Most wanted: Joburg art collectors trump Cape Town buyers

There's stiff competition among galleries and art fairs to court decisive Johannesburg buyers who are not shy to part with their cash

01 September 2019 - 00:13 By Mary Corrigall
Hussein Salim's 'Twin', 2019, acrylic on canvas, 120x180cm.
Hussein Salim's 'Twin', 2019, acrylic on canvas, 120x180cm.
Image: Eclectica Contemporary

Gallerists have spoken fondly of the decisive Joburg art collector over the years. They are revered beings who apparently appear at the Joburg Art Fair on opening night and, cutting through the maelstrom of art, VIP champagne and socialites, acquire art on the spot.

They know what, or whose, work they want to buy. Typically it coincides with art they have seen hanging on the walls of their moneyed friends' houses.

This Joburg type of collector, who is not to be confused with the discerning Cape Town one who circles artworks for days weighing aesthetic qualities, is not seen again for the duration of the art fair.

Joburg collectors know what work they want to buy — they’ve seen it in the homes of their rich friends

There are no facts or figures pinpointing the exact number of art collectors in SA, nor where they are concentrated. However, given more art auctions take place in Joburg than in Cape Town and three art fairs take place in Joburg — Turbine Art Fair, the renamed Art Joburg and the new Latitudes fair — it is safe to assume everyone believes there is an abundance of collectors in this city.


Supporting this idea further is the fact that the recent "coup" of the Joburg Art Fair, resulting in the ousting of Artlogic, its previous owner, was motivated by Cape Town-based galleries — Stevenson, Smac, Blank Projects and Whatiftheworld - with the support of their Joburg contemporaries — Goodman, Everard Read and Gallery Momo.

Cape Town galleries rely largely on sales to international visitors — up to 77%, according to Emma van der Merwe from Everard Read Cape Town.

Lucy MacGarry, previous director of the Joburg Art Fair, now heads Latitudes.
Lucy MacGarry, previous director of the Joburg Art Fair, now heads Latitudes.
Image: Supplied

Galleries are so keen to engage with Joburg collectors that newcomer Latitudes sold out their booths rapidly — "we were only limited by space", says Lucy MacGarry. She is the previous director of the Joburg Art Fair and now heads Latitudes, which will open during the same time in a temporary structure on Nelson Mandela Square.


As such Joburg has emerged as the hub for local art collectors. A base that everyone is invested in growing, though no one is really sure how this is done.

Jazz adds to a fair's attractiveness — an idea Art Joburg will embrace this year with a Hugh Masekela jazz event, which Mandla Sibeko, the owner and director, says will work towards reeling in new art buyers.

Everyone wants in on the Joburg art collector, including corporate sponsors, FNB, who sponsor Art Joburg. RMB, Turbine and Latitudes have hooked in numerous sponsors, including a luxury vehicle company which has agreed to wrap some vehicles in art for their event. Art collector equals high-net individual, or so is the thinking.

The reinvention of the Joburg Art Fair into the sleeker, slimmer Art Joburg was driven by research that the majority of sales at this event were to Joburgers, according to Sibeko.

Art Joburg's owner and director, Mandla Sibeko.
Art Joburg's owner and director, Mandla Sibeko.
Image: Supplied

Ordinarily, you wouldn't think this was surprising given it is held in Joburg, but over the past 11 years of this fair's existence, it was touted as a pan-African event that included galleries from around the continent and was designed to draw international art collectors and curators.


The local and global art ecosystem grew exponentially, however. "There were 50 art fairs when Joburg Art Fair started and now there are 250. There is art-fair fatigue globally, if you're talking to an international collector base. We wanted to build a strong art fair that can appeal to the local community as Joburg remains the main economic hub of SA," says Sibeko.

It wasn't only art-fair fatigue that stemmed international interest in the Joburg Art Fair but the entry and strengthening of the Cape Town Art Fair and the increase of noncommercial art institutions in that city (Zeitz MOCAA, Norval Foundation), which made it more of a destination for a fair.

"Joburg had to compete with all those cultural offerings," says MacGarry. The city's bad reputation hasn't helped either. "Tourists go straight to Cape Town. This city has been hard to market," says Sibeko.

Another development was that local art galleries were pursuing international collectors via participation in fairs mostly in Europe. About 53% of local galleries participate in fairs outside SA. As such the Joburg art fair no longer functioned as the platform to engage with international collectors — or at least for larger galleries with the means to participate in several fairs in Europe. Neither did they want to compete with those from other parts of Africa for the now-feted Joburg collector.


Competition for the Joburg collector remains stiff in tough economic times. So stiff in fact that Art Joburg is a by-invitation-only event — galleries can no longer apply to participate. As such the bigger galleries have cut out all their competitors in the market — creating a fair that only includes themselves and a few other much smaller, younger galleries — Smith and Kalashnikovv.

This provided the opportunity for Latitudes art fair to emerge — a sort of Salon des Refuses for the "rejected" galleries that will no longer get a foot in Art Joburg. The latter has shrunk from 34 galleries in 2018 to nine gallery booths — and a space called the "Lab" where eight lesser-known newcomers are subsidised by FNB.

"We think building a strong fair with a stronger focus on content rather than on size and trying to fill space is the best model. We aim to raise the standard and showcase the best of African art you can find," says Sibeko.

Quality content is also of prime importance to Latitudes, says MacGarry and co-founder Makgati Molebatsi. For the duo, however, quality is not necessarily aligned to a gallery brand as with Art Joburg but on the merits of individual works and artists. Independent artists will even be accommodated by this fair.

The two fairs may be competing for attention this month but the owners seem to understand that Joburgers bore quickly and are fickle. Two new art fairs might be just the ticket. Add a couple of VIP events with some free booze and they will not be able to resist. But will they buy art as quickly and decisively as before?

FNB Art Joburg (previously called the FNB JoburgArtFair) will take place at the Sandton Convention Centre, and the Latitudes Art Fair at Nelson Mandela Square, from September 13 to 15.