Tips on Starting an Art Fair

by Mark Sheerin on December 3, 2013

Sluice Art Fair 2013 (all images courtesy Sluice Art Fair)

Sluice Art Fair 2013 (Laura Mott Photography,, all images courtesy Sluice Art Fair)

LONDON — There are plenty of ways to respond to a major art fair: excitement, dread, awe, disgust. What not many people come away thinking is, ‘I could do that.’ But if you have a hankering to build a roster of galleries and drum up a swarm of visitors, the three-year-old Sluice Art Fair may offer a few lessons.

The October 2013 event gathered nearly 37 artist-led spaces, hosted 17 performances, and welcomed an estimated 3,500 people through the doors of a spacious, three-floor location in South London. But rather than the usual buttoned-up — or at least highly moneyed — atmosphere, at Sluice, tattooists, fishmongers, and chefs all plied their trades in the name of art. Signs suggested this was an event whose time had come.

Shortly afterwards, I caught up with organizers Karl England and Ben Street to find out how it was done. Aspiring art fair directors, read on.

Get Your Timing Right

Karl England and Ben Street

Karl England and Ben Street

Sluice coincides with a much bigger fair, Frieze, a fact that works in the upstart’s advantage. “We wanted to take advantage of the fact there was this enormous crowd in London that was interested in looking at contemporary art, maybe buying contemporary art, talking about contemporary art,” Street says. There are, of course, a plethora of additional fairs at this time, which makes for tough competition, but, says England, “It’s like a challenge, isn’t it, to throw yourself up against all these ones?”

Scour the Land for Talent …

Most art fairs in London have a metropolitan bias; not so Sluice, whose organizers toured the whole of the UK to identify artist-led spaces that would never otherwise have gotten a look. “We made a big effort to investigate these fantastic scenes in Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, all over the UK,” Street says. “There’s so much interesting artist-led stuff happening, you know, we really wanted to showcase it.”

… and Get Used to Google Maps

Street went on a reccy in Bushwick and came back with a handful of commitments from interesting Brooklyn galleries. But closer to home, the pair needed to do a little more legwork. “I can’t think of a single space that you would just stumble across,” says Street. “You have to know where they are.” At Sluice, the pair created an open-plan format, ensuring that all the spaces were equally easy to find. “They’re on level pegging,” he adds.

Manage Expectations

England says he’s still collating sales figures, but at the same time insists that, unlike Frieze, Sluice is about something other than sales: “It’s about networking. It’s about reach, extending the reach of the galleries — to press, obviously, and also through visitors.” He mentions one gallery whose representative said they’d had more visitors that weekend than in their previous lifetime.

Develop a Following

Three thousand and five hundred visitors don’t just spring out of thin air. If you’re thinking of starting your own art fair, you will need to find an audience. The second Sluice took place in “a much bigger venue” than the first year and, in order to fill it, the team had to have “built up a certain reputation,” Street says. Visitor figures were double the 2011 incarnation, and the organizers tried to maintain interest by holding a fundraiser and putting out a publication — plus, of course, social media.

Be Fluid

Before they take part in Sluice, galleries must submit a proposal, but England observes that quite a few of them didn’t stick to what they sent in. “It just gives us a sense of what sort of flavour to expect,” Street says. “We’re not really worried about people changing minds.” So the pair are tolerant of the state of flux that accompanies the run up to an art fair. “We haven’t really got a policy of curatorial invention,” Street adds, “which is something we might perhaps maybe work on.”

Celebrate Juxtaposition

As at most art fairs, galleries at Sluice compete for attention with striking work cheek by jowl with striking work. But England says of the galleries: “They know in advance who their neighbors are going to be, and they are encouraged to talk to them and work in cahoots. Some of them did and some of them didn’t, and that threw up some interesting things.” If your art fair is open plan, you too will have to consider this. “We wanted it to be full of interesting juxtapositions; we don’t want it to be about discrete areas for individual galleries,” says Street. So, “what might seem like a clash is often just an exciting attrition between two spaces.”

Sluice's venue

Sluice’s venue in South London

Be Subjective

“That’s the hardest question,” admits England, when asked about selection criteria. “Really, we’re just opinionated. We both operate in the art world, and we know what we like. I think it’s easier to say what we weren’t looking for: we weren’t looking for people proposing selling shows. If that was their primary concern, we weren’t really interested.” Street confirms this and elaborates on the process: “The selection procedure is two-pronged: One is looking at the pedigree of the spaces themselves — even if they haven’t been going for very long, have they been doing interesting work? — and also what proposal they put together.”

And there you have it: how to run an art fair the Sluice way. It won’t make you rich, but it might make you popular.

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  • Daniel Larkin

    thanks Mark.. really a cool read… art fairs get a bad rap for featuring commercially viable work with no artistic soul… and it’s exciting to hear about this new genre of art fair… it makes me want to check out every art fair with a name I don’t recognize yet…

    • Mark Sheerin

      Hey Daniel, thanks. I guess art fairs can be interesting and enjoyable places to be. As long as those megabucks aren’t changing hands.

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