Next week, the Affordable Art Fair (AAF) opens in Battersea Park on October 25, and the week after, a sister fair takes place on Hampstead Heath on November 1-4. The AAF, which features more than 100 galleries selling work for less than £4,000, was set up to draw potential buyers into the fray, without facing the often intimidating experience of wandering into a Mayfair or Bethnal Green gallery.
The AAF’s founder, Will Ramsay, was inspired to create the fair after being discouraged from buying a work by the frostiness of a gallery sales assistant. “Will thought there was a gap in the market, because there must be other people like him,” says Romy Westwood, the director of the Hampstead fair. “The art fair is a testament to that — people think it is fun, relaxed and welcoming. They don’t feel like they need a degree in art to buy an original piece.”
More than 50 per cent of visitors to each fair are new to the experience, so the AAF explains every aspect of buying works, from the different media, to framing and placement. If you want an oil painting, you can acquire work by a young or not-yet-established artist.
But you can also pick up work by leading figures — Stanley Donwood, creator of Radiohead’s intense covers, has a screenprint available for £288 with Tag Fine Arts, while Marc Quinn’s darkly lush Under the Volcano, a digital print with silkscreen glaze, is £900 with Manifold Editions (right).
Prints are a vital but much misunderstood part of an artist’s output, explains Alan Cristea, a leading dealer in modern and contemporary prints who sells work by artists as diverse as Picasso and Julian Opie. “You have to make a simple distinction between autographic prints and non-autographic ones. A lot of prints that come under the heading of original, limited-edition prints are in fact reproductions of pre-existing works,” he says. “Alternatively, you do what I do and that is commission contemporary artists to do something in a medium that is just as original as a unique work, but that is in an edition.”
Printmaking is a wonderful, time-honoured discipline, requiring artists to work with master printers to develop often incredibly rich and sumptuous images. In starting to deal in prints more than 40 years ago, Cristea says he wanted to “cover the world in original art, affordably”, adding: “I love the idea of this democratic form.” Many of his artists’ prices start between £600 and £1,000.
This democratic, affordable approach is also found at Counter Editions, an online company set up by Matthew Slotover of Frieze and Carl Freedman, a linchpin of the Nineties’ British art boom, who owns a Shoreditch gallery. “The idea from the beginning was very simple,” Freedman says. “To work with artists who I had known since leaving college whose prices had started to get beyond most people’s price range, like Chris Ofili and Rachel Whiteread and Gary Hume, and to make prints with them and make them affordable.”
Counter produced larger edition sizes, so that instead of making 20 or 40 prints, and therefore forcing a high price, 200 or 300 were made, bringing the price tag impressively low “while keeping exactly the same quality”. So, you can buy a Jake and Dinos Chapman photogravure for £550, a Rachel Whiteread laser-cut print for £750 and a Hume silkscreen for £600. “We work with exactly the same printers and there’s no difference between a print of ours by Gary Hume and those which are in an edition of 40 — it is just that the price is lower,” Freedman says.
In recent years, a wealth of institutions have cottoned on to this idea, working with artists to produce original editions. At Frieze this year, many of them, including the Whitechapel and Serpentine galleries, took a booth under the name Allied Editions. The prints are a win-win for all concerned — the buyer gets an original signed work of art produced by an artist under a leading gallery’s guidance, and the institution gets much-needed financial support. For a brilliant non-profit gallery with a tiny budget like Studio Voltaire in Clapham, this is a vital lifeline — from them, you can pick up works by Jeremy Deller and Phyllida Barlow for as little as £125.
If you are acquiring art as an investment, these works are probably not for you, though they are unlikely to lose their value. Indeed, Romy Westwood sums up the best motivation for buying affordable art. “We want people [at the AAF] to buy original artwork and support artists, but also to find something that they really fall in love with and can keep on cherishing, year on year.”
The Affordable Art Fair takes place at Battersea Park on October 25-28 and Hampstead Heath on November 1-4.