It’s surreal to think back to our hometown 12 months ago, when most of the city was completely closed amid Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions. But speaking to Sophie Helm brings the reality of 2020 flooding back in vivid detail.
For those who don’t know, she’s the Director of Manchester Art Fair, which opens to the public on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November. She’s also quick to remind us the event’s regular venue, Manchester Central, was repurposed from huge exhibition centre to emergency medical facility early on in the pandemic. It’s a jarring memory to say the least.
“I mean, the venue was a [Nightingale] hospital last year. That tells us where things were,” says Helm,. “The pandemic really didn’t leave us many options, which is why we set up Easel, an online marketplace for art. The idea was really to have a platform that could provide a constant, year-round presence. Whether that’s during the bleakest times, or simply throughout the year when the Fair itself isn’t running.”
Easel has been a huge success. As Helm tells us, responses to this digital arm of Manchester Art Fair have been “really positive”. Nevertheless, the real life event remains hugely significant for the UK arts community — not least in northern England. Hence news of its long-awaited return sparking huge levels of excitement.
“At the moment we’ve been a bit overwhelmed. In terms of the shape of the Fair itself, we’ve been inundated with artists and galleries wanting to come to Manchester,” Helm explains there are 130 exhibitors confirmed for this year, with a 50-50 split between debutants and returning practitioners.
“The workshop programme is really expanded this year, too. So we’ve got drawing classes, painting classes, a kids’ art section,” she continues, soon coming round to one of the main selling points for the 2021 edition. “We’ve also got some NFT-related things happening, too.”
Cutting to the chase, Manchester’s Finest will be hosting an NFT exhibition at the Fair alongside KnownOrigin — one of the biggest crypto art and non-fungible marketplaces in the known metaverse, headquartered at Oxford Road’s Hatch. WTF is an NFT? will give visitors an opportunity to buy tokenised art, and learn why this sector is exploding right now. If you’re interested, maybe start by revisiting our September feature with Manchester crypto artist, Numan.
“We also have The Whitworth Art Gallery, a public institution, which is producing a series of NFTs around its existing collection. So they have a stand, too, and will be there to explain how it works,” says Helm, revealing the organisation has made 50 editions of its ‘Ancient of Days’ NFT artwork. 20% creator royalties are written into each, while remaining revenue will be used to fund social projects.
“Part of what we do at the Fair, with the collector programme, the talks and workshops, is education. It’s bringing new art and new ideas to people, and allowing them to experience that,” Helm continues when we question why crypto art was crucial for 2021. “The Fair itself has a section called the Manchester Contemporary, which works with emerging artists and galleries at the cutting edge.
“So this fits with that perfectly,” she continues. “There’s a lot to learn, for artists — what constitutes digital art? What makes an NFT? The fact there are ways to build-in royalty percentages for onward sales, artists need to understand this. Same with cryptocurrency, which is still very new for most people. And you also need to understand the market itself, what creates value within it, and what to look for to recognise value in the work.”
Of course, expectations are high for other parts of the Fair, too. Just like her partner and the event’s co-founder Thom Hetherington, Helm believes the occasion is successful because it offers an accessible way in to what can often feel like a closed world. “It’s a really easy way to see a lot of different art, meet artists, experts and galleries, and buy a piece to take home and put up in your house. Even if you have a small budget, £100 or so, there’s a broad range available and it takes away that barrier of walking into an art gallery, which can be quite daunting.”
As our conversation comes to an end we ask for her views on the shape and health of Manchester’s art scene overall. The response is overwhelmingly encouraging. “It’s flourishing, it really is. Obviously it has been a difficult year or so. Not just in Manchester, but across the UK for anyone in creative industries and culture. But the creativity hasn’t gone away, the appetite hasn’t gone away, it’s all there waiting to be reunited. In Manchester there is just so much going on, so much development in terms of institutions up here, other events, a lot of artist studios. It feels like the hub of creativity right now.”
White Circle Manchester Art Fair runs at Manchester Central on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November 2021, with a preview on Friday 19th. Free advanced tickets are available now.
Dive into work from exhibiting galleries and artists through the digital Easel art marketplace.
Discover the world of KnownOrigin online.