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The true value of art

Contemporary Art Fairs comes to Newbury

Trish Lee

Trish Lee


01635 886663

CAF founders Sarah McAllister and Deborah James

NEWBURY art lovers may have, in the past, enjoyed the experience of browsing the annual Contemporary Art Fairs at Rivermead, even picking up a bargain, no matter what their favoured genre. If they were disappointed to hear the fair was no longer taking place there, the good news is that it is coming to our town. The event, at Newbury Racecourse on May 11 and 12, will feature 160 artists showcasing 5,000 works, workshops and live demos. N2 talks to CAF founders Sarah McAllister and Deborah James whose aim is to make genuine, high-quality, contemporary art accessible and affordable to the wider communityIN celebration of the launch of their newest event in Newbury next month, Contemporary Art Fairs are elevating the experience and coming up with something quite special – something that may well change art fairs in the future.

After more than 15 years of success they are one of only a handful of truly influential art fairs in the country. Every year the events have gone from strength to strength and their secret is the dedication of co-founders and co-directors Sarah McAllister and Deborah James and, most importantly, their shared passion for art. They started out with just one fair and 25 stands. This year, there will be three events including the new show at Newbury Racecourse, where 125 stands will feature more than 160 curated artists, printmakers, photographers, sculptors, ceramicists and selected galleries – bringing together a rich array of art from all over the country and abroad.

These two women revolutionised the art fair experience by inviting artists to exhibit alongside galleries, making it part-educational, on some level edgy, but always exciting, “We believe art isn’t just something to put in your home. It makes us notice the world around us,” says Sarah. “We are trying to show an array of choices and styles that make us think and feel.”

Deborah agrees. “You have a response to any art and when we see someone’s face light up with wonder and joy, we know we have got it right.”

Deborah has a degree in economic history and worked with the very first micro-computers. She started out in international trade importing hazelnuts from Turkey and was delighted to be asked to source art in the UK for a gallery in Spain. A pioneer from the start, Deborah then opened a gallery in Windsor specialising in photography – her uncle was head of photography at The Tate at the time, so it was natural to see its value as equal to any other art form. However, she was one of only a handful brave enough to hang photography alongside work by Sir Terry Frost, Sandra Blow and Anita Klein. Studying for a degree in history of art at the University of East Anglia, Sarah was surrounded by art while working in Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts there, a groundbreaking place of visual communication in a building commissioned from Norman Foster. She went on to work in Christie’s Contemporary Art Galleries, the world’s leading publishers and galleries specialising in original limited-edition prints. Sarah brings to the art fairs her ethos of wanting to make genuine, high-quality contemporary art accessible and affordable to the wider community.

It all began for them on the side of a rugby pitch, watching their sons play an away match. They found their passions and combined experience to be a natural fit – both had owned galleries and Sarah brought framing to the enterprise, which she still does, and they haven’t looked back. They had both noticed that many more artists needed a gallery space than was available and decided to create an exciting place for them to show.They apply the same high standards of curation to the Art Fair as they would to their gallery spaces.

“We both still get excited about art, and we take what our art fair offers very seriously. It has to be right for the artist and an interesting, fresh mix for our visitors so that both get the best experience. We actively look for new talent, support emerging work, and appreciate the value of established, well-loved artists” says Sarah. “It is 100 per cent our choice and our instincts have proved right over the past 15 years – year on year the show just gets better.

“The fact that we’re still here proves we know what we are doing,” says Deborah.

Their relationships with their artists are important and they have been responsible for launcing careers. “We are always aware we are dealing with people and we carefully look for the fit. We are also trying to get the best out of people,” says Sarah.

In a world focused on the bottom line, maximising profits and stripping costs, people who are truly passionate about what they do – and what they believe in – have a special feeling and ownership of a company. There is an integrity and sense of purpose that creates a different philosophy and culture.

“We treat people with respect, which is fundamentally necessary to benefit from how they deal with you. We don’t take things for granted and always consider the relationship important,” adds Deborah.

This same belief underpins all their relationships, from the artists to the buyers, to their staff, the contractors and the venues, local schools and the art community. The secret to their success may be as simple as their attention to detail. They are very hands-on and have high expectations.

“We are always working to improve the experience for all and we’re evolving in the art market. We are not in competition with other fairs, we are doing what is interesting for us and best for our artists and visitors with a long-term view.”
Their event is visionary and participatory. It supports the Prince’s Trust – raising more than £72,000 so far and offers educational workshops, talks and inclusive experiences for adults and children, while being successful for their artists. The fairs offer a great day out and an exciting cultural experience for their visitors.

To mark the launch of this new fair, the show will host a full programme of talks, workshops and activities including free art valuations by Bargain Hunt regular Thomas Forrester and his team from Special Auction Services, plus an opportunity to join in a collaborative painting inspired by Frieda Kahlo.

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