Portrait

A catch-up with the director of the Sydney Contemporary art fair, Barry Keldoulis. By Bri Lee.

Sydney Contemporary’s Barry Keldoulis

Barry Keldoulis is a busy man, particularly in late August when we meet. Sydney Contemporary opens on September 12 and, as the chief executive of Art Fairs Australia and the fair director of Sydney Contemporary, his is currently a world of tricky logistics, VIP programming demands and never-ending emails. When I ask him how long we have, expecting a tight window carved out by the minute, he gives a big smile, stirs some honey into his latte and says, “As long as you need.

“These large-scale works for Installation Contemporary are sometimes even uncharted territory for the artist,” he explains excitedly, noting that Carriageworks, where the fair takes place, is heritage listed, so “you can’t just nail into the walls or throw paint around”.

The total dollar figure of art sales each year has grown impressively under Keldoulis’s stewardship. Starting at $10 million in 2013 when the fair launched, it hit $21 million last year, and Keldoulis is quick to add that “half that figure goes straight back to artists, which is ultimately what the whole thing is about”. It’s a “shot in the arm” for galleries and artists alike: a boost to cash flow and exposure.

Ten years ago it was normal for galleries at art fairs to just drag old, unsold works out from storerooms and try to move them on. Keldoulis says these could sometimes feel like “meat markets” compared with the expectation now that a stall at a fair is an exciting opportunity for an artist to present new work to an exceptionally condensed audience of collectors, gallerists and curators. Other fairs might consider sales to be the focus of their offerings, but the Performance Contemporary component of the fair demonstrates a walking-the-walk commitment to all kinds of new art – even the less “saleable” works. Similarly, it was previously considered the role of a biennale, rather than a fair, to host a complex and considered “talks” program, but Keldoulis is particularly proud of this year’s range of topics and presenters. We share an excited exchange about a talks program highlight: one of the original Guerrilla Girls, Gerda Taro, will be speaking about the feminist-activist collective famous for asking, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?”

The fair moved from every two years to annual in 2018. Keldoulis says he pushed for it to go annual but wouldn’t have made the move unless it was what everyone wanted, “so we canvassed the galleries and pretty much all of them, including the domestic galleries, wanted it to go annual”. A sense of triumph emanates from him when he tells me about one gallerist who pushed back against the move, but then “admitted he was wrong” after they sold even more in their second back-to-back year.

A pattern he has seen with larger art fairs, such as Basel Hong Kong, is that as they grow with “more blue-chip and higher price points”, they tend to chop off the bottom rung of the art world. By comparison, he is committed to always providing spaces for artist-run initiatives at Sydney Contemporary, seeing them as “a very important cog in the machinery of the art world”. He calls this a “whole-of-scene” fair. At close to $8000, Keldoulis acknowledges the “Futures” booths for young initiatives and smaller galleries are still expensive but even for these smallest spaces, people from 2018 are coming back in 2019. He runs off several anecdotes about young artist-run initiatives pulling stunts to make the best use of their booths, such as one swapping out the artworks and doing a complete refit every night of the fair.

Keldoulis’s long and varied career in various roles in the art world explains a lot of this “whole-of scene” attitude. In New York through the ’80s, he then had time in Lisbon and Edinburgh in the early ’90s, before returning to Sydney as people were getting excited and busy in the lead-up to the 2000 Olympics. “Sydney had shaken off the shackles of provincialism,” he says. In 2003 he opened his own gallery “to fill a gap in opportunity for young artists to exhibit between artist-run spaces and the major commercial galleries”, and he’s worked in both museum and commercial gallery scenes.

His commitment to the Australian art scene reached a different zenith when he ran for the 2018 Wentworth byelection as a candidate for the Arts Party. He seemed disappointed but not surprised to learn that “most people don’t actually understand how the preferential voting system works”. A major goal of him running – and the Arts Party more generally – was to be the arts and cultural alternative to the “shooters, fishers and four-wheel-drivers”, sending a message to the larger parties about people’s values and priorities. He said the group is now recalibrating to take a more local and state-based approach, rather than running again federally.

He now spends large parts of the year travelling the world – South Africa recently, various countries of South America, the Asia-Pacific region – meeting gallerists and finding out what he can do to bring them to Sydney Contemporary. “You can have all these assumptions [of different markets],” he says, “but you don’t know until you go.”

So how does Sydney fit into this international landscape? Keldoulis says one of the reasons it’s such a great place for an art fair is that as well as “a serious collector base” we also have “a swath of wealthy Sydneysiders that aren’t directly connected to the art world. They’re often quite adventurous in the type of work they buy, and these people aren’t afraid to splash their cash.” He shares a funny story of a tired gallerist on the final Sunday afternoon of a fair launching into his spiel about the artist and photography as a medium to a man in thongs and shorts standing in front of a $25,000 image. “Chill, mate. I like it, I’ll buy it,” the man said to the gallerist. “That doesn’t happen in a lot of other places,” Keldoulis says, both of us laughing.

I ask Keldoulis which other art fairs he most admires, and how Sydney Contemporary might grow to compete with them on the international stage. I almost think I see irritation flicker across his face as he pauses, and immediately I realise I have asked a stupid question. I am parroting the cultural cringe and provincialism we just spent 30 minutes happily tearing apart. Keldoulis is thinking about what an art fair can be – what he can make of it without leaving anyone behind.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "All things fair". Subscribe here.

Bri Lee
is a lawyer and the author of Eggshell Skull.