Irvine quits over 'quality' of Glasgow art fair

IT HAS become a fixture on the Scottish arts calendar as a showcase for both established and up-and-coming artists.

But the future of the Glasgow Art Fair has been thrown into doubt after promoter Pete Irvine revealed he is to step down after 15 years amid concerns over a decline in quality.

Although the George Square event, dubbed "Scotland's national art fair," attracted crowds of almost 20,000 during its four-day run, which ended last weekend, several major galleries declined to take part.

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Art experts said there was a growing impression in the Scottish art world that the standard of the works on show has slumped and the fair was being swamped by cheaper, run-of-the mill paintings.

Irvine described how he set out to make the Glasgow Art Fair a "UK brand leader" that mixed both affordable art for a few hundred pounds, and collectable work from new and established artists and galleries, particularly from Scotland.

But hinting at a frustrating struggle to maintain standards, he said: "It's hard to get that mix in this climate" and added art galleries "were cautious about the company they keep".

Irvine, the Scotland The Best! author who is known as Mr Hogmanay for his role in putting Edinburgh's New Year Celebrations on the global map, said he was reluctant to step down as he had been involved from the start.

He said: "The art fair as it is, as it was made way back when, has probably reached the end of that format. In the beginning I very much targeted galleries. I wanted a high quality mix from galleries all over Britain but predominantly Scotland, particularly favouring Glasgow, whose work nurtured and advanced new artists and established artists. This became more difficult to do."

Irvine confirmed that he would no longer be involved in future fairs. "I have decided not to go for the next one." Asked if the fair could continue, he said: "I think it will be difficult in its current form."

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Tom Wilson, of the Open Eye Gallery, whose list of artists including veteran Scottish painters such as John Bellany and Alan Davie, did not attend. "It has become like the Ideal Home exhibition, where you go and take the family for a Sunday," he said. "I'm not knocking that but it's not for me in terms of quality."

In its early days the fair had better known galleries, he said, with the idea it would showcase their best artists.

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"The idea was you would get galleries from London and elsewhere throughout the world. They were there, and they are no longer there, because they feel that standards have dropped."

Richard Ingleby, of the Ingleby Gallery, the major Edinburgh contemporary gallery, has taken his artists' work instead to the Frieze Art Fair in London and New York's Armory Show.

He said: "For us to be in an art fair anywhere in the world, whether its Scotland or anywhere else, it's got to be of a quality where we feel being involved is going to be the right context for us and our artists.

"Beyond that it's got to be an environment where we will meet interesting people who we wouldn't meet anywhere else. Certainly the Glasgow Art Fair as it exists doesn't meet either of those criteria.

Scottish art writer and critic, Duncan MacMillan, concluded this week that the fair, which ran from 25-28 March, showed a "marked decline in quality". While about half-a-dozen galleries stood out with strong prints and paintings, there was a lot of "office-furniture art" and some "pure kitsch".

The artist and gallery owner Ricky Demarco, who has kept a stand at the event for the past six years, praised the fair for pulling in the general public, but agreed "the standard has to be raised". He called on the new arts agency, Creative Scotland, to get involved.

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Glasgow City Council backs the fair to the tune of 80,000 a year. The art fair website said 46 galleries were involved this year, showing 1,000 artists' work under its white marquee. Entry numbers on the door were up 20 per cent on last year's figure of 16,000.

One work at the fair, a portrait of artist Tracey Emin by her former lover Billy Childish, sold for 15,000. Joyce McGlone, director of the Queen's Gallery in Glasgow, a newcomer this year, called it a "fantastic first-time experience".

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But another gallery owner who attended this year, Jill Gerber, of Gerber Fine Art and the Compass art charity, agreed that the event needed "vision, and not just commercial success". She said Irvine would be missed as the promoter, and praised him as a "wonderful organiser and ambassador for Scotland". She added the future of the event depended on who took over.

A spokesman for Culture and Sport Glasgow declined to comment on Irvine's departure. He said: "A number of possible options for the future of the art fair are being examined."