Celebrating its 20th anniversary this autumn, The Affordable Art Fair, which started in Battersea in 1999 and this year stages 13 fairs in 10 cities, recently welcomed its 2.5 millionth visitor. I found it fascinating chatting to visionary founder of the Affordable Art Fair Will Ramsay, a military man who only later turned his attention to becoming a very creative entrepreneur. Will constantly channels his fun-loving spirit and intelligent focus into questioning what visitors and exhibitors typically expect from an art fair and then makes sure to surprise and compel them. How else would you explain waiters on skates at the champagne bar at an art fair? Or providing over £1.5 million to fresh art graduates in the form of free stand space and running free sessions for exhibitors to prepare them for the Affordable Art Fair? At a time when aspiring industry leaders seem obsessed with business models that are scalable and data-driven, I find it refreshing to reflect on a British success story that is not defined or shaped by technology and instead relies on celebrating items that are inherently scarce and impossible to replicate in large numbers.
MEET AFFORDABLE ART FAIR FOUNDER, WILL RAMSAY
From geography undergraduate to horse-mounted British Army soldier, how did you end up founding a global art fair?
There were a few clues scattered around in my early life that eventually all came together. When I was at school, two cabinet ministers came in as guest speakers. I found that a very inspiring moment and it made me think big and believe anything is possible. I enjoyed painting and when I was 14, my art teacher John Booth told me my work was really good, so I did art A level. My family have served in the British Army and Royal Navy for five generations. I received a scholarship to join my father’s unit, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, a tank regiment, where I served for five years after university. While studying geography with a minor in art history at Newcastle, I was constantly organising things, mainly Scottish dancing as well as rowing, rugby and parties galore. It was perfect for me as I don’t like being told what to do. In fact, the army was unsuitable for me after a certain point for the same reason.
How is wine similar to art?
Wine inspired me with the idea to democratise art. The 1980s was a time of economic optimism after decades of difficulties and people had more to spend. The Majestic Wine chain was doing a great job of luring in and educating people who didn’t know much about wine. I noticed galleries selling art were focussed largely on an in-crowd who had been brought up with art, often stocking only one artist without displaying price tags. Meanwhile public galleries like the National Gallery were good at bringing art to a wider audience, with explanations on the walls. This all made me realise that there was a business opportunity to demystify art and bring it to the attention of people who didn’t yet know it could be very relevant to them.
What are your top tips for transforming the perception of something with a traditional reputation?
My top two tips are to dissect your audience and to make it easy for people to say yes to your idea. I noticed fashion shops, which were also selling things people didn’t strictly need, made it easy to become a customer and I copied them. I set up Will’s Art Warehouse with a choice of artists, friendly staff and music in the background. But it wasn’t scalable because art is generally unique. When a banker friend came back from an art fair and told me he couldn’t afford anything, I realised he was presuming wrong - it was just there had been no price tags. That was when I decided to create the Affordable Art Fair with prices on the walls. I decided I’d put the name on the tin. I wanted to get people to think differently and to say “This could be for me. I’ll bring my wallet along!”
My geography degree had taught me to enquire why people choose to live and work in different places. So, we analysed every potential location carefully to determine if it was a match for our fairs. Did it have enough of an art scene? Where do locals like going? In cities where people want a Mercedes, they won’t want art. When an interest in culture was taking root, we knew our timing would be right. Hong Kong had 30 galleries when we started there in 2007, now it has over 100. People often come to our fairs on a date and our competition is the park or the cinema.
What drives you?
I’ve seen people visibly shaking with elation because they’ve just bought their first piece of art at one of our fairs. That is immensely gratifying.
We help galleries, artists and buyers enjoy art in their lives and we help empower gallerists and artists to make a living from art. I’ve always been driven by championing the work of emerging artists and that’s why since the Affordable Art Fair’s inception, we’ve always donated stand space to exhibit work by recent graduates and rising stars around the world. We also offer advice and support behind the scenes to help novice exhibitors optimise their sales. In that way, the Affordable Art Fair provides a global stage for emerging artists.
We sold our 500,000th piece of art in May 2019 at our Hong Kong Affordable Art Fair. Making an impact on the financial lives of artists and gallerists is enormously rewarding. I was thrilled when the artist Garry Pereira from Red Gallery came up to me and told me that the Affordable Art Fairs had enabled him to relinquish his part time job, secure a full-time studio, pay off mortgages and support his family comfortably through his art.
Sometimes for an artist, the Affordable Art Fair is a stepping stone to greater things. Rana Begam showed at the Affordable Art Fair and has since gone on to exhibit at Frieze and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Meanwhile, the figurative artist Carl Randall has gone on to win prizes including the prestigious BP Travel Award in 2012. In 2014, his work was exhibited in Paris alongside artists including Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons and today his work is also to be found in the British royal family’s private collection. Meanwhile Andrew Salgado, who was a recipient of free stand space in 2009 when he first graduated, has had sell-out solo shows and established a loyal client following.
