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London's home grown January fair is a firm favourite with the art world









16 - 20 JANUARY 2018

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Ed Sykes




As the artworld settled down for a winter holiday, the team behind the first major event of the season were still hard at work. And the buck stops with LAF director, Sarah Monk.


THE LONDON Art Fair, now in its 29th edition at the famous landmark Business Design Centre in Islington, is not Frieze – or artBasel – and it is refreshing to hear that it does not think it is. After nearly 30 years, the first significant event in the awakening art calendar has settled into its groove and is secure in its identity and profile. It’s true, once White Cube, Victoria Miro and Waddington Galleries held the key slots in the main arena, but times – and the increased number of world fairs – have changed. But it must be remembered that LAF has weathered two recessions that drove many galleries to extinction, and more recently, ART17 (Olympia) was cancelled by the mighty Montgomery group after only four editions.

 LAF now plays to its strengths and it is a badge of honour that many in the capital’s art arena turn out for the opening party in January – an event where Winter lethargy is banished and the potentials of a new art year discussed with colleagues, collectors and friends. LAF has evolved into an intricate, multi-layered event that can hold its own against the competition. The 13th Art Projects section is this year directed by high flying curator, Miguel Amado, from mima1 on Teesside,and includes Dialogues – this time five partnerings of a UK gallery with an international one. Galleries from outside the UK make up two fifths of exhibitors in Art Projects 2017, including Greece, Germany, Japan, France, South Korea and Zimbabwe.

 The now established Photo50 feature hosts 13 photographic artists who interpreted the brief: Gravitas. Curated by Christiane Monarchi2 the 50 works presented reveal various aspects of adults-in-waiting, between childhood and maturity, looking at subcultures and the impact of the connected world on teenage experience.

 And it is all the responsibility of Sarah Monk – now in her fourth year as director after 15 years with the fair organisers, Upper Street Events (USE). Belfast born, Monk arrived in the UK with a BA in Fine Art, volunteered at the RA and Chisenhale, then got a foot on the ladder at the Serpentine as it prepared for a Manzoni exhibition (1998). There followed a productive period at the Hayward overseeing touring shows to the regions where she developed a strong aversion to the ‘London-centric’ bias.

 ‘I trained as an artist at the University of Ulster. When I came to London I got to learn about the machine that surrounds artists. With the Hayward I went to tiny little galleries in the middle of nowhere – and the artworld does extend beyond zone one! I became preoccupied with how people interacted with art in both a commercial and academic sense. Regionally, there are really interesting innovative things happening. Some galleries are doing very ambitious programmes.’

 For Monk, as a married professional with children, Christmas is a balancing act between family commitments and the approaching apogee of 12 months work (the fair previews 17 January). Monk heads a small team within USE that exclusively manages LAF. Until 18 months ago the owners of the BDC were partners, now USE is a standalone company.

 ‘I think we are still the “jewel in the crown” at the BDC,’ she says confidently, ‘Andrew Morris launched the fair 30 years ago and we are valued – very close to their heart! We are still a commercial client however, albeit a favourite one. My first ever job there was with Fresh Art – presenting independent artists and studio groups to give them a direct route into the marketplace. It’s rewarding today to see some of those artists having high profile careers with major galleries.

 ‘We now have a well established Modern and Contemporary formula with standards maintained by a selection committee that includes participating dealers like Zavier Ellis (Charlie Smith) and Robert Travers (Piano Nobile). Even galleries established with us year on year have to reapply each time and they are judged purely on the quality of the work they intend to show. I remember applications where artists from Ireland were included – and they used to teach me and give me crits!

 ‘I know every time we issue our list it is scrutinised by the trade and of course visitors do expect to see familiar faces. It’s a balance. I do want my core of leading galleries to ground the fair, to set the tone. One of my first initiatives was the museum partnership – now in its fourth year and a great success. As you walk in, a modernist pavilion on the left showcases museum standard art. We have had The Hepworth, Pallant House, the Jerwood, and in 2017 it is The LightBox – presenting highlights from the Ingram Collection3. It introduces a conversation between the museum and the commercial. Opposite this feature, on the right, we site new galleries with more challenging works to create a dynamic.’

 LAF is slowly returning to the concept of an ‘international’ fair, something that failed to germinate in times past. There are some 20 dealers from outside the UK, mostly in the Art Projects feature, but this is part of a subsidised programme that has always been part of the LAF philosophy.  

 ‘It is our most international fair to date. We are at capacity now,’ says Monk. ‘We run innovative subsidised programmes to bring in the collectors and generate institutional interest and the floor plan is a business model that works. We have VIP packages and educational seminars. These events are a stimulus for regular visitors and exhibitors alike. There are a lot of fairs today, but there is a reason for it – market forces. However, it is very challenging for a gallery to maintain a programme and also attend fairs, often back to back. However, we nurture both ends of the spectrum – from the novice collector to an adviser looking to purchase for an institution…’   

 Business Design Centre, Islington, N1




Miguel Amado is Senior Curator at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima). He was the curator of the Portuguese Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. He has been a curator at Tate St Ives, among other institutions, and is a critic for Artforum and  a lecturer at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Venice.


Christiane Monarchi is the founding editor of the online magazine Photomonitor. She has an MA in Contemporary Art History from Sotheby’s Institute and an MBA from Columbia University. www.photomonitor.co.uk


Since 2002 Chris Ingram has built a significant collection of Modern British art with a particular emphasis on the post-War period. It is displayed and rotated at The Lightbox, a public art gallery in Woking.







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