We caught up with Will Ramsay owner of Ramsay Fairs which includes the brands’ Affordable Art Fair, Volta, Pulse, Art Central, Taipei Dangdai and the recently purchased British Art Fair.
All started from a warehouse in Parsons Green in the mid-’90s which coincidently was where FAD magazine also started in the late 90s.
Mark Westall: How did it all start?
Will Ramsay: The real genesis was a really cool art teacher at school who said that my really intricate little still life drawings were really, really, good, when I was aged 14. I thought, “Really?” I kept drawing all of these– Anyway, it led to me doing art and art history for A-Level. I didn’t do it at the degree level, because my dad was very military. He said, “You can’t do art. That’s not a proper degree.” In those days, art history, you either needed to be bright enough to get into Cambridge, prepare to do four years at Edinburgh or be at Norwich. There just weren’t many courses around.
What did you do?
I did geography at Newcastle, but also art history with the fine art students, and kept my interest up. Then I am the eldest son, four generations of military. There was an expectation, so I did that for five years in the army after university. When I was doing that, I’d go around lots of commercial galleries. I think because I hadn’t studied it at degree level, I was really hungry to learn more. They weren’t looking after me, they weren’t catering for me, I was being ignored when I walked in. I thought this is the most backward retailing sector from a perspective of welcoming.
When was this?
This was in ’96. ’94, ’95-ish, that sort of time. I thought, “You’d never go into a clothes shop and be ignored, and there’d be silence.” I just thought the art world wasn’t commercial, was only really, with exceptions, but on the whole, it was geared towards people who knew about art, and it was about being exclusive. I thought, “What about making it inclusive, and taking a different approach.” I made the analogy of the wine world, they have their exclusive wine merchants, they cater for a certain audience, the top of the pyramid, let’s say. Then I thought, “They’ve expanded hugely through to a mass market by Oddbins, Majestic Wine and the supermarkets, labels on the backs, buy six, get one free, light and fruity, good with fish.”
That’s why Will’s Art Warehouse was a riff off Majestic Wine Warehouse. That’s how I started. I got a warehouse in Parsons Green. We had room to show, 10, 15 artists, we opened in ’96. We were tucked in behind the garage. Across the road from the White Horse, there was a garage there was a little avenue. We were down there.
How long were you there?
We were there for a decade, I remember it got very cold in this old motorbike garage. Then they developed it and that forced me to move, and I moved to where we are. Going back a step, I thought, “Right, I’ve got to try expanding from this one.” I had three galleries. I took two other short-term rentals, one in Notting Hill and one in Windsor, they were developing Windsor Station. Stock control was really difficult, hats off to any gallery that succeeds with more than one gallery building. I know how hard it is. Then Will’s Art Warehouse got rejected from the only contemporary fair in London at the time, which was the one in Islington.
London Art Fair? London Art Fair turned you down?
They sent the wrong images back. Really, it was the era of 5 by 4 transparencies. They sent this fantastic image back from a gallery in Dublin. I thought, “If they’re rejecting that quality and they’re not organized enough to send the right images back there’s an opportunity here, it was a light bulb moment.”
So the rejection from London Art Fair was the catalyst for the whole Affordable Art Fair Story?
Yes, I thought, “Okay, there’s going to be a demand from galleries, because they’re rejecting all these galleries.” Then a friend of mine said, “Ah, I really enjoyed it.” He was working for a banker in the city, in his late 20s, probably earning plenty of money. He said, “I really enjoyed that fair, but I couldn’t afford anything.” Of course, he could, but nothing was priced, and probably, the one or two bits that had blown him away were the big £20,000 pieces or something. So, he’d gone away disappointed. I thought, “That’s why we’re going to have everything priced,” rule of exhibiting at the Affordable Art Fair. We’re going to focus on price.
Is that how you get the name? Was it just–
It just came to me. One night, I thought, “Yes, Affordable Art Fair.” It says on the tin exactly what it is.
Yes, that’s a good name.
Yes. That was the beginning. We had the first AAF in ’99 in London. £1 million worth of art was bought by 8,000 visitors, and we grew from there.
Now, you are in a few other cities. You have one in Miami?
Yes, there are now 13 Affordable Art Fairs on four continents. We just had one in Sydney last week, that was gangbusters.
