The Wick - Portrait of Sarah Monk, Director of London Art Fair, image by Mark Cocksedge, courtesy of London Art Fair The Wick - Portrait of Sarah Monk, Director of London Art Fair, image by Mark Cocksedge, courtesy of London Art Fair
Monday Muse

Interview London Art Fair’s Sarah Monk

Interview
Sarah Monk
16 January 2023
Interview
Sarah Monk
16 January 2023
This Wednesday sees London Art Fair, a well-established fixture in the diaries of British galleries and collectors, return to the capital for its 35th edition, running until Sunday at Islington’s Business Design Centre. Thanks to creative director Sarah Monk and her team, collectors can expect an inspiring programme of talks, panel discussions and artist insights as well as a diverse line-up of modern and contemporary galleries enabling collecting at all levels.

Monk became director of London Art Fair in 2014 after stints at the Serpentine Gallery and Hayward Gallery, and has helped to develop new initiatives such as the highly acclaimed Museum Partnership and Dialogues section, encouraging new forms of presentation and exchange between international and UK emerging galleries. This year’s Fair will partner with the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum to highlight the contribution of Jewish, immigrant and refugee artists to British art.

Alongside London Art Fair, Monk also oversees the broader art, craft and design portfolio of events for Immediate Live. She has sat on the juries for The Solo Award and Art Prize CMB, and helped to launch the Fresh Art Fair for emerging artists.

THE WICK:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Sarah Monk:   It feels impossible to think of a single ultimate Monday Muse. I’m hugely lucky to be surrounded by inspiring females both in the team I work with to deliver London Art Fair and the community of curators, artists, gallery directors and curators that contribute to shaping each edition. For the 2023 edition of Photo50 at LAF, we have been working with two amazing curators, Katy Barron and Pelumi Odubanjo. Beautiful Experiments will capture the narratives of 11 Black women and non-binary photographers, the majority of whom are based in the UK – some of these voices have not been heard and Katy and Pelumi have used this opportunity to give them the space to consider their ideas and share them with us.

TW:   What does a typical Monday look like for you?

SM:   Since welcoming ‘Hyper Piper’ our 10-month-old Labrador into our lives, a typical Monday come rain or shine starts with a walk in the great outdoors. I’ve always been a big list maker but rather than plunge straight into the notebook or inbox, I find the fresh air, expansive skies and green fields allow me to map out and consider the day and week ahead with greater calm and clarity.

TW:   What is the secret to a successful and relevant London Art Fair?

SM:   Having been involved in the Fair in various capacities over the last 22 years, I think part of what has not only sustained the Fair but my own commitment, has been a drive to continuously ensure we evolve and adapt in relation to the market we serve. Whether this is in relation to changing tastes of collectors and visitors in how they seek to view and engage with art; challenges affecting commercial galleries, recessions, Brexit, pandemics; or initiatives such as our annual Museum Partnership, Platform section, which each year focuses on a distinct theme or medium, and new-for-2023 Encounters, a subsidised section supporting international contemporary galleries to present new artists or known names working in unexpected ways.

TW:   What prompted you to partner with Ben Uri?

SM:   The Museum Partnership was launched in 2014 to provide a prominent London platform to showcase and celebrate some of the UK’s best regional public collections. We have had the great privilege of hosting displays from Hepworth Wakefield, Pallant House, Towner art gallery and Southampton City Art Gallery, to name but a few. As the initiative has evolved, it has felt increasingly pertinent to use its growing acclaim to champion those museums and collections with a singular vision and aim underpinning acquisitions and programming. Last year’s collaboration with The Women’s Art Collection was a great example of this. For this edition, Ben Uri Gallery and Museum will showcase highlights from their preeminent collection’s focus on the immigrant experience, speaking to the rich contribution to British art made by Jewish, immigrant, and refugee artists, which is Ben Uri’s DNA.

“The Fair’s Encounters section is not to be missed this year and a great place to discover new galleries and exciting new artists from across the globe.”

TW:   This year, the Platform selection of the London Art Fair has been curated by Ruth Millington. Tell us about the theme.

SM:   For the fifth edition of Platform, art historian and author Ruth Millington presents a collection of galleries whose artists collaborate with inspiring individuals, reframing the muse as an empowered and active agent in the story of art. Titled ‘Reframing the Muse’, it invites viewers to consider the instrumental role played by diverse, real-life individuals, past and present, beyond the frame in which they are immortalised. This enduring theme transcends eras, genders and borders be it through the powerful new work by Golnaz Afraz (from Gala Fine Art), whose muses are young Iranian women protesters, or through the male-on-male gaze of Peter Doig, Grayson Perry and David Hockney.

TW:   What do you feel have been your greatest accomplishments since being appointed director of the London Art Fair?

