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‘The city is coming alive’: how Manchester is creating an arts scene to rival London


Manchester Art Fair is the most prestigious art fair in the north. Over 120 galleries and artists will be selling thousands of modern and contemporary paintings, sculpture, photography and editioned prints when it comes to Manchester Central this month.

More than half the galleries and artists taking part are bringing exclusive pieces which have never been shown at any other fair. In fact, many of the pieces have been created specially to exhibit here in Manchester.

It’s all part of a general movement which is seeing Manchester position itself as a leading city for the arts and for artists, believes CEO and founder Thom Hetherington.

Launched in 2008 as Buy Art Fair, the event has had an exciting decade including a charity auction of Damian Hirst doodles, the development of The Manchester Contemporary and its collector programme, and live painting by artists such as Pure Evil. Previous highlights include an exclusive interview with collector Frank Cohen as well as record art sales including works by Tracy Emin and Grayson Perry.

Ten years on, and a lot has changed in terms of the city’s relationship with art and art buying – a city which, unlike the capital, didn’t necessarily have a ready-made audience in place. Thom was initially advised by those in the London art world that he would struggle to sell in Manchester. But the fair has sold over £4 million of art.

“We took a very Mancunian approach,” says Thom. “It’s collaborative, it’s about community, and it’s about mutual benefit.

“People in London said there are no galleries in Manchester because people don’t buy art. I said, ‘No. People don’t buy art because there are no galleries’. Now we get 8,000 people through the doors every year. We’ve created buyers. We’ve turned casual buyers into fanatical collectors.

“We change the lives of artists and help them to build sustainable viable businesses. And there are a lot more galleries now. This city is coming alive when it comes to visual arts, and I like to think we have played some part in that process.”

Photo: Eddie Garvey MEN

Thom believes that Manchester now has an opportunity to embrace creative talent and support young artists who can no longer afford to live, work and study in London.

“There is a unique once in a generation – maybe even once in a lifetime – opportunity which Manchester has right now,” he says. “London is overheating and becoming untenable as a place to work and practise for artists. We are in a position which wasn’t the case 20 years ago where we can attract this huge artistic talent, particularly young artists and emerging artists.

“It’s complacent for London to think of itself as the epicentre now. We’ve got this incredible opportunity for Manchester to cement itself and become increasingly significant not just nationally but internationally, in terms of the arts over the next generations. The Art Fair becomes part of that broader story. It becomes part of that dynamic.

“It would be great to feel that people want to go to art college in the north and then they want to stay in the north,” he says. “I would like there to be a network of artists, curators, writers, everything you need to provide a market ecology for them to sell their work.”

One art consultant who has already made the move up north is Leon Martyn.

“I studied art history at Manchester University, have held the city in high regard and could always imagine moving back up here from London one day,” says Leon.

“My wife was offered an opportunity to move here to set up the northern branch of her historic building consultancy and I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to move back and embrace what I could see was a cultural renaissance happening in the city.

“People have always been open minded here and been really into the arts. Mancunians are proud of their city and want it to do well which means people are always willing to help and put you in touch with the right people, which is extremely refreshing and positive.”

As well as working with established London artists such as Ben Eine, Leon is keen to support the wealth of emerging local talent.

“All too often, when people think about art in the UK, they think London,” he says. “There’s some really great work being produced outside of the capital city and I think it is important to stop and acknowledge that.

“I’ve got lot of respect for what people are doing here in Manchester to promote the city’s creativity, and Manchester Art Fair has played a big role in that over the years. It has given me the opportunity to essentially create my biggest group show of the year without having a gallery, which has really helped me settle and grow as a new company in this thriving, energetic and culturally powerful city.”

Global success story that it is, London is overheating to such a degree that artists are being forced out of the city, says Thom.

“It’s difficult to be a student at one of the colleges, it’s difficult to find studio space, and it’s difficult to afford to live there,” he says. “London is a victim of its own success. And there is no way to turn back back the clock.

“The question is, where do the next generation of artists and galleries and creatives go next? And Manchester is in a prime position. It’s already starting to happen. We need to make it clear that our doors are open. If you want to be part of a vibrant arts scene, then Manchester is not a bad place to be.

“It’s affordable, it’s liveable, and it’s full of the right kind of people and energy and opportunity. It’s incredibly exciting.”

Aviva Investors Manchester Art Fair runs from 12th-14th October. I Love Manchester readers can get free weekend tickets with an exclusive discount code via the button below.


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