Melbourne Art Fair’s modest ambition dulls its shine

Alan Jones' exhibition 'Cherrybrook' at the Melbourne Art Fair 2018 with Olsen Gallery.
Installation view, Alan Jones at Melbourne Art Fair. Photo: Alan Jones

‘Melbourne Art Fair’s modest ambition dulls its shine’ by Andrew McIlroy

This Melbourne Art Fair is over. Born of a troubled past, this year’s fair was a slimmed-down version of its former self. To be fair, the carnival with its big tent exhibition space and festive mood was a success. But its ambitions were regrettably modest, to say the least. Despite my earlier reservations at what to me seemed a lack of transparency and an ill-thought proposal to house expensive works of art in a cramped, makeshift structure, all fingers were crossed for a successful event – for the sake of the gallerists investing not insignificant funds on a booth, exhibiting artists and Melbourne’s forlorn arts community.

And the crowds came, despite the winter chill. The throng of people squeezed into the exhibition spaces and walkways it was widely agreed added to the air of excitement. Sales of artworks were reportedly “well above expectations”. I feel in no small part because of the quality of the works on display and the fine curatorship of an A-list of our domestic galleries. The MAF directors are to be congratulated for this, but I suspect the slender list of 40 exhibiting galleries had more to do with limits on space, the poor timing of the event 5 weeks out from Sydney Contemporary, and an aversion to risk than on any rigorous merit selection process.  

While the cap on galleries and an absence of international galleries was perhaps excusable for this fledgeling event, these risk handicapping MAF into the future. Sacrificing its international dimension limits the event’s appeal as a tour de force. Academic and art critic Robert Nelson described MAF as “more like a local party than an institution with global outreach” (Robert Nelson, Melbourne Art Fair modestly reborn as artists flaunt sex and politics, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 August 2018). MAF certainly will have its work cut out rivalling Sydney Contemporary – that has come to dominate the region’s art fair circuit – if it struggles to find scale.

Nor does MAF seek to distinguish itself from the bête noire of the mainstream art fair world, ‘The Not Fair Art Fair’ – both now aiming “to make art more accessible and create greater opportunity for local artists”. The more radical and internationalist works were to be found nearby at an alternative Melbourne Art Week exhibition, ‘Spring 1883’ at the stately Windsor Hotel. Sure, I understand that this all should be seen holistically in the context of a broader offering under the banner of Melbourne Art Week, but MAF’s narrow, parochial focus only in my mind highlighted its shortcomings as the much-vaunted ‘big-ticket’ event in the arts calendar.

Certainly, MAF was a solid showcase of some of the best of Australian art, featuring then mostly photography and painting. But it was on the whole somewhat conservative. There was too more than its fair share of pedestrian works padding out exhibition spaces despite promotions of solo exhibitions. Even so, there were standouts among those galleries dedicating their booths to well-chosen solo exhibitions.

Sydney’s Olsen Gallery brought Alan Jones’ sensational landscapes to town. Jones is renowned for capturing in his paintings the intricacies of human connections with familiar places, borne from his own experiences. Jones’ unique and experimental paintings play with seemingly at first unremarkable or idyllic imagery. They can, however, leave one feeling unease, at the thought of what lingers perhaps just out of sight, gnawing away at the legitimacy of our own memories. These paintings take us further, imbued with a sense of relief on all that has since passed.

Michael Reid’s lavishly decorated stall featuring Joseph McGlennon’s majestic photographic works of exotic birds was breathtaking. McGlennon’s intricate hyper-real montages of photographic images are skillfully arranged, bringing forth and breathing life into these iconic yet vulnerable animals. Proving the desire for quality art is still evident despite a fickle art market, Reid reports 55 McGlennon images are “finding a new home in art museums and private collections across the world”.

Artists Tamara Dean (Martin Browne Contemporary), Pierre Mukeba (GAGPROJECTS), Cameron Hayes (Australian Galleries), Lucy Cullitan (Jan Murphy Galleries), Gregory Hodge (Sullivan+Strumpf), Esther Stewart (Sarah Cottier Gallery) and Cressida Campbell (Sophie Gannon Gallery) drew accolades for their works, showcasing the depth of talent within the upper echelons of the Australian art community. 

Artists of this calibre certainly help distinguish this Melbourne Art Fair from its ill-fated predecessor (Note: The Australian art scene owes much to the visionaries of the original Melbourne Art Fair). And in fulfilling its charter to showcase the best of Australian art, this year’s fair was a success. Despite its eye on being a major biennial arts event, the Melbourne Art Fair’s lack of diversity and scale dulls its achievement. It’s post-fair claim as a boutique event within a broader arts week offering rings somewhat hollow. For now, the mantle of Australia’s pre-eminent international arts fair remains Sydney Contemporary’s to lose.

  • Sydney Contemporary runs from 13 to 16 September 2018 at Carriageworks.
  • Melbourne Art Fair is scheduled to return in 2020.

Andrew McIlroy, ‘Melbourne Art Fair’s modest ambition dulls its shine’,, 7 August 2018.

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist and arts writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia.

Link to: Andrew McIlroy

View exhibition – Cherrybrook – Melbourne Art Fair