What are your proudest moments?
When I first came up with the idea for the Affordable Art Fair, one gallery owner in particular was sceptical about the concept, doubting it would ever work. I did smile to myself when some time later this gallery applied for a stand at one of our fairs. Who would have thought that from that first fair in Battersea in 1999, when I saw people coming through the doors and then leaving with art under their arms, that in 2011 in Singapore I would be busy welcoming our one millionth visitor and then in 2018 in Amsterdam our two and a half millionth visitor?
My most meaningful purchase of art, and one of the very few times I’ve ever spent anything above the Affordable Art Fair’s price ceiling of £6000, was when I commissioned a statue of my grandfather. He commanded the British Navy at the evacuation from Dunkirk, and subsequently commanded the biggest armada the world will ever see; the D-Day landings. A statue of him was created to stand at Dover Castle looking to Dunkirk, for the 60th Anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, and that led me to commission my own copy. My grandfather has been a driving force in my life.
I’m a firm believer that art holds the power not only to influence the mood, but to transform lives. I’m proud that over the years, we’ve donated over £1.6 million to local art therapy charities supporting people including those living with cancer, PTSD or in prisons. We’ve also spent £2.7 million on educational activities which take place at our fairs.
On a romantic note, two couples have actually met and married thanks to the Affordable Art Fair and their mutual love of this whole venture. One of our London team members moved to our New York office some years ago and met one of our New York team and they have since married. Another couple met while they both worked together in our London headquarters.
What do you do when you’re not inspiring more people to buy art?
My wife and four daughters keep me busy, plus I’m an amateur jockey. Personally, I’ve bought about 150 pieces of art many of which were under £1000. Only a handful are over the Affordable Art Fair’s price ceiling of £6000.
Did anything ever look like it could go horribly wrong?
There have certainly been a few nail-biting moments. Sometimes I have been in very tight financial corners but I’ve always believed in my vision for the Affordable Art Fair and I have always been in it for the long haul.
What’s next for the Affordable Art Fair?
Physical galleries are currently under pressure to keep permanent spaces as retail undergoes dramatic changes. But they remain a crucial platform that allows artists to concentrate on what they do best. Many galleries now have an online presence and exhibit at fairs all year round. Why pay for expensive rent while fighting for footfall when you can have 20,000 people at a fair see your booth in a few days – more than would walk into their gallery in an entire year?
We’re also expanding our online marketplace, which has over 9500 art works up for sale. We started out with a vision to make art accessible and we led the charge in achieving that. Now we are focussed on inspiring more people to buy art. We already attract anyone from first time buyers to serious collectors scouting new talent. It’s been a case of disruption with a human touch. You have to fall in love with art – it’s not like buying something functional like a chair, a jacket or a lampshade. It’s magic making that happen.
Huge thanks to Will and Claire for carrying out this interview as a part of our 20th anniversary celebrations. This interview is just one of many pieces within our 20th anniversary magazine. Click here to or follow the link below to read the collection of exclusive interviews and exciting articles all created in aid of saying a huge THANK YOU to YOU for your support over two decades of democratising the art market.
ABOUT THE JOURNALIST
Claire Adler has written over 500 articles for publications including the Financial Times during over a decade as a regular contributor, The Times, Vanity Fair, Wallpaper*, The Washington Post, Hong Kong Tatler, The Spectator and many more. Claire specialises primarily in jewellery, luxury and art. Her writing has also appeared in business books published by The Financial Times and Open University. In 2016, Claire was named a Top 20 Luxury Tastemaker by IN London magazine. Later that year, Claire founded Claire Adler | The Luxury Public Relations And Writing Consultancy, which employs a journalistic approach to the way companies communicate with journalists. Clients include or have included Jaeger-Le Coultre, Sotheby’s, Adama Partners, The New West End Company, Objet d’Emotion by Valery Demure and Investec.
Will Ramsay, founder of the Affordable Art Fair.
Featured art from first to last:
Claire Adler, Luxury Journalist.
Will making an opening speech at Affordable Art Fair Hampstead.
Visitors enjoy the Private View at Affordable Art Fair Hong Kong.
A printing workshop at Affordable Art Fair Stockholm.
The busy aisles at Affordable Art Fair Battersea Autumn.
Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey at Admiralty Lookout Dover Castle, © Chris Dorney.
Ramsay family portrait, Maisie Broadhead, photograph, Will Ramsay private collection.
Will Ramsay in a rather fetching shirt.