SM:   LAF was founded in January 1989 as an initiative of the Business Design Centre, where the Fair has been held ever since. Initially known as Art ‘89, the inaugural Fair attracted 36 UK-based galleries and a few thousand visitors. London Art Fair has now grown to attract over 100 international galleries and 20,000 visitors each year, who regard the Fair with integrity and trust. I am proud of how the Fair has continued to stay relevant, having instigated new innovations such as the Museum Partnership, Encounters and Photo50. The Fair has also embraced the changing gallery models dictated by the market, with galleries collaborating on shared stands and welcoming exhibitors who operate primarily in the digital space such as through NFTs (a topic which will be explored in the Talks Programme). For those interested in exploring the subject of NFTs further, London Art Fair’s digital partner Artscapy will be presenting a fine art NFT exhibition Observing the Human, where five distinct points of observation on human nature are brought together in one exhibit.

TW:   What piece of advice would you give to a new collector visiting London Art Fair?

SM:   I would encourage collectors to start their relationship with the Fair and our galleries in advance of their visit. Visitors are able to preview the artists and works galleries will be showing at the Fair online at londonartfair.co.uk, giving them an opportunity to prepare for their visit and research any new artists they might be interested in.

Visiting the Fair obviously gives collectors the opportunity to view an enormous selection of work under one roof. We work hard to create an environment which is welcoming and supportive to collectors at all levels, with the Fair Selection Committee ensuring quality and a thoughtfully selected presentation of exceptional art. Galleries are there to provide as much information as a collector needs to help inform their purchase and Sotheby’s Institute of Art will also offer daily tours to help navigate the Fair with different highlights including photography, contemporary art, prints, Modern British and applied arts.

TW:   Who are the top three emerging artists on your radar?

SM:   The Fair’s Encounters section is not to be missed this year and a great place to discover new galleries and exciting new artists from across the globe. First-time exhibitor Otherlandz has a strong synergy with this year’s Fair and, like Photo50, shares a strong focus on diasporic heritage, exploring issues surrounding identity, belonging and womanhood. Otherlandz presents a selection of UK-based women artists with cultural roots from across the globe, who investigate the reclamation of the female body image across a range of mediums. Tayo Adekunle’s striking photographic self-portraits explore the treatment of the Black female body within the context of colonial history.

Based in Kemptown, Brighton, Koop Projects is a neighbourhood gallery with an international outlook. The gallery supports creative projects that emphasise the role of contemporary African art and promotes sustainable art practices. Born 1980 in Harare, Zimbabwe, artist Georgina Maxim creates beautiful artworks about difficult themes, made from cotton and wool threads and pre-worn items of clothing, reforming the garments into textile sculptures.

Janet Rady Fine Art’s presentation focuses on emerging African artists from three different countries. Each artist uses paint as a visual language through which to explore their identity in an ever-changing environment.

The Cameroonian artist Moses Mous is preparing a set of new works specifically for the Fair. It is the first time that he has shown his works physically in London. It is also the first time that Osman Salifu will exhibit their work physically in London.

TW:   Where is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

SM:   I think I would have to say the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park. My first visit saw Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away, the first international exhibition curated by Damien Hirst featuring many of his YBA counterparts and his iconic work ‘Away from the Flock’ for the first time – just a year before he went on to win the Turner Prize. I loved that amid the idyll of the beautiful park gardens, in a former tea pavilion, you could encounter some of the biggest names and most provocative art from across the globe. A few years later I was working there, it was responsible for introducing me to my husband and launching my professional art career.

TW:   Which book, artwork and song would you take to a desert island?

SM:   Book – I gifted myself a copy of Jo Baring’s book Revisiting Modern British Art over Christmas, so the idea of having the peace and solitude of a desert island to delve into this feels very compelling right now. I had the pleasure of first working with Jo in 2017 when she curated highlights of The Ingram Collection through our Museum Partnership with The Lightbox. I’m delighted that Jo will be chairing a panel discussion at the Fair, alongside contributors from her new book, Simon Martin, director of Pallant House, and Aindrea Emelife, art historian and independent curator, drawing out what we mean by ‘modern British art’, why we seek to define what ‘British’ art is, different ways of looking at this popular period, and considering the links between modern British and contemporary artists.
Song – ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell. It’s just a beautiful song and Monk household favourite.

Artwork – I’d probably look to select a new work from a new artist to me. Cavaliero Finn’s presentation for the Fair explores ‘themes of the night’ by nine artists. Thinking about being on a desert island draws parallels for me with this theme, as they can both be a time when you feel alone and fears come to the surface or a time for regeneration.

Craig Bamford’s kinetic sculpture MotherSun 2022 is a constellation light and shadow piece that echoes the dance of the cosmos. This piece is part kinetic and gestures the movements of the celestial bodies. It has three main moving parts and many smaller movements allowing various compositions to be made, so the fact the artwork is an interactive moving thing would combat any sense of loneliness or isolation.


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