This month sees a real “first”. The Crafts Council unveils Collect, its new international fair devoted to the decorative arts—a first for Europe as well as for Britain. The event is being held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, another ground-breaker, as the institution had never hosted a commercial event before.
For the first time in generations, the decorative arts have been officially placed on the same pedestal as “fine art.” Britain produces some of the most talented and individual designers and makers in the decorative arts, graduates of such centres of excellence as the Royal College of Art, Edinburgh School of Art and the London Institute. Yet, ironically, most of them are better known abroad than in their homeland. “We actively push young artists to sell abroad,” says Karen Turner of Britain’s Crafts Council, “There is a far bigger market for their work abroad than in the UK.”
Prices paid for contemporary decorative arts in North America are far higher than in Britain. Galleries are much more aggressive, there are far greater opportunities, artists have a much higher status with proper business training and a raft of role models to follow. In England, only a handful of artists working in the decorative arts, such as Ron Arad, John Makepeace, Danny Lane and now Grayson Perry are household names. “The number of graduates abandoning a creative career and going into other fields is growing”, adds Karen Turner. “It is very difficult to get established here, students are graduating with large debts and they cannot afford to follow a creative career.”
The Crafts Council is so concerned by this trend that it has organised Collect, a new contemporary decorative artsfair, endorsed by the Victoria & Albert Museum, which opens in the museum’s temporary exhibition galleries this month.
The Crafts Council already organises the long-established Chelsea Crafts Fair, which successfully caters for one section of the market, but Collect will start where Chelsea ends, aiming to promote the top sector of the market to a wider international audience. “We are aiming to convert the buyers who come to Chelsea to buy higher quality works, we want to increase the expectations of the audience, engender debate, bring in the fine art audience and convert it to high design. We have to expand the market in this country, The fair should also be a magnet, for architects and designers looking for dramatic ways of dealing with large interior spaces,” explains Ms Turner.
Over 41 galleries have been chosen, 27 of them British; the fair was fourfold over-subscribed. This means that the selection committee picked the best. American galleries have been excluded, as they have a well-developed market with the SOFA fairs in Chicago and New York.
Collect, incredibly, will be the first ever European fair in this field, so the emphasis is on British and European galleries with three Australia and one Japanese dealer. The vast majority of pieces will cost between £1,500 and £3,000 but prices will start at £300, rising to around £60,000. Objects across a huge range of materials and disciplines will be on offer. The fair is subsidised, with stands costing less than other London fairs. Much of this work is not expensive and the smaller dealers could not otherwise have afforded costly overheads.
Two London stalwarts, Galerie Besson and Barrett Marsden, have not signed up; they already exhibit at SOFA and are waiting to see how the new event goes. This is a shame as between them they represent some of the most dynamic work being shown in Britain. However, most of the other major London dealers have been drawn in, including Adrian Sassoon, who has done so much to promote contemporary ceramics to a wider audience, and CCA, Britain’s largest decorative arts gallery, which represents over 200 makers.
Other exhibitors are young galleries such as Cosa, Flow and Vessel, all of which recently opened in Notting Hill Gate, plus a few dealers who bridge the gap between fine and decorative arts, such as David Gill and Rebecca Hossack.
Very little decorative art is ever shown at the London fine art fairs, so the provincial and overseas exhibitors are largely unknown to the London audience. The Blue Coat Display Centre in Liverpool brings the work of artists from the North West. The Ruthkin Craft Centre in North Wales specialises in Welsh work and the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden from Ockley in Surrey has pieces in all media.
There is a galaxy of European talent. The aim is to make Collect the European venue for contemporary decorative arts and to draw British collectors into a wider European context.
The selectors have drawn in some of the very best established dealers. They include Galerie Louise Smit from Amsterdam and Galerie Hélêne Porée from Paris, with stunning art jewellery; Terra Kaeramiek from Delft, the most innovative of the many Dutch ceramic galleries; Gallery Grønlund in Copenhagen, which specialises in Nordic decorative arts and Glasgalleriet Klintegaarden, which deals specifically in Danish art glass.
Australian dealers add an exotic flavour and highlight cultural differences between the continents notably with Narek Galleries which is showing work using mainly native Australian wood.
While this is first and foremost a commercial event, it also includes nine leading British artists, who are presenting installations along the lines of a museum exhibition. These installations show that some of this work has a strong intellectual content and deserves to be viewed in a major public space. The potter Edmund de Waal presents “Mendel’s shelf”, a three-foot line of pots viewed at shoulder level. At first sight they appear to be white but in fact form a subtle spectrum of blues and greens, a gradual shift of colour based on Mendel’s theories of mutation.
Mr De Waal feels Collect to be hugely significant; “It indicates a change of climate in the way the decorative arts are viewed”, he comments. He shares a studio with potter Julian Stair, whose work for the show deals with the memorial aspect of death. He has made a six-foot ceramic sarcophagus, (constructed and fired in an industrial brick works) to contain the body of an adult and child, and a series of funerary urns. This is an autobiographical piece, a response to a baby lost in childbirth 10 years ago.
Wendy Ramshaw, better known as a jeweller, has latterly been working on a large scale making gates, mobiles and screens. Her installation presents a stabile and a group of towers over one metre high, made of plastic and highly polished glass. “I am incredibly hopeful for “Collect” says Ms Ramshaw. “It is the right moment to be doing this but the artists have got to fight and push to change perceptions of the decorative arts.”
The only American gallery in the show, Velvet da Vinci from San Francisco, is included because its exhibition “Chess” will be on show at the Crafts Council Gallery in the Victoria & Albert shop. For this the gallery commissioned 90 contemporary chess pieces by makers from 10 countries. This harks back to a 1,000-year-old tradition, embracing ancient China and Persia and including such wonderful works of art as the Viking Lewis chessmen in the British Museum. This exquisite little show links us back to a time when there was no distinction between the fine and decorative arts. Chinese potters were as highly valued as painters; Michelangelo designed light fittings; Holbein, tableware, while Robert Adam turned his hand to door knobs and fire grates as well to as designing the finest stately homes.
Collect is long overdue and may prove that the decorative arts are finally coming of age in Britain.
Collect, 20-23 February. Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7. www.craftscouncil.org.uk
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Are the decorative arts finally sexy?'