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Building an African Franchise

Ross Douglas started his career guiding and managing camps in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Fast-forward a couple of years and he is today the founder and one of the directors of Artlogic, a company that specializes in high-end boutique fairs including the FNB-sponsored Joburg Art Fair. With a turnover in excess of 1.7 million Euros, over 20, 000 visitors expected yearly, and 35 major galleries from 6 countries across Africa and Europe, the fair is easily the largest art event on the continent and represents the single largest collection of African and South African contemporary art for sale. In this chat with Omenka, Douglas reveals the keys to his success and the challenges he’s faced on this incredible journey.

Who is Ross Douglas and how did you get involved with art?

Ross Douglas is the founder and one of the directors of Artlogic a company that starts, owns and runs fairs including the FNB Joburg Art Fair. I became involved in art by initiating a project with William Kentridge, which involved his animated films and live music. It was performed around the world including Central Park, New York.

Can you tell us about this period?

It was a time when there was not much interest in contemporary art in South Africa. Companies sponsored sport and the art scene was very small and local. By partnering with Kentridge who was already internationally acclaimed, I was able to travel and work abroad and understand the potential of art events thereby giving me the confidence to start the art fair.

What is your role as director of ArtLogic?

I am responsible for growing our existing fairs and looking for new projects and opportunities particularly in Africa.

Your career started out with making documentaries for TV before switching to commercials and now you are director of one of the biggest contemporary art fairs in Africa. Can you please tell us about these different phases and what led to the changes in your career?

I suppose I have always been quite restless and like to be on the cutting edge. When documentaries became stale, I began looking for a new home but did not quite fit in the commercial world. I soon realized that companies have great budgets to promote their brands so when I started doing art events. I knew the world of corporate marketing speak, which helped a lot. The other skill I learnt from making documentaries was being creative and innovative to get a job done. When we started the art fair, we had no experience of producing a fair, so had to continually innovate, which was exciting.

Tell us about your role as fair director.

As the fair director, I work with a team of which the curator is the most important. The fair director has to make sure that the sponsor, galleries and public are happy. The only way to do this is to improve the fair each year and we are fortunate in that contemporary art from Africa is on a roll and the art fair benefits for that.

What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome to get Joburg Art Fair off the ground and what strategies have you adopted in sustaining it over the years?

The biggest obstacle in year one was doubt. Very few people believed that South Africa could produce a decent art fair and that interesting art could come out of Africa. Mark Read of Everard Read initiated the idea of the fair and I picked up on this momentum.

You are also the director of the Food Wine Design Fair and the Winter Sculpture Fair. How do you cope with your busy schedule and raising sponsorship for the three fairs?

I have an excellent business partner, small team and use lots of technology and outsourcing to third parties for things like building and logistics. Artlogic has built a strong reputation in the South African industry as the company capable of producing quality events that are not sports. We have also built up a very strong and loyal database of people who love our events, so that we do not need to market as much as we did in the early days.

What makes the Joburg Art Fair different from other art fairs and how does it establish its identity in relation to other African art fairs?

We have always been focused on contemporary art from Africa and will continue with that focus. I think we have a size and scale that other African art fairs don’t have and I imagine that we will now see many small art fairs springing up in Africa, which is good for all of us in the art world.

What were the highlights over the years including projects, and in your opinion were they successful?

A major success for Artlogic was producing Kentridge’s version of the Magic Flute which sold 11, 000 tickets, something unheard for opera in South Africa. However, the greatest success was the first year of the art fair and for this we are very grateful to First National Bank who backed us despite us having no track record.

What is your focus this year and how do you measure the fair’s overall success?

I measure the success of the fair on a number of things like, how long visitors spend at the event, how many new buyers who we don’t know attend, how well galleries sell and most importantly what the quality of the art work is like. Unlike many other fairs, I am not interested in the number of galleries and number of visitors as quality is what makes a fair sustainable.

The fair is entering its 6th year. How would you describe its growth, not just in terms of the number of galleries participating, but also its reputation outside the country?

Our timing has been good in that the world has “discovered” art from Africa and our fair is a good place to find it. I can now go to most places in the world and people would have heard of the FNB Joburg Art Fair, which really helps in attracting the right collectors.

How has the fair changed over the years? And what kind of new and exciting things might one expect to see in future?

Instead of growing by getting more galleries that don’t make the grade, we keep increasing the quality of special projects that allow solo shows of top artists from the continent.

How would you describe the South African art collector?

South Africa has a small but strong group of collectors. By this, I mean individuals with big budgets who are collecting beyond what they can fit in their houses. After this, we have a fairly big group of people who collect for the enjoyment of living with art in their homes and buy a piece or two every year at the fair.

What is the response of the South African government to art and how can other African countries engage art as a tool in creating lasting social and economic value?

The South African government has taken a big interest in art recently as seen by their presence with the SA pavilion at Venice. At the Venice Biennale this year, Africa was the talk of the town thanks to Angola winning best national pavilion. Also the number of African pavilions has increased and includes South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire and Angola. Europeans have been using art for centuries as a brand builder and more recently as a way to inform the other creative industries like fashion and film. Africa, possibly thanks to its diversity, young population and challenging circumstances produces great art. Governments can take advantage of this but it has to be in a supportive role and not a commissioning role – they need to leave that up to curators and experts.

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