Launched in 2008, Manchester Art Fair aimed to exhibit, sell, and celebrate culture in the North of England. This year’s fair was the first I have ever been to, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Being used to the steadiness of the art gallery, I expected a similar atmosphere, given that the art fair is, at its core, an exhibition. Instead, I was greeted with something much busier – definitely far too busy to even carry around a cup of coffee, for fear of spilling it onto a small child toddling in front of me.
Walking around wasn’t easy, stopping to look at the works of art was even harder, and pausing to take a photograph was an extreme sport. I learnt with horror upon entering the fair, when hearing a passing conversation, that “this is busy, so hard to walk around,” but “not as much going on as last year.” Last year’s fair attracted an incredible 13,000 visitors – their most successful year to date. I have no idea how anyone even managed to shuffle around last year.
There was certainly a buzz in the air, which had nothing to do with the drinks served at the bar. The paintings were charming, many of them showcasing a genuine love of what is the essence of life in Northern England. There was a lovely balance between kitsch and traditional interior design, beautiful landscapes and portraits, and an abundance of different materials – oil on canvas, watercolours, textiles, clay sculptures, glass, digital art – the list goes on.
Many exhibitors chose to make a statement, to scream it. They elicited both slight chuckles and hysterical laughter from passers-by – mostly aimed at grotesque images of Tories and their unfiltered opinions. Some works seemed like they were done by teenagers on a building wall after a night out, and some of them actually did depict teenagers on a night out – Euphoria style, hyperrealistic, fluorescent lighting, and zoomed-in close.
One small nook sported a sign stating “Art is memory in physical form,” a respite from shallow slogan paintings that would make Oscar Wilde proud. Indeed, Jane Pine’s beautifully sombre and intimate paintings of nudes, looking distraught and tangled in each other and bed sheets, would have been a hit with Byron. It was definitely worth a trip to see Natalie Williamson’s stunning Renaissance-style portraits: solemn women surrounded by an abundance of flora, looking out onto the viewer with soft eyes, and glowing skin.
Some of the art felt like the makers were chomping at the bit, desperate to convey their anger and frustration at the current state of the country or the world, in the media they do best. There was a feeling of revolution in the air, electric and loud.
The turnout was good, and certainly profitable for the exhibitors. A whopping 91% of visitors spent up to £5k on art. The fair aimed to appeal to “the collector, the curator and the simply curious,” and this vision was certainly realised in this year’s attendees. Reactions to the art ranged from “The style of drawing is so melancholy,” to “I like them faces.”
Proud buyers perched in The Collector’s Lounge, a separate, fancy restaurant-looking area with high tables, black tablecloths, and red wine, but the elitism stopped there. The fair managed to create a down-to-earth, open, and inclusive environment for anyone to attend. The result was a wonderful wander around art from all over the country.
Whilst art is often focused on those wealthy enough to afford it, Manchester Art Fair welcomed everyone, creating an extremely casual event. Artists, buyers, and observers could talk freely and join each other’s mailing lists. I overheard one couple casually musing over a piece of art in perspex to “put on the yellow wall,” a work of art I later learnt cost £3000! That in itself motivated me to strive to do well in my career as an artist.
All-in-all, the fair was a success, and a must-visit for any artist or casual onlooker, if only to have a little laugh at current world affairs or to feel a sudden surge of pride at having come from the North.