The Art Car Boot Fair

I recently visited with Art Car Boot Fair and was so impressed with the event that I am compelled to commit some thoughts to paper (screen). For those unfamiliar, the Art Car Boot Fair is a one day art fair based in London that has been running since 2004. To quote their website “The idea is simply that the artists show up in person to flog their specially made just-for-the-day wares.”. This is true, but is an over simplification and, in my opinion, desperately understates the importance of the event for the artists involved and as a key alternative to the accepted art world establishment.

The presentation is pretty much exactly as the title suggests – it’s set up just like a car boot fair, complete with rickety tressel tables, cheap garden pergolas and, literally, car boots (or trunks to those of you reading this in the USA). It is unpretentious and without ego or affectation. The event is sponsored by car manufacturer Vauxhall, and although this is made quite clear, the commercial sponsorship fits well. It is present, but not overbearing. But the great thing about the sponsorship is that “unlike any other art fair, there is no financial transaction between the artist and the organisers. They simply show up and take what they make. The project is run on a sponsorship model and as well as funding the event Vauxhall also provide production funds…”. That’s right. The artists get to take home all the money they make. I’ve certainly never come across a deal quite like it. I’d call it trail blazing in its inception back in 2004 and in its ongoing support for independent artists. Take that 50% gallery commission!

Of course it doesn’t look exactly like a car boot sale. It looks like one that’s been put on by artists, because that’s what it is, so there’s all manner of elaborate displays, props, costumes, and just craziness in general. It’s utterly packed out (I understand people were queueing up almost 24 hours before it opened) and heaving all day, but also very child friendly. I took my 5 year old daughter and there were various creative activities for her to try out and lots of unusual stuff to keep her interested and entertained. Admittedly there were moments when parental censorship was necessary, but that’s what happens when the content of any one artist’s stand is entirely down to them. An absence of creative censorship is to be applauded. And anyway, we’re liberal artists darling. Live and let live. There was food & drink, live music and just a fantastic atmosphere overall.

So, queues not withstanding, a really great day out for the casual punter. But this is just a small part of the event’s significant value. In my opinion it’s deepest importance is what it offers the participating artists, and in particular those emerging artists working hard to achieve some success and recognition. There were various ‘household name’ participants who have been present most years. The likes of Gavin Turk and Peter Blake are regulars. Other big names were present, such as Bruce McClean, Polly Morgan, Vic Reeves and Bip Ling, and there were more. There were other successful artists whose names are perhaps less well known too, and then there were those to whom I would assume the event offered most – those relatively early in their careers, working to reach that elusive point when they can truly survive as artists. The great thing is that the Art Car Boot Fair offers them this opportunity – to participate in an event of significant scale and repute, working on an entirely equal footing with some very high profile people. It felt democratic. Gavin Turk’s stand was no larger or more polished than anyone else’s. Vic Reeves was sat under an awning and had propped his paintings up on a table and around the floor, in just the same way everyone else had. It really felt like it was all on a single level and I consider that a real triumph of equality – something that is in desperately short supply in the art world.

For the art loving public one of the main draws of the ACBF must surely be the accessibility of the work. In general things are priced well below what one would consider the accepted norm for the art market. Even works by bigger name artists sit at a price point well below what would be generally expected. Again, a fantastic approach and something for which the event has become known. Whether this was originally the intention of the organisers, or if the participants have, over the years, taken it upon themselves to initiate and perpetuate this approach, I honestly don’t know, but genuinely, often unusually affordable art is now synonymous with the fair. On most levels it’s great. We came away with 5 pieces, including the very first painting in my daughter’s own personal collection, all for a total of £40. Bargain. There was work priced as high as £3000 and as little as a fiver, but for the most part prices I saw rarely crept above £200 and were usually below £100. It gives anyone at all the opportunity to be an art collector.

