LAST THURSDAY MORNING, Auckland woke up to the sort of blisteringly blue, cloudless sky that, after eight consecutive European winters, made me question (briefly) why I’d ever left New Zealand. But it’s not just that great Kiwi obsession—the weather—making my hometown feel so cheery: The city has been spruced up to host several matches during next month’s Rugby World Cup. Even without the rugby, it seems like the local council has finally realized that if Auckland is to change from South Pacific outpost into global city, it needs major investment. This year’s venue for the Auckland Art Fair, the Viaduct Events Centre, was one small part of the revamp—a shiny new building that one dealer described as “a bit airport lounge–y” but that nonetheless seemed a perfectly appropriate place to try to shift some art.
And the fact is, New Zealanders like buying. But they tend to collect within a narrow range—mostly local artists, with a few Australians thrown in. The result is a humid little microclimate of a market where artists with little profile beyond Australasia command prices way out of step with what they could achieve internationally. (It’s also pretty common for overseas visitors to choke on their cocktails when they’re told a work’s price.) This is a dangerous game, particularly for young artists, because once their prices are set too high at home, it becomes very difficult for them to find success elsewhere.
But this was the sort of grim, Northern conversation my chirpy Southern countrymen didn’t much feel like having at Wednesday night’s vernissage, and rightly so. Instead, a transactional air of confidence and optimism permeated the space, which was filled with the usual opening-night mix of dealers, curators, collectors, artists, and “isn’t that the guy from . . . ” celebs. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the fair was the local appetite for it, a feel-good mood that dealer Gary Langsford hijacked with (what I hope was) ironic brilliance—his “promo girls,” dressed in a floral print that matched the giant Karl Maughan painting he was selling, handing out gallery goodie bags and working the fair like it was a Detroit motor show.
Actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand gave the opening address before handing the mic over to Auckland’s mayor Len Brown, who provided a characteristically enthusiastic defense of the arts. He even maintained his good humor when he realized less than a third of the room was actually listening: “We also value the fact,” he yelled above the noise, “that you are practitioners and lovers of art, and therefore that gives you license to completely ignore me while I make this speech that you are not hearing!” The speeches, thankfully, welcomed the participating Australian galleries rather than resorting to lame quips about Trans-Tasman rivalry. Sydney dealer Darren Knight, a longtime supporter of New Zealand artists, told me that it had taken years to create an Australian audience for their work, but that certain collectors there now see New Zealand as an exciting market. Knight and his Australian colleagues were no doubt looking for a bit of reciprocal love from Kiwi buyers. And if the quality of the work on his stand was anything to go by, he had reason to be hopeful.
One new gallery not at the fair was Auckland’s Hopkinson Cundy, which missed out on a technicality, having opened its doors a couple of weeks after applications closed. But its directors Sarah Hopkinson and Harry Cundy were gracious enough to cohost an afterparty with fellow dealer Michael Lett. Two hundred of us headed off to the nautically themed “tapas and lounge bar” Swashbucklers, and by midnight, the music, beer, and rum had obliterated most meaningful conversation. When I visited Hopkinson the next day and commented on the choice of venue, she grinned: “Classy, wasn’t it?” True to the smarts locals have attributed to her, she was presenting a nice group show at her space just off Karangahape Road, a quiet counterpoint to the official event down on the waterfront.
Back at the fair, the late greats Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters were still ruling as market heavyweights, with the very-much-present Billy Apple not far behind. Thirtysomething artists like Rohan Wealleans, Ricky Swallow, and Francis Upritchard were attracting plenty of attention too, and Yvonne Todd—whose work at Peter McLeavey was one of the fair’s highlights—is still superb. When it came to pleasing crowds, though, Brett Graham trumped everyone with his work Mihaia—a military tank carved from MDF. But really, art fairs are only ever about one thing. When I asked a dealer on Saturday night how much work he’d managed to sell, he gave me a typically deadpan New Zealand response that also seemed to be the consensus: “Fucking heaps.”