On the other extreme, I and two others started a fair in Hong Kong, called Art Hong Kong. That went really well, and still very much where my input was– Okay, we’ve got a novicey Hong Kong audience. Education was what we would do. Even at that Art Basel level, we were pushing education, which is just so important. That was that. We sold Art Hong Kong to Art Basel. But we still run Art Central, Hong Kong, the three of us. We do Taipei Dangdai as well. Then, yes, you mentioned Miami. I started PULSE Miami in 2005, we did that in New York as well. Then in 2019, I bought VOLTA, so we merged the two. We just had VOLTA Basel and VOLTA New York the month before.
So there are 13 Affordable Art Fairs, two VOLTAs, the other two that I don’t run but my partner’s team run, Taipei Dangdai, Art Central and we have just recently bought the British Art Fair.
Yes, It’s such fun, I’m running it with Gay, who’s the original founder, Gay Hutson. The other founder sadly died. She’s fab, and it’s really fun and well known for being the best modern British fair. I want to raise the contemporary up as well. We’re going to have some interesting…
Where will it be based?
Saatchi Gallery, from 29th September to the 2nd of October. The perfect venue for it. I get really excited thinking about it.
Affordable– Was Battersea the first one?
That’s still pretty successful?
Yes. We do two Batterseas and Hamstead. Hamstead is in May and Battersea in March and October. They work well. It’s been really interesting learning the different buying patterns globally, what people look for in art in America as opposed to Europe, Asia. Also, the marketing messages that work and don’t work in each territory.
Do you share the logistics and stuff, is that where you have a USP, sharing that knowledge/ data?
I think there are two or three strengths that have helped us grow as we have. One is logistics, I have a phrase that I say to my team, “Okay. You got to learn the seven Ps.” The seven Ps are what I learned in the Army. It stands for Prior Preparation and Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. In the events business, you’ve got to get everything prepared.
Ah. What do you think of Boris then?
Oh, chaos. Chaos.
He doesn’t use the seven Ps, does he?
No, he doesn’t. The seven Ps, for the events business, you got to have everything really well organized. You have to have everything ready so you achieve smiley exhibitors who have an unstressed move-in. That comes from us making sure that all the extra bulbs and lights etc they want are there, ready for their setup, and we’re smiling at them because we’re relaxed and organized, and it’s…
At the top end of the art market, they try and make it feel like it’s not about selling. It’s a different kind of selling. It’s a more subtle selling, isn’t it?
We have four different groups, basically, who come along. We have the collectors, they want to come along and see that we have a recent graduates exhibition and some young funky/fun galleries like Jealous and others who exhibit with us, they come along to see some fresh stuff that they’re interested in. Secondly, there are art buyers who want to decorate their house, they’ve bought art before. They’re probably going to stop buying when their walls are filled. They’re not as passionate as the collectors. They keep buying until the walls are filled. Then the third group are the first-time buyers, who we hopefully encourage to feel AAF is the place to come and buy their first bit of art. Finally, we have the fourth group the future buyers, who we want to educate and help feel more confident about art and buying art and hopefully when they are ready to buy, they buy with us. In addition to the fairs, we’ve now got an online marketplace.
Did that pick up during lockdown?
Yes, it did. Sales trebled, which was fantastic. From a low base, so, it didn’t…
Do you do that with the people who exhibit with you?
Yes it’s for our existing exhibitors, we have 25,000 artworks, and it takes what is only a– We’re only open if you add up four days, then it’s fair times 13. It’s just nothing but potential. That’s really exciting. People are away, or someone lives in Glasgow and can’t get down for the weekend, or whatever. It just opens up the market and provides more selling opportunities for artists and galleries. That gives me huge joy and pleasure.
I suppose most of your fairs are quite local. The people going to them are local, as opposed to somewhere like Frieze?
Yes, that’s true. On the whole, the maximum travel time is about an hour, hour and a half that people are prepared to come, and that’s cool. Some people come from Scotland to London, to make a weekend of it, which is great, but that’s a small percentage. The majority, as you say, no one really flies in for the fair. That’s fine, it’s a different beast, It’s a different part of the art market, where we complement, what they do and develop our audience.
So from an ecological point of view, the environment point of view …
We’re definitely green and good on carbon compared to some others. For international galleries, we try and arrange a consolidated shipment. There’s– one container of British galleries that will go to New York for example.
That’s great because that cuts down the cost as well.
Do you have galleries that do more than one fair?
Yes, we have some. We call them family galleries, who come and follow us around and trust us, and will come and take a plunge into a new country for the first edition, which is just brilliant. There are some who do take say, 10 of our fairs a year. The vast majority will just do the ones in their country.
How many family galleries do you have?
