Over the past ten years, the Accessible Art Fair (AAF) has grown from a 9-artist fair to a 75-artist fair, from one-city fair to a two-city fair, and has blossomed into a renowned, talked about art world event.
There are two reasons for this. One, it is distinct: Unlike larger fairs where artists are represented by galleries and rarely present, it acts as a platform for undiscovered, unrepresented emerging and mid-career artists to be seen. It gives these artists an opportunity to meet visitors and buyers, sharing their stories and inspiration face-to-face. For many who have attended from the very beginning, it has become an addiction.
Two, it is led by Stephanie Manasseh, the brains behind the fair whose passion for art and encounters with artists struggling to get their big break has fueled her desire to positively disrupt the art market.
The Makings of an Art Market Disruptor
Originally from Montreal, Manasseh grew up in a household bursting with creativity. Her mother was an artist and her father was in the fashion business, frequently coming home with patterns and designs from Paris and Italy. With a love of the arts instilled in her, she made her way to Prague after graduating from McGill University and began her unique hobby: finding galleries to represent her mother.
“I went around to galleries in Europe to try and meet people who would hopefully show my mother’s work, but didn’t have much luck,” says Manasseh. “From gallery to gallery, I received a series of ‘no’s.’ Nobody wanted to take a risk on an artist who was unknown. I asked, well how is she supposed to become known if no one gave her an opportunity?”
Later, in 2001, when Manasseh and her husband moved to Brussels, she realized that there were lots of artists just like her mother who’d go to shows and exhibits, putting together their own events without a curator. “I had the idea to select some of the best artists I knew and put together a show for them, inviting all the right people, and putting an ad in a popular English speaking magazine aimed at expats.”
Her efforts paid off. The first show consisted of only 9 artists including Manasseh’s mother, but the turnout was an amazing 500 attendees. People were interested and charmed by the fact that they could meet the artists and hear the story behind the inspiration in person. And with that, the annual Accessible Art Fair was born.
How the Fair Took Off
After 10 years of experience, speaking engagements, and smart partnerships, the fair has transformed into a true cultural event in Brussels and around the world. It is a fair that combines people from all walks of life with various backgrounds, all for the purpose of viewing and buying works by 75 carefully selected artists in Brussels (60 for this year’s inaugural edition in New York) who have yet to truly be discovered.
These artists are chosen by committees comprised of seasoned talent-spotting specialists, including people from Sotheby’s, Christie’s Collectrium, and Gagosian. The committees focus on artists' technique and originality as opposed to their resumes.
“I didn’t ever think the fair would take this stature in the last 10 years,” says Manasseh. Her partners now include brands like Montblanc, who joined the fair in 2012, which has stirred up media buzz. She has also partnered up with American Express, BMW, and other high end brands. This year also marks Invaluable’s first year of partnership with the fair in Brussels (September 22-25) and in New York (November 1-25), launched and co-founded by her partner Maria Van Vlodrop from MVvO Art. Van Vlodrop describes the fair as a unique concept that she felt compelled to bring to New York given the wealth of talent looking to exhibit in one of the world’s most prominent art metropolises.
"If a visitor is charmed by the artist, or loves the story and is taken by the work, they’ll likely buy it. Buyers can take that story to the dinner table or to friends and say they met the artist. It adds so much value to the work of art."
“I am proud to partner with Stephanie and bring this new art fair to New York City and support emerging and established artists of quality in such an intimate venue as The National Arts Club in Gramercy Park,” she says. Notable members of The National Arts Club include Martin Scorsese and Uma Thurman and works by famous artists such as Dali and Jeff Koons have been exhibited at the club.
Since the start of her project, Manasseh says she’s been fortunate enough to share her story in a TED Talk, and has been invited to speak on a panel at the New York Times’ “Art for Tomorrow” conference alongside a handful of technology, architecture, and art world icons such as Jeff Koons. These engagements, alongside the sponsorships, have helped grow the fair and reach more and more interested artists and attendees from around the world. About 100 more applications than usual were submitted for the Brussels event, and 300 applications were received for the New York event - a surprising number, says Manasseh, for its first year.
“Now, people understand that the fair is about making the artist accessible to the public. It really is about meeting the person behind the work,” says Manasseh. “If a visitor is charmed by the artist, or loves the story and is taken by the work, they’ll likely buy it. It’s rarely a hard sell. And buyers can take that story to the dinner table or to friends and say they met the artist. It adds so much value to the work of art.”
That artist-to-buyer interaction has continued to attract visitors, even a number of galleries, many of which once saw the fair as competition.
“I’ve experienced almost every type of reaction, from extremely positive to extremely negative, about the fair. At the beginning, for example, galleries never attended because they didn’t see how this type of disruptive model could work. But now they’ve learned that we’re here to help them, not compete with them. We have vetted a selection of artists ready for them to discover, and they got the message.”
Beyond New York & Brussels
Since the Accessible Art Fair's inception, a handful of featured artists have been discovered by galleries or have left their jobs to pursue art full time. “That takes a lot of courage, and but a few have done that and they’re doing really well,” says Manasseh. “They learn how to market their work at the Accessible Art Fair, figuring out what people like by getting direct feedback.”
While she knows that the Brussels event will only get better each year, Manasseh also expects the New York fair to grow exponentially. Beyond these two cities, the fair’s driven founder recognizes that part of the future of art is online and she hopes to delve into online sales. She’s also eyeing another city: London.
“I’d love to have a great product in all three cities. London has always been a huge dream of mine,” she says. “But I’m happy with the success we’re seeing now, and this year we have an exceptional group of people on the jury committee. With more experience, we’ll get an even higher profile of people and larger group of collectors who’ll want to be a part of the whole experience.”
About Stephanie Manasseh
Manasseh was born in Montreal, Canada. After obtaining her degree from McGill University, she set off to Europe in search of adventure and inspiration. She finally settled in Brussels, Belgium in 2004. During her early days in Belgium she frequently visited galleries and art fairs and noticed that there was a gap in the market that needed filling. She decided to set up the Accessible Art Fair to offer a high end platform for these artists to exhibit their art and sell their work to a receptive audience. Ten years later, the Accessible Art Fair is part of the Brussels cultural agenda and she is thrilled to be launching the concept in New York with her partner, MvVO Art in November 2016.