LONDON — Over the past 15 years, the British capital has solidified its position in the world of large art fairs, bolstered by the continued success of events like Frieze London, the Olympia International Art and Antiques Fair and Masterpiece London. But niche events in the city are proving that success can also come in far smaller venues.
According to figures from the research group Artnet, 31 percent of art dealers’ global sales in 2012 came from art fairs. Frieze London will celebrate its 11th annual edition this October and has become a stalwart of the international contemporary art calendar, with about 175 galleries from 35 territories last year and about 55,000 visitors over five days. Masterpiece London, with a focus on fine art and antiques, will hold its fourth annual event this year, from June 27 to July 3, and is expected to draw more than 28,000 people this year. And the Affordable Art Fair, originally established in Battersea Park 14 years ago and now held in 14 locations across the world, will hold the third edition of its Hampstead fair from June 13 to 16.
These high-profile London art fairs capture the lion’s share of marketing efforts and media attention for the arts in Britain, not to mention the greater part of commercial sponsorships. But niche fairs are holding their own by marketing themselves to more specific audiences.
The London Antique Rug and Textile Art Fair, which held its third annual event in April, had the capacity for only 11 dealers this year, displaying pieces that included an early 19th-century Uzbek prayer rug and a 17th-century fragment from a Chinese silk robe. The fair, known as Larta, was born after the Hali Fair, which featured more than 70 antique rug and textile dealers and ran alongside the Olympia art and antiques fair, closed in 1996 after nine years.
Aaron Nejad, the London-based dealer who set up Larta, decided that rather than watching passively as his clients disappeared, he would organize a specialist event in the spring, when Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams traditionally hold auctions in London for antique rugs, carpets and textiles.
“People who go to antiques fairs are invariably looking for paintings, clocks and furniture, meaning those fairs were not getting the right types of clients for our trade,” said Mr. Nejad, who runs a rugs and textiles gallery in west London. “It became even more important to try and create a focal point for what we do. Unless we get out there, our trade will wither away.”
The number of specialist art fairs in London is certainly not withering. With a broad range of interests including kinetic design, textiles and crafts, London offers a genre-specific fair for almost every kind of art enthusiast.
The Pinta art fair, for instance, which highlights modern and contemporary art from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, is being held this week, while Free Range, which runs through July 15, focuses on the works of recent graduates in disciplines like art, photography and design.
Recent fairs in London have included Collect, an international art fair for contemporary objects at the Saatchi Gallery; Pick Me Up, a graphic arts festival; and The Other Art Fair, featuring the works of promising artists who have not yet been signed. Those tempted by sketches of gorillas or sculptures of pigs might consider heading to the Animal Art Fair, scheduled for Sept. 26 to 29, while those interested in tribal art from around the world can look into the Tribal Perspectives fair, scheduled for Oct. 1 to 5.
“Niche fairs are really about that contact between people who are buying and people who are producing,” said Kit Hammonds, a lecturer at the Royal College of Art in London, which has a show in June each year consisting of works by its graduates in disciplines like silversmithing, photography and painting. “It is about interest level rather than making sales,” he said.
Therein lies the difference between niche fairs and their larger, more famous rivals. “I equate it all the time to comic-book conventions, where people turn up who are excited to be there, rather than just for shopping,” Mr. Hammonds said. “I don’t think you can say that about the larger fairs.”
But with their cachet — and cash — Mr. Hammonds said the art fair giants have also succeeded in luring collectors and galleries that were drawn to niche fairs in the past.
“The Zoo Art Fair, which ran for a few years in the 2000s, was doing something quite interesting, representing public art spaces as well as young commercial galleries,” said Mr. Hammonds, who is also a co-director of Publish and Be Damned, a fair focused on self-published books. “But it lost its viability once Frieze introduced things like The Frame, which is semicurated and for the younger galleries, and overlapped with Zoo.”
Perhaps one of the oldest and most successful niche fairs is The London Original Print Fair, which was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in late April. The event, which was introduced in 1995, seeks to educate the public about what original prints — a generic term for an image that is created on one surface and transferred to another — consist of and how diverse their materials and outputs can be.
“One of the great things is that, though you do not get a huge footfall, you get a very interested footfall,” said Helen Rosslyn, the director of the original print fair. “We have a devoted clientele who, once they decided they liked the idea of collecting and find that they could buy things like a Picasso print, but for a less hefty price tag, have come regularly year after year.”
Eighteen years ago there were 16 dealers at the London Original Print Fair; there are now 50 dealers from around the world, some of whom attend annually while others do so for a few years and then take a few years off. The number of visitors has also grown, Ms. Rosslyn said, to almost 12,000 visitors this year, over four days.
The event offers a broad range of collectibles, and has featured 15th-century prints by Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries, as well as more modern prints by Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud and Tracey Emin.
“One of the key advantages of buying from a fair is that it is a much more user-friendly forum,” Ms. Rosslyn said. “It is not the same as going to a gallery and that all-hallowed space. In a fair, you can wander around, get lost in the crowds and ask questions to dealers who want to answer your questions. They are fascinated by their subjects.”
One recent addition to the London circuit is the Kinetica Art Fair, which highlights the interconnections between art, science and design.
The fair, which was introduced in 2009, drew about 10,000 people over four days in late February and early March this year.
“Part of the reason we call it an art fair is that we are trying to show that this form of art is collectable,” said Tony Langford, the managing director of the Kinetica fair. “It has been a slow process, but over the years, it is becoming something that is more recognized as a good investment. But it also has enormous value in terms of what it gives the buyer.”
The fair, which draws galleries and artists from places as diverse as Brazil, Indonesia and Russia, includes an exhibition and attracts engineering students as well as school-age children. One of the most popular pieces this year was a light installation by the Dutch artist Titia Ex. The work, titled “The Walk,” is a giant sphere featuring 35,000 LED lights, which use flashes of colored lights and a background screen to display a seven and a half minute video inspired partly by Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
This autumn, Mr. Langford said, several of the pieces shown at the Kinetica Art Fair will be included in an exhibition that will travel to Poland, Hungary, Austria and Russia. “It will be a cross between an exhibition and a more interactive, concert-style event,” he said.
“It is something to do with the zeitgeist of the time and we are touching a nerve,” Mr. Langford said. “People feel really connected to this genre.”
1st photo Alex Dodgson of the Leeds College of Art