An arts centre on the outskirts of Amsterdam provided the venue for Unseen, a new art fair that aims to capture the spirit of a festival. Image © Tue Juelsbo.
In September, the photography organisation Foam launched the Unseen Photo Fair, which aims to combine aspects of a traditional trade-focused art fair with festival-type complementary events. As the name suggests, the emphasis was firmly on showcasing new talent, but work by established photographers was also on sale.
The fair took place in Westergasfabriek, a new arts complex outside the centre of Amsterdam, and is the brainchild of Foam (Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam), the office for cultural business development Platform A, and branding agency Vandejong. Fifty galleries from Europe, America and Asia were invited to showcase work and contribute at least one never-before-seen print to the Unseen collection, made up of works available for €1000 or less.
UK institutions included The Photographers' Gallery, Paradise Row, Magnum Photos and Michael Hoppen. Every gallery had its own booth within the circular building that housed the main fair, and each had the feel of a mini exhibition. The fair received funding from Blockbusterfonds private fund and the BankGiro Loterij scheme, in which 400 ticketholders won €1000 vouchers to buy a print at Unseen.
The Unseen organisers hoped to provide a strong platform for up-and-coming photographers. But what made Unseen especially interesting was its impressive programme, which included film screenings, panel discussions, the Offprint book fair, and shows including an outdoor exhibition of work by photographers for the Foam Talent Call 2012, and an exhibition of fashion photographs from the Camera Work collection.
Image © Tue Juelsbo.
An estimated 22,000 visitors visited Unseen between 19-23 September. The rich programme of events was clearly a major draw, but the danger was always that the festival-style events could distract visitors from the main fair.
In practice, this concern seemed largely unfounded. The site was designed with the commercial fair in the centre and events within walking distance, and the fair always seemed busy while talks by photographers such as Nadav Kander, Adam Broomberg and former picture editor of The New York Times Magazine Fred Ritchin were well attended but not sold out. The exception was a panel discussion featuring (among others) Simon Baker, curator of photography at Tate, and François Hébel, director of the Rencontres d'Arles festival, which was full.
Unseen director Roderick van der Lee commented that the event had exceeded organisers' expectations, and they were pleased by reports of strong sales and encouraging reviews from the international press. "We feel we have laid a solid foundation to build an exciting new yearly cultural event on the international calendar," he said. "Our efforts to reach a wide spectrum of the market seem to have paid off. We've seen serious international collectors buy up to 60 pieces at the fair, but also a significant group of first-time buyers buying their first artwork."
Several galleries applauded the fair's success in trading. Berlin gallery Aando Fine Art said it sold almost all the work it had brought, while The Photographers' Gallery sold its entire wall of works by Julie Cockburn within the first hour of opening. A representative of one London-based gallery commented off the record that it had not sold as much as it had hoped, but feedback was largely positive.
Image © Tue Juelsbo.
An independent collector said the events and festival atmosphere were great for young people, but perhaps distracting for collectors. However, the collector Martin Margulies said the energy and excitement of Unseen made it something special.
All eyes will be on next year's edition and how organisers develop their hybrid festival-fair model. Van der Lee is keeping his options open, but seems confident about the future.
"Of course, there are some things we will change in coming editions because that is our duty if we want to stay exciting," he says. "The aspiration to always improve is important, but overall we want to focus on delivering the highest possible quality rather than focusing on quantity."
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