An art fair is more than just selling art

From a kitty-inspired kids project to talks that tap into a global zeitgeist, site-responsive installations and videos to rival box office hits, Sydney Contemporary is the full buffet experience.
[This is archived content and may not display in the originally intended format.]

Locust Jones, Back to the Dark Ages II, 2016, Installation Contemporary; courtesy of Dominik Mersch Gallery. Photo Jacquie Manning

There are in excess of 250 art fairs internationally. That’s great for artists and art enthusiasts who are exposed to an ever-expanding smorgasbord of new art, but how do art fairs connect with the average culture-loving punter, and steer away from being just another look-alike trade fair?

Art Fairs Australia CEO Barry Keldoulis believes that art fairs today offer a full buffet engagement, and have become more egalitarian in their capacity to engage on many levels. He said: ‘I think we are responding to an enthusiasm in our society to engage with culture, and the visual arts does that incredibly well.’

Curator Nina Miall continued: ‘Curated sections are undoubtedly becoming a fixture at art fairs globally, and newly commissioned installations are an important part of these showcases for different reasons.

‘The site-specificity of these works connect the art to the architecture in a way that really grounds the fair and takes the fair experience beyond that of a trade fair or expo – this is particularly true for Sydney Contemporary which is uniquely housed in a heritage-listed space with a remarkable industrial history.’

Miall has been commissioned to curate Installation Contemporary, part of the Fair’s ambitious four-day program that also includes live performances, engaging panel discussions, expert-led fair tours, experimental moving image art, as well as a “night cap” program that bridges the Fair with Sydney.

Sydney Contemporary is presented in partnership with Deutsche Bank and returns to Carriageworks from 13 – 16 September 2018, with VIP previews held on Wednesday, 12 September.


Over 80 galleries will visit Sydney, showcasing the work of over 300 leading and emerging artists from more than 30 countries, however, not all are suited to a booth-presentation.

Miall said that commissioned installations play a role in moving the experience of art beyond the domestic scale and setting of an art fair booth. ‘They can stage surprising and provocative encounters with fair goers, play with scale in interesting ways, activate dead spaces within the fair’s layout, and allow fair goers to enjoy the experience of art beyond the immediate marketplace of the fair booths,’ she said.

Miall has curated 22 artists / art collectives across the venue, among which is the iconic work by Jean Dubuffet, L’Incivil (1973/2014) – one of the figures that comprise the monumental sculptural complex Welcome Parade, originally conceived during a long collaboration with architect I.M. Pei. It is an appropriate fit with Carriageworks.

Learn who has been commissioned for Installation Contemporary

Fairs are all about that big name balance with home grown talent. ‘Probably the most urgent challenge facing the arts sector concerns the question of representation and the responsibility of everyone working within the arts to encourage more egalitarianism through providing platforms and opportunities to different voices,’ Miall said.

‘This has been critical to my selection of works for Installation Contemporary and is particularly important for places like art fairs, where there are already social and economic barriers to participation.

‘I hope Installation Contemporary will faithfully reflect the rich diversity of Australian artistic practice today,’ she added. ‘The works commissioned specially for the fair are fresh from the studio – crucially, they allow a fair like Sydney Contemporary to make a strong connection with artists and artistic production, alongside the commercial focus you would expect.’

Featured within Installation Contemporary are artists: Abdul Abdullah, Ron Adams, Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, Glenn Barkley, Megan Cope, Bill Culbert, Lucas Davidson, Penelope Davis, Chris Dolman, Simon Ingram, Robert Jahnke, Ash Keating, Lindy Lee, Yhonnie Scarce, Alex Seton, Tim Silver, Jason Sims, Kylie Stillman, TeamLab, Ronnie Van Hout, and Nyaopanyapa Yunupingu.

Photo Jacquie Manning


Talk can be intimidating in the art world, but there is one place where it is not.

Talk Contemporary is all about making the joy of talking about art more egalitarian. Samantha Watson-Wood, Director of Partnerships and Programs for Sydney Contemporary, said: ‘We aim to provide a program that is accessible but credible.’

‘Educating budding art enthusiasts is very much one of the aims – we do this through providing entry level topics such as Confessions of an Art Addict, where six different collectors each with very different tastes, show five images that explain who and what makes them addicted to art.

‘Or in talks such as Meet the Creative Collaborators we explore the life of invention… [and] Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise, where NAVAs Penelope Benton will navigate a difficult space regarding the #metoo movement and harassment in the workplace, whilst The Politicized Body looks at how artists can use their body as a form of resistance,’ Watson-Wood said.

Sydney Contemporary has also worked with organisations such as Vogue Living and iD magazine that sit in the creative industries but outside contemporary art to open the fair up to new audiences and give the established audience a different take on how and what to collect.

Programmed according to the zietgeist, Watson-Wood reminded that working in the arts is at the forefront of ideas. ‘We look to artists to give us an exploration of what can be aesthetically, socially, politically progressive and challenging … We also look at key trends and conversations happening globally outside the arts industry and see how our thought leaders respond, react and explain these phenomena.’

To plan what talks and tours you will attend at Sydney Contemporary, visit


Kids Contemporary is clearly far more than just a creche, with artists commissioned to make new immersive art works it has a serious vision with a serious investment.

Watson-Wood told ArtsHub that while it can ‘act as a bribing tool for parents with bored and/ or weary children. “One more gallery and then the kid’s space…” but more importantly it allows a space that is dedicated to play.’

She continued: ‘Our objective with everything we do in the Fair is to increase engagement with contemporary art across a range of age groups and demographics. For some children this may be the first real encounter with contemporary art and for many it is a memorable one.’

In the past Sydney Contemporary has worked with Uji Handoko Eko Saputro and Hiromi Tango. This year Hossein Ghaemi will create a space that brings together installation and performance to explore feelings and surreal fantasies.

Described as an ‘extreme cat-enthusiast’, Watson-Wood said that Ghaemi will ask the audience the question, “What do Cats think about? Do they dream?” Creating a Zen-like space that fosters people to play, think and create.

‘We aim with this space to create an experience that children can relate to and indulge in, which will hopefully spark an interest and intrigue into the visual arts as a whole,’ she said.

Performance Contemporary 2017, Amrita Hepi, Buwathay Munyarryun, Njonju Ganambarr. Courtesy Tim Klingender Gallery, Photo Jacquie Manning

A flick fest with a difference – it’s short!

Video is a medium that provides an interesting way for artist to engage with their audience, and which has a very different impact than a static painting.  Keldoulis said: ‘A lot of people love Video Contemporary as a way of taking a break from the fair to take a moment to sit quietly.’

Curator of Video Contemporary Kelly Gellatly, Director The Ian Potter Museum of Art, continued: ‘My selection started with the simple ambition of bringing new and unexpected artists and works to the fore, driven neither by theme or conceptual or stylistic tendencies. In casting the net wide, of the group of 15 artists in this year’s program, five are represented by galleries showing within the Fair and 10 are currently unrepresented.’

She added that she has intentionally kept the viewing times short in her selection, and has chosen fewer narrative videos so visitors can enter and enjoy at any point.

‘I do hope that collectors are more comfortable with and willing to collect video these days…Storage obviously isn’t a problem – which is a distinct advantage – and a great video work can be endlessly rewarding to live with,’ said Gellatly.

Sydney Contemporary will be presented at Carriageworks from 13 – 16 September.

For ticketing information visit

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina