Hamish Coney: Necessary Protection

The Virtual Auckland Art Fair 2020 (VAF 2020) which launches today at is the online reboot of the traditional earthbound format. This year, instead of the VIP glitz and glam at the Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront, collectors will be clutching a cuppa in their bubble ‘in’ the cloud, letting their fingers do the walking. But the goal is an urgent one says Hamish Coney: to keep our artists and galleries fed and watered until whatever the new normal looks like hoves into view. By the way did I mention the web address is

Art people are a pretty demonstrative lot. These birds of a feather love to flock together to talk shop, talk trash, but most of all wax lyrical about art. And the place they love to burn at least a thousand words on every picture is at the Auckland Art Fair.

This year, a month out from the planned opening today, the organisers of the Auckland Art Fair had to pull the pin. The work of more than 150 artists, represented by 40 or so galleries, was in transit, at the framers or drying in the studio. Preparations for the art world’s annual pay day were nearly complete.

Sure it’s all about the art but it is all also about the numbers too. the Last year over 10,000 art pilgrims visited the Cloud, spending $10 million. For those artists, galleries and the collectors who pay the bills, the fair is one of THE events on the calendar and its cancellation was met with groans and I suspect, a few tears. For the last week in March, fair co-directors Stephanie Post and Hayley White were in a daze, dealing with distraught gallerists, liaising with sponsors, counting both the cultural and financial loss, and battening down the hatches from their respective bubbles.

But the virtual idea soon dawned on Post and White. The art was ready to go, and… small pun intended, a genuinely captive audience was sitting at home twiddling their thumbs, surfing the net. So in less than a month the fair has migrated from that cloud and into this cloud. Co-directors Post and White have been working around the clock over the past weeks to rally the galleries, her team and to keep collectors on the simmer until today.

They pay particular tribute to the team at Latch Digital who have turned around the entire online gallery system which lies behind the virtual art fair in three weeks. "Please give them a plug.” However on a more serious note Post adds: “An art fair is where the visual art sector puts itself forward to the public. The virtual art fair is an essential experiment. Of course we value the live experience but right now this is the only way the artists who have spent the last year making work will get paid. We know people are hurting, but if they can see their way clear, now is the time to buy an artwork.”

At you can view more than 500 artworks from 175 artists at 35 galleries. Galleries will be regularly adding new works to the site until May 17.

On the eve of the Virtual Art Fair opening I spoke to five gallerists to gain insights into how they were dealing with the challenges of the lockdown, what has kept them (culturally) safe and sane in these times and their planned online exhibition for the fair.

Sumer Gallery, Tauranga – Director Daniel Du Bern

Exhibiting: suites of work by Ann Shelton and Ella Sutherland

Ella Sutherland, Virginia & Vita; Gertrude & Alice, 2020 (from the series Letters)
acrylic on linen ,1220 x 910 mm each. Installation view: Sumer, Tauranga (for Auckland Art Fair 2020 Virtual Art Fair) Courtesy of the artist & Sumer, Tauranga

Du Bern has been working from his Tauranga bubble with his wife and two sons, aged six and eight, their schedule now based around homeschooling. As he has been preparing his VAF 2020 exhibition he has gained a few pointers to the future. "Being in Tauranga has meant that our web presence has always been key, but this whole experience shows we have a lot more options to present our artists work online. I’m a doer, so I’ve thrown myself into work, taking imagery from Ella Sutherland in Sydney and ‘placing’ them on the gallery wall in Tauranga” In between the crafting of information and imagery Du Bern has found a little time for reading. He recommends No Friend But the Mountains, Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani which provides some perspective for a new reality, “It’s important to realise that this pandemic is going to change everything, but it was by no means perfect beforehand.”

For the fair, Du Bern will present two bodies of work by Ann Shelton and Ella Sutherland. Sydney based Sutherland graduated with an MFA from Christchurch’s Ilam in 2012 and has subsequently developed a practice balanced between art and design, frequently with a bibliophile nuance. Her work was recently seen at Objectspace in Auckland in the exhibition Recto Verso in 2019. For Sumer at VAF 2020 she presents a body of clean-cut abstraction with echoes of vintage bookplate design. These large format acrylics on linen speak to resonant emotions and intimacies in the correspondence between iconic 20th century literary and artworld figures Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

During the Fair, Du Bern looks forward to both renewing and maintaining relationships with collectors. He notes, echoing the comments of many gallerists, that inquiry levels slowed after the US travel ban in mid-March. Since that time, however, he has been buoyed by the support he and his gallery, founded in 2018, have received.  "Our supporters have been great. I have experienced a real sense of camaraderie. Maybe they cannot buy at the moment but they plan to in the future once they know what that holds. For the gallery, there’s been a fine balance between putting more attention on our digital presence and making it clear that we are a commercial enterprise. I think in the future that there will be a bit more transparency around pricing.”

Jhana Millers Gallery, Wellington – Director Jhana Millers

Exhibiting: A solo exhibition by Kāryn Taylor

Kāryn Taylor, Circle Held, 2020, cast acrylic, edition of 3, 400 x 400 x 45mm. Image by Sam Hartnett

Jhana Millers, her husband and sister-in-law have been busy during the lockdown renovating their Island Bay Home and like many, ‘mastering’ the art of sourdough bread baking. The Wellington gallerist who represents many emerging women artists has also had a chance to catch up on some reading – Boy Swallows Universe by Australian writer Trent Dalton and a fresh re-read of New Zealand curator and writer Justin Paton’s How to Look at a Painting have been two highlights.

During lockdown she has launched a popular web-based initiative Artists at Home and Artworks in Homes, offering snapshots of how her gallery artists are faring at home as well as collectors' domestic environments. Millers has been gratified with the response to these ‘behind the scenes’ cameos, and notes collectors are keen to see how others display artworks. The response to these more intimate forms of communication has given Millers a glimpse into the post-lockdown future. Two months ago Millers had been planning a group show for the Auckland Art Fair but lockdown forced a rethink, “many of our artists have been unable to access their studios during Level 4.” This means for VAF 2020 she is presenting a suite of eight ‘light’ works by Kāryn Taylor. Millers thinks the visual impact and conundrum of Taylor’s cast acrylic resin pieces such as Circle Held translate well to the online environment. "There is a visual or illusionistic effect to her work that is compelling. The sense that these works are ‘lit’ in a conventional sense becomes a metaphor for a deeper conversation around the emotion of colour. The high key works have an almost neon intensity, whilst the darker tones have a more restful energy.”

Trish Clark Gallery, Auckland – Director Trish Clark

Exhibiting: works by Stephen Bambury, Eemyun Kang, Los Carpinteros and Heather Straka

Eemyun Kang, Passagio, 2019, oil on canvas, 600. X 700mm. image courtesy the artist and Trish Clark Gallery.

Since Level 4 lockdown on March 25, Auckland gallerist Trish Clark has been safe in her Titirangi bubble and enjoying frequent Facetime contact with her three adult children. She has found this time one of a few contradictions, both regenerative as the pace of life has slowed allowing for some precious reading time, but also the deadline pressure of preparing for the opening of VAF 2020. It’s been a busy year for Clark as she has relocated her gallery from Auckland’s CBD to the western end of the ‘miracle mile’ that extends from K’Road to her new location on Great North Road – where Trish Clark Gallery re-opened in early March. One of Clark’s great pleasures is reading, so Netflix is not on the agenda. She has had time to tackle a stack of books she could not get near over Christmas, her time consumed with planning her gallery fitout and move. In the past month she has read iconic art theorist Susan Sontag’s biography and Margaret Atwood’s post-Handmaid’s Tale novel The Testaments. Clark has also stepped up to the digital plate with a weekly newsletter and the launch of her artist’s film platform PLAY which features filmed interviews and documentaries on gallery artists including Alfedo Jaar, Stella Brennan, Phil Dadson, Marie Shannon, Vincent Ward and Marie Shannon – the archive contains more than 80 video presentations, and counting. These new engagements have kept the lines of communication with collectors open and interactive, says Clark. "I’ve kept my comms on a human level. There are big shifts in the world and sales are not the focus. My newsletters give some sustenance that is nourishing and sustaining. I’ve had wonderful feedback from a really interesting range of people. It has felt intuitively like the right thing to do."

