Art Fairs

Sunday’s Adam Thomas on Why Gallery-Led Art Fairs Are the Wave of the Future

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Sunday’s Adam Thomas on Why Gallery-Led Art Fairs Are the Wave of the Future
The Sunday Art Fair

London’s Frieze week will soon be upon us, but for a select group of 25 galleries and their patrons, the month October is all about one fair: Sunday. Started by a group of emerging galleries back in 2010, Sunday aims to provide a hipper and more relaxed experience for its visitors, many of whom attend the fair with the express purpose of discovering scrappy new spaces and artists from the U.K., Europe, and the United States. (Highlights from previous years include Puppies Puppies, Ella Kruglyanskaya, and Simon Fujiwara, among other of-the-moment artists.) Of course, the fair’s location in P3 Ambika, a cement-factory-turned-exhibition-hall on the University of Westminster campus doesn’t hurt, either—the open floor plan and industrial-chic interior fit nicely with the fair’s outsider status. 

Like many of their fellow satellite fairs from around the world, Sunday acts as a kind of feeder for their larger and better-known counterparts. It’s a state of affairs Sunday’s current organizers Adam Thomas and Thom O’Nions can sympathize with; the pair are gallerists themselves, running London’s Supplement Gallery when they’re not working on the new edition of the fair. As we discussed with O’Nions last year, it’s a tricky but ultimately rewarding balancing act, and one that has the potential to spark the important conversations that make the art world go ‘round.

Here, we spoke with his partner about the gallery-led art fair model, and why London remains a contemporary-art powerhouse. To browse the booths before the fair opens, check out Artspace's exclusive preview here.

 

Let’s start with a bit of background—how did the Sunday Art Fair get its start?

The fair originally started as part of Berlin Gallery Weekend in 2010. Later that same year, the galleries who first organized the fair—Limoncello, Croy Nielsen, and Tulips and Roses—decided to open an edition in London. They chose Ambika P3 as its location, the site where it’s still held today. I think they were attracted by the open plan and the industrial nature of the space, plus its proximity to Frieze. They saw it as a good opportunity for young galleries to get together and do something outside of Frieze.

Was that the original impetus behind the fair?

For the first three years the fair was run by the galleries I mentioned—Limoncello, Tulips and Roses, Cory Nielsen. They handed the reigns over to Rob Tufnell and Lüttgenmeijer in 2013, and they handed it over to us at Supplement in 2015. 

It’s a somewhat unusual leadership structure, having the fair passed down to different gallerists. How does it work?

Basically, the young galleries that started and then ran the fair eventually move up into Frieze, so gets handed on to the next generation, as it were. When Lüttgenmeijer and Rob Tufnell reformatted their galleries, they asked us to take over the fair, which we were very keen to do. We feel like there are so many great, fantastic young galleries out there, and it’s important for them to have a platform in London. It’s a great opportunity to build their networks with other galleries and elite institutions here in London.

In the two years that you and Thom have helmed the fair, how has the makeup of the galleries evolved? What are some changes that you instituted?

One of the first things we did upon inheriting the fair was instate an application process, to broaden out the kinds of galleries at the fair. Prior to us it was invitation only, but we wanted to make it more accessible and have a wider swath of galleries. We’ve kept it quite internationally spread—the fair has a big footprint, with several galleries from the U.S. and Europe. 

What has opening up the fair to applications done to the fair? Have you come across any really surprising spaces?

Oh yes. A lot of the best are actually recommendations from other galleries who’ve participated in previous years. We get some very good, very young galleries. This is often the first fair that these emerging galleries do, so we do a hell of a lot of research over the first half of the year to scope out new and interesting spaces. It’s really about discovery. When we wade through the applications, we look quite in-depth into their program, the artists that they’re proposing, and the artists’ CVs. We’re trying to build a picture of each gallery, to see where they’re coming from and where they might be going. It’s really exciting to find these great young artists, usually before most of the other fairs do. 

How does Sunday fit into the bigger ecosystem of international art fairs?

Sunday often acts as a kind of stepping-stone to the larger fairs. Every year there are a few galleries that end up going to fairs like Frieze or Liste, which is great.

What are the things that really stand out when you’re looking at these applications? What are the unofficial criteria that you’re holding these galleries to?

It’s really complicated, but it’s basically the overall quality of their proposal. A good proposal is one that aims showing something new that hasn’t been seen so much in London before. It’s galleries that are bringing kind of the most interesting artists, for the first time, to a fair. That’s the primary thing that we look at. After that, it’s the background of the artist—their CV, what they’ve done, and what they have coming up.

