Contemporary African art under the spotlight: Interview with Ross Douglas, founder of Artlogic

Joburg, 30 August 203, Art Media Agency (AMA).

Founded in 2004 by Ross Douglas, Artlogic is a Joburg-based events company responsible for producing the FNB Joburg Art Fair, an annual contemporary art fair which was the first of its kind in Africa. Now its its sixth year, the fair is one of the world’s premier forums for contemporary South African art. Art Media Agency spoke to Douglas to find out more about the work of artists and gallerists in the region, and to gain an insight into Artlogic’s work.

What’s your background? What inspired you to found Artlogic?
My background is mainly in television. I was working in tv before I started Artlogic, mainly for documentaries and a little bit in the commercial field, and I put together a project with the artist William Kentridge who had been working a lot with film and video. I had quite a lot of film experience and William Kentridge had made these animated films that had never been projected or seen on video screen, so I initiated a project which was quite successful, which travelled to Brooklyn and Berlin and London. That is what got me into the art sponsorship model, and I really founded Artlogic from the back of that.

How has your work, and the art market, changed since Artlogic began in 2004?
I think we’ve been quite lucky in that, when we first started the Art Fair, our intention was to make the first African contemporary art fair at a time when there wasn’t much faith in African contemporary art – there wasn’t really a belief that African contemporary art even existed. We started work on the Fair 7 years ago, a year before our first Fair, and, when we started to speak to people about doing the first art fair in Africa, the first art fair to focus on work by African people, many people said ‘there’s no contemporary art in Africa’. But there are a lot of people who do believe in African contemporary art, galleries like the Tate Modern have been very active in collecting African contemporary art.
We’re quite fortunate that our initial goal – which was quite ambitious – has now been realized. That’s because African contemporary art has found the right sort of place on the international scene – in fact the Art Fair has actually got easier than it was 7 years ago.

You’re based in Johannesburg – do you actively seek to engage with artists and businesses in the area, or do you seek to focus on a more international market?
As with any art fair, our intention is to be international. We are the first art fair in the world to focus on Africa, and the first in the world to be based in Africa – we’re also the biggest art fair on the continent. What we want to do is make Joburg the place for people to buy, sell, and talk about African art. Joburg is in a good position: there’s a strong art economy and quite a good infrastructure.
I think the Fair is getting more and more international each year, in that each year we have more foreign galleries, curators and buyers and so on; it’s an international art fair based in Africa.

The Fair this year is dedicated to photography – why this medium over any other?
It’s the first time we’ve decided to come up with a theme, and photography seemed like a good idea, because South African photographers really do punch above their weight if you know what I mean. We’ve got a really good collection of top international photographers. For example, this year, we will present the series The Structure of Things Then – and After by SA Photographer David Goldbaltt. The exhibition will combine a collection of photographs taken during and after Apartheid to show Goldblatt’s concern that, whilst apartheid has ended, some facets of South African life have not changed.
David Goldblatt is huge internationally but despite that, hasn’t really had a proper retrospective show in the country for quite a long time.
As well as the quality of contemporary African photography, we also recognized that it’s a very easy medium to move and transport – it’s a lot less expensive to work with photography than it is with sculpture, for example. Another reason is that photography is also a very contemporary medium: we are a contemporary art fair, and often it’s quite hard to keep pushing for contemporary work. But photography is always contemporary – as opposed to something like sculpture, which can cross over into craft.

What is the key to successfully producing an art fair?
I think there are several factors in the production of a successful art fair. The most important thing is to come up with a model that fits your art economy, your art community and your art ecosystem. Our Art Fair is very different from the European system. A lot of European fairs have a very classic model: they rent as much space as they can to galleries and the galleries provide the show. In South Africa, in our early years, we didn’t have enough quality galleries so we came up with a system, which focused on special projects. We’ve kept this system, for two reasons.
One is that South Africa doesn’t have biennials in the same way as Northern Africa with Dak’Art and Bamako. And Dak’Art is difficult to get to, so not many people attend. We don’t have another biennial in sub-Saharan Africa, and we don’t have a contemporary art museum. Our audience doesn’t get to see museum-quality art very often, so we present museum-quality projects. This year we have 22 special projects: our featured artist is David Goldblatt, we have a retrospective of photographer Roger Ballen, we have a new series of photographic works by Nandipha Mntambo and a curated space for works by photographer Santu Mofokeng, who has been selected for the German Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennial. We’re also showcasing in partnership with the French Institute a photographic exhibition presented at the last Bamako Encounters, the biennial of photography in Mali, which has been cancelled this year because of the war. We also have also partnered Samsung with Soweto-born artist Mohau Modisakeng, a hot new South African artist who conceived a video piece for the Samsung space at this year’s Fair.
So the bedrock of our Art Fair, like any other art fair, is commercial galleries who pay us rent and sell work. But, over and above that, we have a lot of special projects, which you don’t really get at other fairs. Our audience gets to see museum-quality work which they aren’t really able to see in any other institution in this country – or any other country for that matter.