As I say, this is good on most levels, but as you may have guessed I do feel there are certain drawbacks. Needless to say I’m all in favour of affordable art. The way I see it, the difficulty comes when artists whose work is highly collectible offer pieces at a much lower price than they would ordinarily be, particularly in this arena. I understand they do so in good faith and that it is arguably a defining feature of the fair, but inevitably the names and prices end up attracting low level ‘flippers’ – the equivalent to ticket touts – drawn in by the opportunity to make a bit of quick cash out of a big name. They go there to buy at the low price with the express intention of immediately selling on at a heavily inflated price, eBay being the general conduit through which to achieve this (case in point, as I write this 3 or 4 copies of Harland Miller’s Hate’s outa date postcard sized print, released at something like £250, are being offered at £3,700 just a week after the fair). There’s little to be done about this though. It’s first come, first served and those prepared to queue a whole day in advance will get the goodies. It just seems sad that like so many worthy causes, this well meaning approach can be easily undermined and abused by those with less lofty ideals, and that the beneficiaries of a good intention are often those looking to exploit it. Still, this is the basis of a capitalist business – buy at one price, sell higher. There’s little point moaning too much about something that cannot really be controlled. Think of it as unavoidably irksome in an otherwise very fulfilling scenario.

However the second drawback can be addressed. Going around the fair, I saw a mix of quality, speaking as objectively as I can. There was a fair bit of stuff I really liked. There was also plenty that, although it didn’t appeal to my personal aesthetic, was still clearly of good quality, which I can appreciate. Then there was stuff which I didn’t like and that appeared poorly or lazily made, and that I cannot endorse.

Physically the ACBF is a relatively small fair. No doubt there are many, many artists who would love to be involved, but are not (count me among their number). There are comparatively very few indeed fortunate enough to be offered a pitch. It is my opinion that those who are have a responsibility to bring with them work of a quality befitting the privileged status they are so fortunate to have been offered. My concern is that some artists invited to take a stand at the ACBF see the opportunity to sell lots at cheap prices as justification to produce ephemeral work quickly, carelessly, even disrespectfully. I saw a fair amount of work that appeared dashed off and as a result spoke of the artist’s apparent disdain for the event and those attending. It suggested an attitude that because it’s ‘art’ and it’s affordable, it somehow doesn’t matter that, frankly, it just isn’t that good.

One of the great things about the ACBF is the freedom it offers artists. No stand fee. No commission. No restriction on content (to the best of my knowledge). If you’re in, you more or less have carte blanche to present what you like to a large and very receptive audience. A rare opportunity indeed. Because of its inclusive, democratic, accessible, equal opportunity, establishment-alternative approach, it is unique and in my opinion is to be considered a national institution. However it is all these great qualities that render it open to abuse. I believe that any artist participating in the ACBF has a duty of care to do the very best they can for themselves and for the event, and that means making and presenting work of the highest quality they’re able. Ironically it is by not treating it like a car boot sale – an opportunity to flog all their unwanted old gear – that they can best serve both the fair and themselves. This event is built on a grand and worthy idea, but it lives and dies on the content, and that’s down to the artists. If, year on year, visitors perceive a drop in quality or a lack of effort on the part of the participants, they will stop coming, and that would be inexcusable. As it stands, the ACBF is a fantastic opportunity for artists to make some cash and some contacts, but it can only remain so if the content of the show as a whole aspires to the same high principles as the event itself. There can be no excuses.

I should conclude by saying that despite the concerns highlighted in that penultimate paragraph, they are minimal compared with the huge amount of exciting, interesting and great quality work to I saw, and my overwhelmingly positive response to it. I enjoyed the great work on the Turps Banana and Turps Alumni stands, a strange and fascinating performance/live art making thing with Bruce McLean going on with Worton Hall Studios, excellent individual artists like Geraldine Swayne, Frea Buckler, Bob & Roberta Smith and Ivan Black, live pulling of Billy Childish woodcuts with L13 Light Industrial Workshop and a bunch more besides. I honestly can’t wait to go again next year and have no doubt it will once again be a triumph. If you’ve not been before, you must. And if you have, well, you must again!

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