There are about 60 of them. We have about 600/800 a year that exhibit with us, something like that. We have more visitors than I think, any other art fair. We have more exhibitors than any other art fair. We have more art worth sold than any other fair company, let’s say, art fair company. We don’t aspire to have the most value of art sold but it’s been great. The people who work in parts of the art world that I’ve been involved in, they’ve all made a conscious decision, “I don’t want to be working with aggressive bankers or whatever.” There are all these lovely people working in the art world, who’ve made that decision.
Frieze has been bought by Endeavor, and Art Basel took in significant investment from James Murdoch, are you looking to sell?
I’ve got four daughters. One’s just graduated in fashion design at Leeds, the other’s doing art history, business studies and communication at Newcastle. The other two are still at school prepping for the arts. I’d love it if one of them wants to become involved. Actually, the call I was just on, our second daughter was in the background, she’s working for us part-time at the moment. The elder one, they’ve both been fair assistants we always have at each fair onsite. I heard them on the radio at the Basel Fair last October, they were both fulfilling the seven Ps and using their initiative. I thought, “Yes.”
We’ll see what happens. I don’t want to force them. I don’t think anyone wants to force their child down a route, but it’s there, and if they want to, I’d be delighted.
Are all your exhibitors at AAF art galleries?
We have about 80% roughly art galleries and 20% are artists groups. Then we have young artist shows that we curate as well. It’s a bit of a mix, but I think there are some artists who are happy promoting themselves, but equally, there are many who just find it really, would prefer a gallerist to do it, and that their time is best used making art
How does it work when you’re a young artist?
We have a curator who will go around to the graduate shows and pick some people out, and hopefully, give them a bit of a leg up.
For British Art Fair, we’re going to do an under 35-year-old artist show. This year, we are partnering with the Royal Scottish Academy. They’ve got some really interesting video artists. I chatted to Collin Cleanslate, he’s the Director there, who I’ve known for years. He said, “Yes, this is the period, from graduation to 35, we can give them a bit of a leg up.” Fantastic! We’re doing that with them. We’re going to have a solo booth presentation as well, by our younger galleries at British Art Fair. I want it to be a little bit like– Do you remember Zoo Art Fair?
That is what is missing from what is on offer in Britain at the moment.
Do you tell any of your exhibitors, Is there a rule at AAF? If an exhibitor wanted to exhibit something that was really expensive, perhaps?
Yes, we have a ceiling, it varies from city to city. It’s £7,500 in the UK, to $10,000 in New York, and equivalent in Europe and elsewhere. The other rule is, that the artist has got to be alive. I thought they need the money, let’s support them, we’ve sold over 500,000 artworks.
I don’t suppose you have any problems getting people wanting to be in your fair, do you, now
Sometimes, we do. The whole COVID thing, gallery cash flow has been hit. We’ve come out of it fine, and galleries on the whole have been able to cut their costs. I haven’t heard very– In fact, I can’t name a gallery that’s gone bust because of COVID.
Maybe they do online sales or something?
Yes, we help them. That’s going to grow. The millennials have a much higher propensity to buy art online.
Is that something you’ve been looking at, NFTs and all that kind of stuff?
Well, there’s been a lot of hype about NFTs. I think where they’re good is that they provide a little bit of extra confidence to a buyer that this is a certificate of authenticity. For digital artworks, yes, it would. I’ve bought digital artworks before NFTs, but to have a handwritten certificate, that’s fine for most people, but there will be others that get a bit more confidence to make them realize that digital art is a thing. I’m really keen to promote digital art. We’re going to have in October, we’re going to have a video lounge to promote video art.
Do you buy art?
Yes. I see a lot of art, it takes something special for me to think that’s unique enough that I want to buy it. I used to buy at every fair but as we’ve run over 250 fairs now, I had to stop that. I buy sculpture, video, and photography, those are three things I really like. Sometimes, painting
Did you inherit art? You say you got a house in Scotland, did you get art as well?
I wish. My great, great-uncle was Sir William Burrell of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. I’ve got one impressionist painting by Antoine Vollon a Paris snow scene which I love, I think it was bought by his sister, my great-grandmother because they used to go collecting together. That’s the closest I have to anything from the Burrell Collection.
The next edition of the British Art Fair opens on 29th Sept at Saatchi Gallery details: britishartfair.co.uk
The next Affordable Art Fair opens in August in details: affordableartfair.com/fairs/hong-kong/
Buy art online from AAF: affordableart.com Dates & Details of VOLTA in 2023 voltaartfairs.com
TAIPEI DANGDAI 2023 taipeidangdai.com ART CENTRAL Hong Kong 2023 artcentralhongkong.com