A notable aspect of Clark’s direction as a gallerist has been her pioneering work in bringing international artists to Aotearoa and this aspect of her philosophy is to the fore at VAF 2020 where she presents the work of two international and two New Zealand artists. Clark looks forward to gauging the response to the work of Korean-born, Milan-based, abstract painter Eemyun Kang, whose work she describes as, “kind-hearted, gentle but powerful. These works capture the zeitgeist of our times.”

Suite Gallery, Wellington… and soon to be Auckland – Director David Alsop

Exhibiting: works by Douglas Stichbury and Ans Westra

Douglas Stichbury, Twilight condensation, 2020, drybrush oil on linen, 1250 X 1500mm. Image courtesy of Suite

From his Wellington bubble, David Alsop has had a chance to slow down a fraction. Pre-lockdown he was preparing to open a second gallery on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road and launch with an exhibition of works by Melbourne-based Richard Lewer. Suite’s Wellington gallery is on iconic Cuba Mall. To maintain a connection with his public, Alsop has been exhibiting a work a day under the title Suite Daily in the gallery window to the delight of passers-by. “I’ve been posting the installs on Instagram and getting great feedback. I’ve made a few sales and I’m keeping the dialogue open.” During lockdown Alsop has been keeping his sanity intact with regular doses of the Netflix series Ozark and rewatching old classics such as Withnail and I, but mostly he has been liaising with his artists and checking in with a loyal collector base.  "They are in a holding pattern right now, so I need to be ready with a great offer when things return.”

At VAF 2020, Suite presents two bodies of work by the photographer Ans Westra and New York-based New Zealand artist Douglas Stichbury, who burst on to the national consciousness winning the Parkin drawing prize in 2014. Drawing inspiration from the world building of TV sci-fi classics of the 60s, Stichbury’s canvases chart a fine line between dystopian dread and utopian exhilaration. Alsop is excited to see the development of ambition and scale in Stichbury’s work.  "My relationship with Douglas goes back to the early days of the gallery. His paintings are meticulous and technically superb. For the fair, I’ll be showing his largest work to date, titled Megalith.”

M+P Art, Oxford, England - Director Ben Parsons

Exhibiting: works by Bridget Riley, Toby Twiss and Ham Darroch

Ham Darroch, Counter Attack, pencil and acrylic on wall, 350cm X 1200cm. image courtesy the artist, all rights reserved 2020

New Zealand-born UK gallerist Ben Parsons grew up in the art-soaked environment of his parents Roger and Helen’s iconic (and deeply missed) bookstore. For the last month, he and his wife Lucy have been busy homeschooling their two children aged seven and three at their home in Delly End near Oxford. "We are trying for a bit of normality and routine with the emphasis on trying…” Given his background, it is no surprise he is a voracious reader. "I’ve been re-reading Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There. I’ve also been closely reading McCahon Country by Justin Paton, which is also research for a project I’m planning for next year. It is important to keep looking forward and making plans to support the artists I work with, especially now.”

At Virtual Art Fair 2020, M+P Art will present works by New Zealand’s Toby Twiss, Australian Ham Darroch and iconic British Op artist Bridget Riley, “Toby and I were at Elam together in the 1990s and I’ve always wanted to work with him. I’ve known Ham Darroch for about 10 years from his time working as an assistant to Bridget Riley. He still comes back to the UK to install her big shows. I started showing his work in 2018. I love Bridget Riley’s work and have a long association dating to my time as a director of Karsten Schubert Gallery in London. I feel her work will appeal to New Zealand collectors and I’ve wanted to work across both hemispheres for some time. I recently met director Stephanie Post in London and I think exhibiting at the fair is a sensible first step for the gallery.”

Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism

As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.

As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.

With thanks to our partners