’s obviously a great opportunity to jump in and get stuff early… (Ash goes on to plug the sales)

TL: Our premise for choosing the artists was that they are undervalued, either commercially or critically.

AC: Our case in point would probably be Bernard Sachs, who should be showing at the Venice Biennale, but never seems to get written about or included in things like the Sydney Biennale — who knows why. But this is trying to redress that with some of the artists of this nature, especially when they’re older.

DH: Interestingly, most of the artists to go to Venice recently were in the only Melbourne Biennale we ever had.

AC: We don’t have a Melbourne Biennale — well we had one at least.

TL: No, the Melbourne Biennale is every eleven years.

(Laughter)

SL: A Dodecannale?

TL: That’s twelve.

SL: Oh maybe it’s next year? What is eleven?

TL: Don’t know…mmm…an Undecagonalle?

AC: Din, this is what I have to put up with, they get into these obscure little weird tangents, it’s like herding feral cats!

(Laughter)

DH: So are you laying the groundwork for a new biennale?

TL: Well, we like the look of a biennale, and we’re not afraid to be commercial and we think artists have a right to make a living from their work too.

AC: A biennale is very much about prestige but it’s not much about living. Most artists can’t afford to buy their bloody materials or pay the rent.

TL: Or perhaps it’s a shame of commerciality?

SL: Because the work is for sale, and it’s going to sell, well a lot of it is, and it certainly makes an artist’s stocks go up by being in a biennale.

TL: And we say why not? There seems to be this shame about commerciality in the art world.

AC: But Tony we’re not getting paid!

(Laughter)

SL: We wouldn’t not show an artist’s work that wasn’t sellable, for instance a site-specific installation would be fine. It’s not a requirement.

TL: And it’s possible that even that sort of work will be sold.

AC: Our one issue was if they’re showing at the Melbourne Art Fair. Then we’d avoid showing them, we don’t want the crossover. Even Sam and Tony didn’t get in.

TL: We weren’t even short-listed.

(Laughter)

SL: That’s right.

TL: We didn’t select all the artists. To begin with we had the advisory panel with key figures like Alex Baker and Alexie Glass. We asked them each to select two or three artists and then from there we made out final selection. And nobody chose me.

SL: Yeh, no one chose me either.

AC: Yeh, you guys are really under-represented.

(Laughter)

DH: So how did you choose the curatorial board?

AC: Well they were basically mates but they were also chosen because they were people in positions, or they clearly had opportunities to identify a huge range of artists, and who’d experienced a lot of studio visits and exhibitions. They’re in the know. There are names that I’ve never heard of which surprised me. I think we all had that experience.

DH: The artists they chose?

AC: Yeh, like ‘who the hell’s this?’ And then all of sudden you’re like ‘wow, where did they come from?’ It’s really great because it’s national. We’ve got an artist from Darwin, Rob Brown.

TL: Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart and Perth.

SL: Two New Zealanders.

DH: And did you put forward your own artists?


TL: Oh yeh, we each put forward two or three names.  

AC: We had our faves, and there was always an agreement that we all had to agree. Sam missed out on one of his faves, I missed out of one mine because Tony’s an arsehole. 

TL: Tough but fair.  

SL: Everyone had to get three ticks, everyone who made it to the final list but there were no massive disputes, it was fairly straightforward process.  

TL: And it was very interesting because we didn’t know a lot of those artists and we really went on our instincts on what their work looked like, and then when we got there for the Art Melbourne show a couple of weeks ago, it was such a fantastic aesthetic in the work, it was such a cohesive show. 

AC: Yeh, so despite the strange structure, there does very much seem to be an aesthetic going on and it’s cross generational. 

TL: I wasn’t anticipating that at all. 

AC: I sort of was but not to that degree. It looked vert smooth, much slicker than I would’ve expected, I must say, and that was done very last minute so we were really a wing and a prayer on that, but it worked. 

SL: It was interesting because it was kind of last minute, but we actually had all the artists there, although it was a last minute call for work. 

TL: And they all answered the call, and we sold a lot of work. In fact we sold work of artists who’d never sold before.  

SL: Yeh, that was weird. 

AC: And they loved it. ‘You actually sold something? You sold another one? What? I’ve never sold a picture!’ 

TL: We’re having a little cheque writing session, this afternoon actually, which is very weird.

AC: You know for what started as a mad idea of Sam’s and Tony’s to have an alternative show, it’s grown into a small not for profit business that looks like it’s got longevity.

TL: Yeh, we’ve got plans to do things beyond this. There’s a possibility of taking it to other cities, and there’s other opportunities to travel.

DH: Would it be a similar model, where you’d get a bunch of curators to do the same? 

AC: Well, we’d keep it national, if not international. But that is up to the advisory board and we try to keep that selection small. 

SL: But I think we do try to keep it as broad as possible. I don’t think we’d try to make it a locally themed show, although this first one has a Melbourne flavour just because we’re all based here. So our contacts tend to be local. 

TL: Ash gets around and sees a lot more art than probably Sam and I do. We tend to hide in the studio too much and that’s one of the big reasons why we wanted to get curators to help us out with this, so we could cover more ground than we could as individuals. 

AC: And we all have relationships with those advisors, that are obviously and essentially professional, but there is also a friendly banter that goes on with Alex or Nick or with any of them.  

DH: What are some of the benefits of having a broader and more collaborative curatorial process than the more usual single curator-led situation? 

AC: The big benefit was we didn’t kill each other. Indeed the decision making, apart from two or three artists, was totally painless. 

SL: The advisory panel greatly expanded our frame of reference. I think the three of us balanced each other quite well so there were no really self-indulgent choices, much as I would have liked a couple. 