The number of art fairs seems to increase each year- do you worry about market saturation, or do you feel the proliferation of fairs is exciting?
That’s a good question. I think art fairs will survive by putting on a good show- you have to justify the money you charge your audience just to come through the door. I don’t think art fairs can survive if they don’t put on a show – you can’t just charge galleries rent, or let bad galleries take part just because they can afford the rent. You cannot expect the public to return year after year to pay €10 to see average art. I think, for art fairs to survive, they are going to have to become these hybrid models where they put on a good show which justifies the ticket price on the door, justifies the time and effort which the public have taken to attend, and justifies the amount of press you need to keep an art fair going etc.
I think the art fairs that will survive are – obviously – the top commercial art fairs like Basel, Frieze, FIAC and Art Hong Kong, which don’t need to change their format because they’re so economically powerful that they’ll never die. They have such powerful economic models that, even if they didn’t have any special projects or museum-quality shows they’d be absolutely fine; they have enough buyers and sellers that rental prices can be justified. The whole thing is just underpinned by a massive art economy.
I think art fairs in more marginal art economies – and we, obviously, in Africa, are a much more marginal art economy than London, Paris or Hong Kong – you have to put on an art fair that is not just a commercial undertaking but is something that really entertains an audience. It must inform and challenge an audience and that’s difficult. I think fairs that do that will survive and I think that fairs which stick to the old fashioned model of renting out space will die.

What’s your audience?
We have 10,000 visitors to our art fair – a pretty big number for an event in South Africa, which has quite a small art economy. We have a private opening on Thursday night, and we see a lot of foreign collectors. We’re seeing a lot of American and European collectors and now, for the first time, we’re starting to have some Nigerian collectors.

We have a core audience of pretty active collectors representing both private and public institutions – so for example, we have the Tate Modern acquisitions committee, which has been coming for the past 3 years, and we’re getting a lot of private collections now starting in Africa. The famous big one is Jochen Zeitz, the ex-head of Puma who’s building a massive private African collection with his curator Mark Coetzee.
Apart from this, most visitors to the Fair are interested in contemporary art – they’re obviously not all collectors, you can’t have 10,000 collectors. The Art Fair is also a place for young people, people interested in art and contemporary culture to meet, to see things, and to be informed. It really is a weekend of cultural entertainment.

What really singles Artlogic out is its association with corporate sponsors – how do you strike up these relationships? Do you approach corporations, or does it happen the other way round?
I don’t think it singles us out, every art fair is sponsored, ordinarily by a bank and, if they’re not, they generally don’t last long and go bankrupt. If they’re not sponsored by a bank, they’re generally trying to get sponsored by banks. Basel is sponsored by Deutsche Bank, having formerly been sponsored by Citibank. So our biggest source of revenue for the Fair is bank sponsorship – it’s through bank sponsorship that we are able to do these interesting special projects.
Over and above bank sponsorship, we have deals with the likes of Pirelli and Samsung, who sponsor separate spaces where artists can do something interesting with a commissioned budget. In the absence of big state funding for contemporary art, you get creative and you start working with corporate sponsors who want to associate their brand with contemporary art. And that’s what we have to do in Africa.
I don’t think any African country is going to get big state budgets for contemporary art, as there have been in America or Europe for years. And I think what’s going to happen in Europe is that those state budgets are going to keep coming down and people who are in creative economies will find ways to work with big brands via corporate marketing meetings. It’s a necessity; it’s an inevitability in places like South Africa where an economy for contemporary art just doesn’t exist.

Do you hope to expand in forthcoming years? How do you see Artlogic developing?
The typical fair model is underpinned by sponsorship, exhibitors and visitors. We’ve replicated this model with other projects that our audience likes. So as well as owning the oldest, most established art fair, we own a Food, Wine and Design fair, and we now own the Winter Sculpture Fair, which is set in very beautiful, curated sculpture gardens. We bring in great wine makers, and it’s a beautiful day out in the countryside with beautiful sculptures and great wine.
I’ve also started a Cycle Fair, which is the first dedicated bicycle fair in South Africa. As in Europe, people are becoming much more bicycle-focused. We also started a fair which invests in entrepreneurs. Artlogic is an entrepreneurial company – it’s something which we understand. The big challenge for Africa is job creation, and the challenge is to identify new entrepreneurs, match them with investors and give them the investment opportunities they need to get their businesses going.
We now have 5 fairs in Africa and we feel that we’ve kind of reached saturation point. We’re now looking for opportunities elsewhere on the continent. We believe that there’s going to be a lot of big multinationals wanting to operate in Africa – for example Eni is spending a huge amount of money in Mozambique finding gas. They’ll want to start doing things in Mozambique that will impress the Mozambique public, the government, the press and the media. I think Africa is opening up and growing: a lot of multinationals are going to start funding art events in Africa just to start positioning their brand on the continent. And that’s kind of where we’re looking at going next.