Does the fact that Sunday is gallery-run change the way it operates when compared to others like Art Basel or Frieze? 

Well, kind of. I actually think galleries originated a lot of fairs. Look at Art Cologne, one of the oldest fairs, which was set up by a group of galleries—I think Sunday is in keeping with that tradition. Maybe the largest fairs today come from a different angle, but gallery-led fairs are happening more often. Events like Material or Paris International have the galleries taking control of all aspects of the fair. 

Do you think there’s anything different about the character of gallery-run fairs versus their perhaps more commercial fellows? 

I think part of it is just a way of keeping costs down—for galleries art fairs are very expensive. When it’s a team of galleries getting together and organizing a fair you know they’re keeping the expenses low. 

Sunday has always been a quite straightforward, relaxing environment, in part because the whole fair is connected to galleries and their booth spaces. 

Do you think this is a lasting approach to art fairs?

The gallery-run fair model is tried and tested. It’s established, and it works. That said, I think we will probably see more gallery-organized fairs, where everybody gets together to organize an event like this for themselves.

As someone who is also a gallerist, what have you kind of learned about what it takes to put on an event like this over the past couple years? Had you done anything like this prior to taking over Sunday?

Yes. I had worked for Zoo Art Fair before opening my gallery, which was an emerging art fair in London coinciding with Frieze. That closed in 2009, and Sunday kind of followed in its steps. 

One thing we’ve found is the amazing level of support from the local institutions in London—they’re very much behind the fair, which is great.

How do you balance between the two roles that you play as a gallerist and fair director? 

We try to keep them fairly separate. Organizing the fair is a lot of work, as is the gallery, so it’s a lot of work, really [laughs]. 

The number of galleries at the fair is actually fairly small, even compared to other emerging art fairs. Is that a decision on your part, to maintain a more laid-back atmosphere? 

Being only 25 galleries, it’s a very refreshing, manageable scale. It’s a lot more relaxed than other fair, so it has a bit of a nicer pace to it. People can take the time to really see the works and speak to the gallerists.

When we took over the fair we made a bit more space for more galleries, so we actually increased it a little bit, but really only by two or three booths. That’s only limited by the size of the venue. The venue lends itself really well to the fair—it’s in such a good location, it’s a really good size, and people are very familiar with it. They’re quite happy with 25 galleries. It makes for a very focused fair.

The application process allows us, in a way, to create the fair. Because the space has an open plan, a lot of the decisions about where everything goes is based on how it works all together.

Looking at the list of exhibitors, only a handful of galleries that were there last year are back again this year. Is that a deliberate decision on your part to mix up the lineup?

We try to keep it fairly fresh, yeah. A number of the galleries have moved up into Frieze—I think there’s about four or five—and there’s seven galleries coming back from last year, but there’s also 18 new galleries. There was some galleries who didn’t apply because they’re changing their approach to the fairs. For young galleries, it makes sense to try out fairs in different places and then see what works for them. Especially for U.S. galleries, it’s quite a big expense to do a fair in Europe.

What’s new about the fair this year versus last year?

We haven’t introduced too much. Beyond the fresh galleries, we have new institutions participating in the Editions section, which is something that we introduced last year. After the success of last year, we felt like we had a good model in place from which to grow the fair, in terms of introducing more collectors into the fair. Our focus now is mainly on developing the audiences.

What kinds of efforts are you putting into building that collector base? 

It’s a lot of reaching out to the local institutions in the UK and internationally as well, just making sure they will come to visit at the fair.

What can you tell me about the group of editions from insitutions you have featured at the fair? 

The institutions we have at the fair this year are Glasgow International, which is a festival that takes place in Glasgow each year, the Liverpool Biennial, and the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art. Each of these institutions produce editions to support their programming, and we support those institutions by inviting them to the fair. Generally, they’re showing the editions which they’ve produced throughout the year at fair. For us, it’s really exciting having these kind of editions coming in. 

How would you characterize the art scene in London? What are some exciting developments in recent years? 

It’s really very diverse. There’s new London galleries that are opening up each year. For instance, this year we have Emalin at the fair, who’ve also just opened a space in London. 

There’s a wide range of art, as well. We have emerging spaces and an exciting public art scene. There’s also really great universities here, so there are great students coming out each year. It’s a very active gallery scene that supports those recent graduates and young artists. Alongside that there are the kind of the larger blue-chip galleries which are choosing London as their home. Over the last few years there’s been a number of large international galleries opening here. Thaddaeus Ropac is opening a new space here early next year, and Marian Goodman did the same thing in 2014. 

There’s a lot of attention in London. Everybody comes through here, and especially so in October. It’s a really diverse and energetic community.

 

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