Affordable Art Fair founder Will Ramsay

Affordable Art Fair’s founder Will Ramsay

When Will Ramsay founded the fair in 1999 his aim was to make contemporary art accessible to everyone, and to show you don’t need to be an art expert or a millionaire to enjoy and buy art. Ten years on The Affordable Art Fair is a leading showcase for contemporary art. Renaissance’s Assistant Editor Annabel Potter catches up with him…

After leaving the army you set up Will’s Art Warehouse in 1996 which is still going strongly but what was the catalyst for establishing the Affordable Art Fair rather than simply rolling out more galleries?

I founded the Affordable Art Fair in 1999 with the aim to break down perceived barriers in the ‘stuffy’ and ‘formal’ art world.  I wanted to make art accessible and affordable to everyone in a relaxed and fun environment where people don’t feel intimidated or that they have to know about art in order to enjoy it. Having 120 galleries all under one roof, AAF offers a huge variety so there is something to suit all tastes.

The idea of making art more accessible, particularly contemporary art which can be so intimidating, is something which appeals to many people and which Renaissance is all about. Was this your main motivation; to reach a wider audience or simply to give artists which the academic establishment regards with some disdain a chance?

I wanted to bring other galleries into this ‘accessible’ marketing drive which evolved from Will’s Art Warehouse and to open up the art world to everyone and anyone and make people realise that they don’t have to be a squillionaire or know about art to buy it.  The purchase of a work of art can provide a lifetime of enjoyment and no one should be excluded from the opportunity.

What are the selection criteria for the galleries which show at AAF, do you have a selection committee?

Galleries need to be relatively established and represent a minimum of three contemporary, living artists. A selection committee,  comprised of industry professionals, meet many months in advance to review applications from new galleries who want to exhibit at AAF. Each fair has different selection criteria but overall the selection committee look for quality and coherency. We always try and select a broad range of galleries who represent this criteria in a diversity of styles, prices and mediums, so the fair remains fresh and there is always something to suit every taste and budget.

The AAF is a remarkable phenomenon spreading rapidly across the globe. No other art fair has quite the same level of success in this way; aside from accessibility, what do you think is the ultimate key to its success?

The Affordable Art Fair’s winning formula is simple – a relaxed, unstuffy environment so people feel confident to explore, learn about, and buy contemporary painting, sculpture, photography and original prints from a huge variety of both established and emerging artists all priced under £4,000. Since its launch in 1999, there are now fairs in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, New York, Melbourne, Singapore, Sydney and Milan.

You have the London and Bristol fairs in the UK; are you going to open any others here, for example in other cities such as Edinburgh or Manchester?

We have an exciting new addition to AAF UK with AAF North London fair launching in October this year.

The recent online VIP art fair which despite various technical glitches attracted 41,000 visitors. With people becoming generally more idle in their approach to acquiring things is selling online the way that AAF and indeed all art fairs will eventually go whilst perhaps maintaining a lesser actual fair presence?

From an art-buyers perspective, the internet is a good place to start researching different galleries – it’s like having a fair at your fingertips! When it comes to actually choosing and buying a piece though, nothing can beat seeing art in the flesh. Buying art is a personal process, and you need to have a connection and fall in love with a piece if it’s to live in your home for many years, so it’s much better to see it and touch it if possible. Understanding the exact size of an artwork, and visualising where it will go at home is also important. At the Affordable Art Fair, gallery owners (and sometimes artists!) are on hand to answer your specific questions and give you further information on artists and their previous work, so you really do get an engaging and enriching experience.

The fair has survived the recession remarkably well; do you think the appetite for owning art is growing, that it’s becoming more natural for everyone and anyone to own art?

It seems ‘affordability’ is a hot topic and certainly what we’ve seen so far is that the lower end of the art market is holding its own.  For example, the Affordable Art Fair has maintained strong sales and visitor figures over the past couple of years. Fairs like AAF have certainly made it easier for people to own art, catering for both the seasoned art collector and first time buyers.

Judging by the recent contemporary art sales in London and elsewhere we are still inside a contemporary art bubble yet it seems that more people are striving to buy art; do you think the stigma of elitism which surrounds the art world is beginning to fade? Or is it simply a case of there being two distinct markets, high and low?

The art market is intertwined from one level to another, from one style or era to another.  The art market is in great shape.  ‘Affordable’ is a great buzzword for a recession!

What advice would you give to a first time buyer and Renaissance Online reader regarding collecting; where should they start? With detailed research or to just go with the flow?

Collecting art is a lot easier than you might think – you don’t need to be an art expert to take part. I bought my first piece of art in Moscow when I was 19 and it all really sprang from there. Talking to people in the industry and visiting galleries is a great way to keep up to date with what’s happening in the art world. Art is totally subjective so don’t follow the crowds, the most important thing is your own individual response. Don’t just buy the first thing you see – spend time looking, researching, reading and, most importantly, thinking. Of course if you totally fall in love with a work, then just go for it. Everyone has individual taste so everyone can collect art, and it doesn’t have to break the bank – especially at the Affordable Art Fair where the ceiling price is £4,000.

Which new galleries and artists featuring at AAF in 2011 in London and Bristol are you most excited about?

It was great to have new overseas galleries at AAF London this Spring, with the likes of Wanrooij Fine Art and Morren Galleries from Holland and HL Projects from Belgium who exhibited fantastic photography and very interesting cutting edge artists. In Bristol we’re pleased to welcome about six new galleries this May, including Olivia Connelly who will be bringing the fabulous printmakers Gerald Laing and John Simpson.

Who are your top five artists that you would recommend in the Bristol AAF fair to look out for?

As well as the two printmakers just mentioned, painter and illustrator Rachel Ross had a sellout show at AAF London in March, the poetic still life’s of Mats Rydstern and ever sought after Peter Howson OBE.

What was the most recent piece of art that you bought?

I spent £130 on a screenprint from the Affordable Art Fair London.  It is of a stag with antlers excessively intertwining to form the words “I think I could fall in love with you”.

What is the best part about being an art collector and starting your own collection?

Art adds colour and inspiration to our world and daily lives. Don’t try to buy art as a good investment; buy it because you love it and if you discover in 20 years that it has increased in value, then you can feel smug about your excellent taste!

If you could own any piece of art in the world what would it be and why?

A Caravaggio !  They all have amazing dramatic light, coupled with excellent execution and emotion.


The Affordable Art Fair is held twice a year in London, and once a year in Bristol – the next collection is the Affordable Art Fair, Bristol, 18 – 20 May 2012.