Founding an Art Fair – 1:54 and Touria El Glaoui
by Ted Sandling, Presenter of The Contemporary Art World: Theory and Structure and Programme Director of Online Courses, Christie’s Education
The 1:54 Contemporary African Art fair comes to London each October, during what’s familiarly called Frieze Week in the art world. During that season, collectors of contemporary art fill the city as all the major auction houses and galleries put on their best shows. At the centre of it all, sitting among the gardens of Regents Park, is the Frieze Art Fair, a hugely influential contemporary art fair. Art lovers can tour London, hopping from gallery to fair to saleroom and benefit from more exposure to contemporary art in an afternoon than in weeks of international touring. In 2013, when Touria El Glauoi founded 1:54, virtually none of the art on view was by African or African diaspora artists.
It was a conscious choice, Touria said, to establish 1:54 at the same week as Frieze. ‘We didn’t have any marketing…but we were able to leverage all the people that were here…Frieze was always willing to engage with 1:54, sharing news of the fair with their collectors.’
1:54 quickly became one of the most successful ‘satellite’ art fairs: art fairs that operate in the orbit of a behemoth, but which offer new perspectives to consider, different artists to collect, and smaller galleries to get to know.
I met Touria a few times to film a video that will become part of the new online course at Christie’s Education, The Contemporary Art World: Theory and Structure. I wanted to understand how she had launched 1:54, how she had overseen its growth, and how it continues to bring artists from Africa and the African diaspora to collectors.
The first time we met was the October morning when 1:54 London threw open its doors for a press call. Ever since the fair launched in 2013, it has taken over Somerset House – a gigantic Georgian palace on the north bank of the Thames in London. In the courtyard, a monumental installation by Grada Kilomba called O Barco/The Boat outlined the hold of slave ship. Inside, Touria was marking ten years of 1:54 with the assembled journalists. Explaining the history of the fair, and how it broke ground in its showcase for the many African artists who were simply not being shown in Europe before. Around her, the fair spread out into the wings of Somerset House. Fifty galleries and over 130 artists. Collectors, art lovers, critics whirling through the two hundred and fifty year old rooms. In a week it would all be over before reappearing, with new galleries and a different selection of artists, in Marrakech (February), Paris (April) and New York (May).
We met again at Christie’s London. One of the most interesting things about the Contemporary Art World course was the way it brings together both art theory and practical understanding of operating in the contemporary art market, and I wanted to talk to Touria about what it had taken to launch such a successful fair.
In one of Christie’s more secluded galleries, often used to show highlights or private collections, we sat and talked about how she had transformed a growing awareness of the invisibility in Europe and the US of even well-established African artists into a decision to refocus her professional life and, ultimately, to launch 1:54.
‘I realised that visibility and international access was very important and maybe that was the link missing from the contemporary art scene I was seeing on the African continent. I said you know what? I want to do this. I’m going to concentrate two years on trying to figure out if this is possible.’
To Touria, it was clear that opening a gallery to show art by African artists would not be enough. ‘Part of my research was that a large part of sales happened in the art fair model. That is where the galleries were selling the most in the rest of the world. I asked myself, how can we give access to the sales initiatives for those galleries and the fair was the right model.’ When I asked if the first fair was always going to be in London, Touria described how international visibility would be fundamental to the success of 1:54, and so she needed to launch in one of the art capitals of the world. ‘I thought I had more engagement and relations and network in London to start the project.’ That’s where Frieze came in, and established collectors at Frieze soon found themselves drawn across town to this exciting new satellite fair.
Making new connections with these collectors, as well as with institutions and curators – ‘such an ecosystem that had no access to African and African diaspora art’ – gave Touria the blueprint for New York in 2015. ‘We didn’t really wait for London to be extremely successful, or even profitable. We just looked into breaking even and going somewhere else.’
All that seems almost ancient history when you look at the global phenomenon that 1:54 is today. But now, in front of the cameras at Christie’s, Touria has an opportunity to reflect on what she’s learnt, and how her team operates to keep the whirlwind that is four international fairs a year spinning.
We film for an hour or so. On wrapping, we realise the room we’ve been sitting in is a fair approximation of the set of Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity music video, stop for a selfie dancing to it, and part ways. Marrakech was calling, and Touria needed to start planning.
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