When Jonah Jones was asked to do a feasibility study for the establishment of an indigenous art fair in far north Queensland, he was mighty enthusiastic.
Jones was one of the people behind what is now the Melbourne Art Fair, set up in 1988. His recommendations to the Queensland government made it clear he could see no insurmountable impediment. Neither the fact Cairns is a small isolated city, nor that there is a limited number of galleries in the country showing indigenous artists from Queensland, let alone Cairns, dented Jones’s certainty.
Unfortunately — or fortuitously — no one, Jones and the Queensland government included, had foreseen the uncertainties surrounding the global economic crisis. As he prepares to open the doors on the inaugural Cairns Indigenous Art Fair, director Michael Snelling thinks that the downturn has worked a little in his favour. Although it meant a sober rethink of the fair’s commercial goals, it also took some pressure off the first event. As a consequence the atmosphere has become more festive.
“There’s nothing independently radical in what we’re doing,” Snelling says, “but the things we’ve brought together are unusual in the context of an artfair.
“There have been little shifts along the way from the way we’ve thought about it since Jonah’s recommendations, but I’ve always thought very clearly that the government’s role is as a facilitator. It’s not there to make money, or score points, but purely to assist indigenous artists, organisations and galleries to improve their lot. That’s always been the fundamental idea behind it.”
The traditional art fair follows the model set up in Cologne, Germany, 44 years ago. The idea was to bring together local galleries into one place for a short time so that, instead of people having to scout around to see new work, they could get a snapshot of the year’s best or most interesting offerings. It worked, and while, as Snelling says, fairs across the world “have their ups and downs, ebb and flow in importance”, the formula is sound.