TL: Culling a list of 150 odd artists down to a number that we could fit into our modest venue required a degree of ruthlessness. What I enjoyed most was the discussions with Sam and Ash about why we liked particular artists and having my mind changed about ones I had initially rejected.  

DH: And you also wanted to choose artists who weren’t just young and unknown? 

SL: We did want to keep it open to artists who are established or more mature, not only young or emerging artists, but with that criteria of being undervalued, most of them do tend to be artists at the beginning of their career, in one way or another.  

AC: And we didn’t think Mike Parr needed any more promotion. 

(Laughter) 

SL: There are few guys in there who have been producing great work for years without the recognition. 

AC: And there are probably more out there.  

SL: But they are hard to find, that’s the thing. 

TL: It’s such a fickle business — you can be really hot at the start of your career and then kind of be forgotten about. And people assume that artists have made it, because they had a few big shows once. I think some people might assume that artists like Bernard Sachs have made it.

AC: Also, some artists are just good at selling themselves through their careers, such as Sam Leach (laughter). But a lot of artists aren’t. Bernard can be a bit prickly and he’s no Tim Storrier and thank God for that! There are a lot of artists out there like that. Since the final selection we’ve found a lot more, mid generation or older generation artists who will now be put up for the next one.

TL: We also couldn’t exclude represented artists because there are just too many commercial galleries around at the moment.

AC: That’s like what Din and I were talking about earlier — what’s an ARI now? We had Utopian Slumps advising us and now Mel’s turned into a commercial gallery. I mean we had her before she was commercial, as we didn’t want commercial galleries advising us. So some of the artists we had on our list weren’t represented when we took them on, they are now, so things have moved fast for some of the people. 

TL: And that’s the idea — if we can put these artists into the spotlight then hopefully they wont need our help next time we stage something. They’ll get picked up and be in the main art fair. 

DH: Who are some of your favourite artists that you selected and who are some of the surprises that came via the advisors?  

AC: Hard to say – there are so many great surprises in the mix. I’ve long been a fan of both Murray McKeich and Bernhard Sachs and kind of amazed they aren’t better known. The advisory group were fantastic and, although we didn’t use 100 percent of their suggestions, it would have been a far lesser show without their input. 

SL: Jacob Walker has been a find for me, I wasn't aware of his work previously but his paintings are fascinating. What really appeals to me is just how slippery these paintings are. There is a conceptual clarity. The reconfiguration and reinvention of cultural artefacts is a clear and strong component of the work. But at the same time there is a mysterious and playful aesthetic as well — the paintings teeter on the point of total collapse, but they succeed regardless. 

TL: My favourites are Akira Akira, Giles Alexander, Lincoln Austin, Stephan Balleux, Rob Brown, Lauren Cross, Graham Guerra, Briele Hansen, Jess Johnson, Mimi Kelly, Sanne Maestrom, Vito Manfredi, Jordie Marani, Murray McKeich, Alexander Ouchtomsky, Wayde Owen, Simon Pericich, Andre Piguet, Dan Price, Paul Quinn, Mark Rodda, Bernhard Sachs, Shannon Smiley, Nico Krebs & Taiyo Onorato, Camilla Tadich, Topologies, Brie Trenerry, Jake Walker, Heidi Yardley and Joel Zika. (Tony has just named the whole list of artists!). I was unaware of at least two thirds of these artists at the beginning of this year and that’s the most surprising thing to me. Why are these great artists not in ACCA NEW or the Sydney Biennale or hanging in the NGV? They all do fascinating work that looks great and gives you something new each time you look at it.

DH: You talked earlier about how smoothly the work hung together at Art Melbourne, can you elucidate on that?

AC: Art Melbourne became a kind of preview situation. I don’t think any of us knew quite what to expect, but the result revealed a powerful and surprisingly cohesive aesthetic. In the context of Art Melbourne, which is naturally a fairly conservative array of art, NOTFAIR looked like the result of a hand-grenade explosion — gritty and tough.

SL: Luckily for me, I was away for the installation process so it felt extremely smooth. The works did hang together beautifully. In all of the works there was a sense of risk and of testing propositions combined with dedicated labour and skill.

TL: There was an underlying darkness, which linked the quite disparate work we showed at Art Melbourne. It was a rich and intriguing darkness, the works had real depth and gravitas. I believe that this is in part due to our tastes as curators but the works were also very contemporary in the sense of responding to and reflecting the times we live in.  

DH: In what formats do you see NOTFAIR continuing, or expanding, or travelling in the future? 

AC: Too early to say for sure but there are already plans afoot to take it interstate and maybe even international. The interest, from both within the art community and in broader spheres, has been phenomenal. 

SL: It would be great to grow the event. We could have shown twice as many artists and certainly many more works from the artists involved. The prospect of working with more curators and discovering more artists is very exciting.  

TL: NOTFAIR will continue as a satellite event until it becomes a space station event and from there we’ll start building the mothership. 

(Laughter) 

DH: So I have to ask one more time, can you please get the Melbourne Biennale happening again? 

AC: Hey, we’re already doing it, just in a somewhat different form!  

SL: Hell yes.  

TL: Well as the Melbourne Biennale happens every 11 years we are due for the next one in 2011. We better get on to it!

This is the extended version of an interview originally conducted for The Art Life (theartlife.com.au) in May 2010.

By Din Heagney

Din Heagney

Din Heagney (aka The Art Pimp) is Melbourne Editor for The Art Life, editor of the recent un Magazine 4.1, and former artistic director of Platform. He is currently writing his first novel.