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Contemporary decorative arts get sexy at Collect, London

Clear success for the first European crafts fair held at the Victoria and Albert Museum

London

Britain has suddenly woken up out of a partial market slumber and produced two successful new fairs in fields where before there was nothing. Frieze, held in October last year, was the first truly international contemporary art fair in the country (The Art Newspaper No.141, November 2003, p.39) and now Collect, held 20 to 24 February, showed that there is huge untapped interest in Britain for crafts, or “contemporary objects” as they are now called. Its organiser is the Crafts Council, a public agency that promotes the crafts in Britain, but is also partly self-funded.

From the beginning, the event was a success, as demonstrated by the long queues that formed outside the show in the Victoria and Albert Museum. “The opportunity to set up stall in one of the greatest decorative arts museums in the world is wonderful,” said Amanda Game of the Scottish Gallery, “The thought of exhibiting in these surroundings certainly inspired our artists.”

It was a dream location in many ways, but although the fair had a clean, modern look, the space was restricted, and so the larger works could not be successfully viewed. The cramped effect was exacerbated by the crowds: Collect attracted 10,700 visitors in its four days: “London has turned out for the event,” said dealer Adrian Sassoon. Crafts Council chairman Sir Nicholas Goodison hosted a breakfast launch, and the auction house, Christie’s, held a special private view for collectors. V&A members also had their own evening view. “We’ve seen all the regional museums here as well as a number of groups of collectors from the US,” said Mr Sassoon, and in fact a lot of buying was done by one group from the US led by American collector Marc Grainer.

While these were already committed collectors, it seems that Collect also hit a chord with the general public. “People are arriving with a sense of wonder,” said furniture maker John Makepeace, one of the nine craftspeople selected to show their work, “There is a real hunger for something different from what is generally associated with contemporary art.”

“There is a whole new group of collectors out there, and the fair offers works that appeal to them, at prices they can afford,” said Katie Jones, whose stall was devoted to the elegant simplicity of Japanese lacquer, textiles and glass.

Prices, indeed, were very affordable, particularly compared to those at the two US events, the Chicago and New York Sculptural Objects and Functional Art (SOFA) fairs where Chihuly glass, for example, can reach six figures. Much of the work at Collect could be bought for £1,000 to £5,000, but there were also sales at higher levels, for example a black Raku tea bowl, which Mitochu Koeki, the only Japanese exhibitor, sold for £36,000, or a glass piece by Vladimir Zbynovsky that made £18,590 at Plateaux Gallery.

The 41 galleries selected (the fair was fourfold oversubscribed) included many leading players in the field, bar the Americans, who were excluded because they already have SOFA. Two major British galleries, Besson and Barrett Marsden, chose not to participate, but benefited from the “Collect effect.” Matthew Hall of Besson was pleased that the fair had “brought focus into the field”, while Tatiana Marsden noted that it had “generated a real buzz in the air”; neither excluded participating in the future.

While there were 15 foreign exhibitors, visitors were predominantly British, and some dealers would like to have seen more international buyers; a number noted, however, that the level of knowledge and interest of those attending was high.

The ceramicist Edmund de Waal was showing “Mendel’s shelf”, a series of 60 pots with different colours inside, and had sold almost all, at £450 each: he had also sold “Porcelain room” an installation in the Geffrey Museum that a visitor to the fair bought for an undisclosed sum. “Ceramics are treated more sculpturally today,” he said, noting that his work will also be on show at “A secret history of clay, Gauguin to Gormley,” at Tate Liverpool (28 May-30 August). In the same show there will be work by Turner prize-winner Grayson Perry, who spent a number of hours at the fair.

The Crafts Council’s initial agreement with the V&A was for three years; its intention now is to build on this successful “first” and produce an even better fair next year.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Contemporary decorative arts get sexy'