“I’d love to buy art, but I don’t know where to start.” You’ve probably heard that one before.
It’s less likely your next step would be to set up an art fair. But then not everyone thinks like Thom Hetherington, a tenacious optimist if ever there was one.
Back in the mid-noughties his attempt to buy original art in Manchester exposed just how difficult it once was to do that in this town. Faced with only a couple of galleries with “quite an old school approach… only open alternate Tuesdays under a full moon”, he and partner Sophie were eventually led to the studio of North West expressionist Liam Spencer. Hardly the most direct sales route.
Talking to friends in the London art world, their responses were presumptuous: “There are no galleries in Manchester because nobody buys art in Manchester.”
Hoping to make it easier for those who did, while proving naysayers wrong, in 2008 the couple and comrades launched Buy Art Fair, now White Circle Manchester Art Fair, establishing what has become one of the UK’s most forward-thinking events of its kind. But things didn’t start well.
“It’s probably one of the worst business decisions I’ve ever made,” Hetherington says, explaining that while his team approached galleries and artists with return on investment and marketing strategies, the art world had other concerns. “They were just asking: Who are you? Why are you doing this? Who else is involved? Where have you come from? Who do you know?”
Seven months later little progress had been made. A venue was secured, URBIS (now the National Football Museum), where Hetherington sat on the board, but the inner circle was unconvinced. “In the end we gathered together a load of northern galleries for an event, put them in a room and explained ‘she won’t do it unless you’re in, you’re not in unless they’re in, they’re not in unless she’s in — but do we all agree if there was a successful art fair in Manchester, everyone would benefit?'”
Finally making headway, the first year went ahead. Despite the sale of three original Damian Hirst postcard sketches making headlines, though, it was “a close shave”. Then Arts Council England’s Taste Buds research presented itself.
“We read this huge report and it was all about creating art market ecologies outside London. Places where people buy and sell art, these commercial engines. They had identified Manchester as somewhere that might be possible,” Hetherington says of how faith in a world class arts fair for the city was restored.
In a bid to win support, the Manchester Contemporary was introduced as a fair within a fair, adding an extra dimension through more outsider, experimental and multi-modal work. This wasn’t the only victory, either. Losing URBIS as a home after the second year, Hetherington won the ear of Allied London amid its massive Spinningfields project.
The neighbourhood provided a base for the next phase of the Fair’s history, albeit a moving feast depending on which buildings were available on the right dates. And it’s during these years the event found real momentum, and the recognition needed not just to survive, but thrive.
“One of the most valuable commodities in the art world is advocacy. Not what is said, but who is saying it on your behalf. We were lucky and managed to forge relationships with probably two of the most important people in Manchester art at that time,” Hetherington says, citing Frankie Cohen and Maria Belshaw.
Cohen is often described as ‘Saatchi of the North’ — one of the planet’s most prominent art collectors, he grew up in Cheetham Hill and left school in his early teens to work a market stall before setting up Home Improvement Company and then GlynWebb Home Improvement Stores. Belshaw is the former-director of The Whitworth Art Gallery, now director of the combined Tate galleries.
“Having those people speak for us made a difference. Also, when we realised we were never going to make money out of this, it was quite freeing. I am madly passionate about art and culture in the north, so let’s just make it the absolute best thing it can be,” Hetherington says, before getting more specific as to exactly what that means.
“We’ve always said to galleries, studios, universities, artists — just get on board, use this. We’ve created a big groundswell for buying art once a year, but we need to keep that momentum going throughout the other months. We want to work with everyone. We had a very open attitude, just wanting to do the right thing by everyone. And I think the art world really started to appreciate that,” he continues.
Today, Manchester Art Fair is held in Manchester Central, perhaps the most prestigious large event space in the city. Certainly the most spectacular. Indicative of scale and lure, Hetherington estimates between £500,000 and £600,000 in sales take place each year. Over £5million has been spent on art during the event’s lifespan. And a significant proportion has stayed within the regional arts community, something the team are proud of.
Another sign of impact is the Manchester Contemporary Art Fund. Aligning private collectors with public institutions, it allows people to buy work at the Fair for exhibition in Manchester Art Galleries. It is now the largest philanthropic art fund outside London, responsible for gifting no less than nine pieces of work. The Fair also goes to great lengths supporting independent organisations, platforms, artists, schools and more.
The idea is to embolden the community and industry in the north, ad become a nurturing force for the region’s talent and community, raising profiles locally, nationally, and internationally. One look at the number of independent galleries now operating in Manchester shows how the sector has developed, expanded, and matured over the Fair’s history. Meanwhile, to give an idea of ongoing trajectory, within five weeks of announcing intention to return for 2021 following a COVID hiatus, pre-registration for this year’s event was up 54% on the previous.
“You shouldn’t have to leave your city, your region, to achieve excellence,” Hetherington states at the end of our conversation. “I like the idea someone in the north can go to public institutions like Manchester Art Gallery and be blown away by world class art. Be inspired to become an artist. Go to a world class art school. Have a network of studios and artists locally. And you want local buyers within that. In time, maybe one becomes a very serious collector, then bequeaths their collection back to one of the public galleries. The cycle begins again.”
White Circle Manchester Art Fair, including Manchester Contemporary, runs at Manchester Central on Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st November 2021. Advance tickets.
Find out more about The Manchester Contemporary Art Fund here.