Interview with Alexander Montague-Sparey, Artistic Director, Photofairs Shanghai

Dedicated to showcasing photography and moving image works from leading international galleries and their represented artists, Photofairs is the ideal environment in which to explore a plethora of established and emerging talent. Returning to the iconic Shanghai Exhibition Centre on 9-11 September, this year’s Shanghai edition engages collectors from Asia-Pacific and the Pacific rim. In 2016, the programme is set to feature 50 exhibitors from 15 countries and 24 cities across its Main, Platform and Connected sectors, and also includes a dynamic public talks line-up in Insights and Conversations. We speak to Alexander Montague-Sparey, Artistic Director, about the upcoming event, as well as its relationship with sister show, Photofairs San Francisco taking place at the Fort Mason Centre next January.

A: Photofairs Shanghai was the first international art fair dedicated to photography in China and today is the leading fine art photography platform in the Asia Pacific region. What inspired you to bring the medium on such a huge scale to China and Shanghai?
AM: Asia was an amazing opportunity because an international photo fair of this scale had never happened on this side of the world before. With Shanghai being such a beacon of elegance and modernity, it seemed like the perfect fit. We knew that we wanted to promote Chinese photography, which is largely undervalued and under the radar, whilst also giving international galleries an opportunity to come to China for the first time.

A: Encouraged by the success of Photofairs Shanghai you introduced a sister event in San Francisco. Can you discuss why you chose San Francisco and talk about the dialogue between these two art markets?
AM: The American market is the most established market there is for photography. The Americans have been collecting photographs since the 1960s. We wanted to build on what we had achieved with Photofairs Shanghai, by making the event even more international. America seemed like the perfect platform to host an event of this scale and calibre, to allow Asian galleries to have an established platform upon which to promote their artists. San Francisco made the most sense, as New York is already quite well served in terms of photography, supplied with a strong network of galleries and established art fairs. A little like Shanghai, San Francisco was this relatively untapped opportunity, ripe for the picking. There is a lot of development happening on the West Coast, whether it be in tech, property, finance or the art world. We are focusing on that energy to make our fair as current and successful as possible.

A: Photofairs Shanghai and Photofairs  San Francisco are dedicated to presenting photography and moving image on an international stage. What are your thoughts on the current market in Asia and what are you most excited about in Chinese photography right now?
AM: I feel that the fair has very successfully engaged with mainland Chinese galleries in Shanghai and Beijing, but also further afield to Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. We are today the most international art fair in China. This means that our edit is incredibly varied and that there is undoubtedly something for everyone. Having said that, the curation is very focused and this year more than ever, we are really spotlighting  Chinese artists. The market for Chinese photography has matured since we started the fair. We therefore have some excellent material to exhibit. This year we will not just be showing photography, but also a strong video programme curated by Feng Boyi. We are also putting on a museum quality show entitled ‘insights’, which will spotlight artists working with photography in new ways. These works build complex relationships with sculpture and painting particularly. Our ‘platform’ sector works with galleries who have never shown in China before, so expect to see some excellent emerging work as well.

A: Prior to becoming the Artistic Director of Photofairs you were the Head of Photographs at Christie’s London. How did this experience help you in the setting up of Photofairs?
AM: Christie’s taught me to appreciate how international the art world is and how important quality, provenance and integrity are. Without all of these attributes, Photofairs Shanghai could have ended up just being a local fair. Instead, the event is today the leading platform for photography in Asia, with 15 countries represented. We work with the most established collectors in the market and we invest a lot of time and energy in finding the new ones.

A: The selected theme for this year’s special curated exhibition insights is New Approaches to Contemporary Photography Since 2000. How will this exhibition chart the developments in photography from then until now? What do you hope the pairing of the past and present will reveal to visitors?
AM: The exhibition aims to underline that photography has been happening for over 150 years now. This is not a new art form. It is also a medium that has never been divided up by genre, style or period, like painting has. If you attended a contemporary art fair for example, the works you see will span 50 years, starting in the 1970s if you are lucky. This fair juxtaposes 19th century French photography from as early as 1860, with works that were produced last week by the most exciting names in Taiwan, for example. This exhibition is also symbolic of the kind of art fair we are: one that looks to new ways to engage with our audience. We want to keep the experience fresh and exciting. No other art fair has curated a show so focused to date. This is a huge step in terms of education and art fair development. The future of the art world is to engage people commercially, whilst giving them something they have never seen before. This exhibition will be of museum scale and quality, but will happen alongside the fair and all the works will be available for private sale. We will be taking this initiative to San Francisco as well, where a focus on cutting edge work and unique experiences will continue to be a huge overriding force for the overall mission of the fair.

Photofairs | Shanghai, 9-11 September 2016, Shanghai Exhibition Centre.

Photofairs | San Francisco, 27-29 January 2017, Fort Mason Centre.

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1. Photofairs Shanghai.