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Steady As She Goes: Art Toronto’s Leaders Talk Fair Challenges & Future Plans

Metro Toronto Convention Centre October 24 to 28, 2013

In recent years, Art Toronto—like all art fairs—has seen increasing competition at home and abroad, as well as other pressures. Here, Will Morris, president of Art Toronto owner Informa Canada, and Linel Rebenchuk, Art Toronto director and founder, tell us how they’re handling big changes in the field in advance of the fair’s opening this Thursday.

In the last few years, we’ve noticed Canadian dealers going to fairs in Miami, New York or elsewhere to meet new audiences there rather than stay at Canadian fairs where they feel they may already know most of the collectors. How are you trying to keep pace with these changes?

Will: It’s a very interesting phenomenon. I think buying patterns will always evolve. The challenge for an organizer such as ourselves is to keep up with those changes. Our job is to try and make our shows even more worthwhile, even more relevant—which is not always easy in the art business, because there’s such a huge amount of variety and difference in the products on display. One person’s search for creativity and art is always going to be very different from another’s.

Linel: We are a smaller show, and from the very beginning the show has had about 65 per cent Canadian content. From this perspective, we are different than many other international fairs. And galleries have a lot of choices. We are proud we have been successful in attracting a number of galleries and keeping them loyal since we started in 2000. We are working harder to make programming that will be appealing to a range of galleries, too.

Informa, both nationally and internationally, tends to run trade shows that are not art-related. What’s the difference between running art fairs and other kinds of trade shows?

Will: Indeed, the only art fairs that we run are here in Canada—Art Toronto and the Artist Project. I visit quite a few art fairs—Basel, the London Art Fair, FIAC in Paris—to see what’s new and changing and how people are adapting their event. I’d say art fairs are challenging because the art world is hugely creative, and quite sophisticated, in how it portrays products and how people interact with them. In other events, it’s a probably a more simplistic buyer/seller relationship. But while art fairs are more challenging, I’d also say they are more enjoyable.

Linel: I can’t compare to other trade fairs, but you know, when I started this fair in Canada, people said I was crazy. It wasn’t easy, but since then I think we’ve made a step ahead every year. Growing doesn’t always mean making the show bigger, because this is not our intention. It’s about making the show a bit better every year.

Both of you mention having to please a sophisticated audience or enhance programming to create a better fair. How might this play out at Art Toronto this year?

Will: Well, I think the VIP Program is a very good example in terms of the curated initiatives that are organized by our team. This helps people get a view of the Toronto scene.

Linel: We also realize how important our lecture program is, and our special projects—and our relationship with partners like the AGO, RBC, MOCCA and the Power Plant. In many ways, it is a community effort. I’m also very excited about Thom Sokoloski‘s project All The Artists Are Here at the fair entrance. I think it’s going to be fantastic.

Trade fairs in and beyond the art world have been pressured by the global economic slowdown and the rise of the Internet, which allows merchants to meet new clients without paying booth fees. How do you cope with those challenges?

Linel: Online, we have a partnership with Artsy this year, so galleries can sell works that way as well. We are also going to rebuild our website at the end of this year. Even the project we are doing with Thom is interactive, with QR codes. So I think we are trying to keep step with what is on the web.

Will: You’re right overall, though. It has become a lot more challenging in the last couple of years. I think everybody is measuring their spend on exhibitions or fairs. I think most of the galleries that exhibit with us or other events are relatively sophisticated in their understanding of their market and realize that it’s not going to necessarily always make a return on the initial investment.

Our job is to spend more time beforehand explaining how a trade fair, consumer fair or art show should fit in to their total marketing program for their business. We have to spend more time doing that, more time understanding what their market is and who they are trying to get to and ensure that the audience that we’re attracting is right for their products.

There are times, increasingly, where we have to say, “Look, this is not for you—our audience isn’t your buyers and therefore we think there are other events that might be more suited to you.” Our sales job has gotten harder, but I think at the end of the day it’s our duty to spend the time with people to ensure they get the right facts.

Another difficulty is that nobody is reducing prices; we’re getting squeezed at both ends because the venues where we hold these events continue to put up their prices, because their own costs keep going up. So it’s a wicked circle that we’re all caught in, and the exhibitors aren’t necessarily making more sales.

We try to work to find more cost-effective ways to exhibit and more importantly to find ways for them to get more out of it—maybe with a larger gallery, it’s about seeing if they can achieve the same thing with less space. It’s not a take-it-or-leave-it attitude—it’s about saying let’s try and work together to figure out how we can do something you can afford.

On the affordability front, there are new fairs in Canada like Papier, organized by a trade association, that are smaller but less expensive. How are you dealing with that competition?

Will: You know, that’s not just happening in the art world, it’s in every single sector. Often there are associations that try to put on things for a lower price but you need a certain amount of income in order to create an event that has national or international standing, and you can’t do that unless you have some form of revenue to do it.

Linel: Speaking of international standing: as the art community in Canada develops, there is more appeal for international galleries to come to fairs here. As more Canadian artists are represented overseas, there is more interest for galleries overseas to travel here because they are more aware of the art scene in Canada.

Though not all Canadian galleries participate in Art Toronto, many would be sad to see it go, as it signals a certain strength to have a commercial art fair here. What are your thoughts on the fair’s future?

Will: I think Linel in particular has been quite outspoken about how important it is to maintain the quality by not allowing the show to get too large, because it’s in a great spot. We find the Metro Toronto Convention Centre to be a brilliant spot for an art fair of this size and we just need to concentrate now on delivering an audience that is right for the fair and right for the galleries. I don’t think you will see any radical change. I think we will just try to stick to the size we have this year, but try to maintain a very high quality of exhibitor. That’s where we see Art Toronto siting its appeal internationally and we’re just going to reinforce that in future.

Linel: Overall, I am happy with the mix and the size of our fair. I think this is the size of the fair that balances well with the size of our market and our community in Toronto and Canada.

Are there any final thoughts you have about Art Toronto? Works you are looking to collect yourself? Or behind-the-scenes details?

Will: Well, last year I loved the Focus Asia theme because I travel a lot to the Far East. It’s an area of contemporary art that I’ve made my preference, but increasingly I’m becoming educated in Canadian art. I’m hoping to find one or two pieces in this year’s show that I could walk away with.

Linel: I’m involved in every single aspect of the fair, from the sales at the beginning of the year to operations to contractors to marketing. I know every single wall and light that is going in the fair. There’s so many things in my head when it comes to the fair that it can be really difficult to pick and choose just one thing to say!

This interview has been edited and condensed. For daily updates about Art Toronto during the fair, which runs October 24 to 28, please visit canadianart.ca/arttoronto.


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