The 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair took place at Somerset House, London, from 8-10 October, and saw over 2,000 visitors attend across the three day period.
As London’s Working Art Centre, Somerset House hosts and produces a range of exhibitions throughout the year. This October, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair (1-54) sat within the parameters of the government guidance at the time and all restrictions were adhered to. Taking Covid-19 restrictions into account, the event was modified from previous years, with some of the modifications contributing positively to the event and likely to be implemented next year. Earlier this year the venue qualified as ‘Good to Go’ by Visit England regarding event safety.
The fair represents a diverse group of emerging and established contemporary African artists and their diaspora from the 54 countries comprising the African continent. This was the eighth edition of the fair at Somerset House, usually 35 galleries would exhibit at the venue, however with a reduced floor plan, a new blended on-line and offline model was created. All galleries were shown online with 25 galleries exhibiting at the venue. The 1-54 Forum, which consisted of a variety of talks, asking questions about the importance of bringing people together and discussing shared histories and experiences, was recorded and can be viewed online.
Alongside 1-54, Somerset House also opened the exhibition Leila Alaoui: Rite of Passage (free entry until 28 February 2021), as part of its Charles Russell Speechlys Terrace Room Series. The show is the first major UK retrospective of works from the French Moroccan photographer, video artist and activist Leila Alaoui.
The exhibition was permitted within the government guidelines at the time, the venue having achieved the ‘Good to go’ accreditation ensuring events would be Covid-19 secure.
Deputy head of commercial events at Somerset House, Kara Clark said: “It shows how events, conferences, business and consumer exhibitions can be successfully and safely carried out within the confines of the Covid-19 measures, some of which proved positive for business. Furthermore, it shows that as a sell-out event, people are missing face to face interaction. Meeting in person quickly builds rapport, and a key component of securing business. Blended events are the future, but live events remain important and vital for both the arts and business.”
The Portico and Navy Board rooms were removed from the event set up this year, with all galleries having the opportunity to exhibit virtually if not physically. The floor plan was further simplified with a one-way system creating flow through the East and West wings of the venue. Newly created time allocated tickets sold-out prior to the event, giving the venue team valuable knowledge as to staffing level requirements to ensure the event was always Covid-19 secure. Additional marshals were brought in to ensure visitors remained distanced and were wearing their masks at all times. All visitors were asked to scan the NHS Track and Trace QR code and encouraged to make use of the sanitising stations on arrival, and throughout the fair. Touchpoints were reduced and those necessary were cleaned every hour.
VIPs were invited to attend two days prior to the public opening with the Somerset House team managing the booking system and digital tickets increasing the event’s sustainability. After sanitising and scanning the track and trace app, visitors were shown the digital guide and invited to follow the u-shaped route through both wings. Ticketed time slots meant that visitors had two hours to explore and enjoy the exhibition, and time to safely interact with galleries. This in turn created a more enjoyable experience for the gallery owners, allowing more time with buyers and rest in-between. Therefore, their focus and energy throughout was optimised, with some galleries selling out over the course of the exhibition and others commenting that post event sales promised to be positive as well.
Founder of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, Touria El Glaoui, said: “Whilst the fair’s feasibility was touch and go at times, thanks to the Somerset House team joining forces with us and their unwavering commitment in assisting us made it a reality. And what a delightful reality it turned out to be.
“The operation managers were responsive and proactive during the fair and were instrumental in resolving any issues swiftly. The combined efforts ensured the fair remained a great event and did not go unnoticed. Numerous attendees shared positive observations about how safe they felt while visiting the fair and how enjoyable the experience was despite the safety measures they had to follow.
“We ultimately measure our success on the feedback of our clients: the galleries. Their impressions of how well the fair was organised and their sales performance are crucial in determining their willingness to work with us in the future. We are happy to note that the great majority of the galleries present were extremely happy with how the fair’s organisation was handled and that it impacted positively on their success. Several galleries confirmed sold-out booths, attributing their success to the timed slot bookings, which meant that they could spend more time with interested visitors and potential buyers as the flow of visitors was steady and not overwhelming.”
Photo provided by Rocio Chacon.