In a climate that is uncertain, to say the least, BRAFA has signed off on a successful 66th edition. Though there was no miracle formula for the Brussels fair, it came with a generous helping of professionalism and pragmatism.
Brafa in the Galleries, Brun Fine Art.
Given the current string of cancelations, postponements and unconvincing proposals, do fairs still have a reason to exist? Because of the health crisis they have been trying to cling on to life for almost a year now, especially through online events. In this situation, dubbed anxiety-provoking by many, the BRAFA has nonetheless achieved a 66th edition described with distinct pleasure as refreshing and optimistic. The famous fine arts fair is often seen as a mini version of the TEFAF, but here it superseded its rival, whose viewing rooms were hardly a resounding success at the end of last year. Coming from Marseilles, Amsterdam, Ostend Paris, New York, Nagoya and of course Brussels, where the fair usually takes place, the 129 participating galleries welcomed art lovers for five days, with the support of in-house signage. "Grouping galleries together under the aegis of 'BRAFA', a name synonymous with quality, helped to attract and reassure visitors, and resulted in a far higher attendance than usual," said Georges Van Cauwenbergh of Artimo Fine Arts (Brussels). "Since March 2020, we have been receiving an average of five to ten people maximum per day in our gallery. During this event, the daily average was 60."
A digital platform and the public in the galleries
All the exhibitors we talked to enthusiastically praised the communication work, the quality of the platform, and in particular the virtual tours of the galleries. Carlo Milano of Callisto Fine Arts, London firmly pronounced "BRAFA in Galleries" as the best digital fair he has participated in. "The organizing committee was very imaginative in offering a tool to give us international visibility at no cost," said Alexis Bordes. "This highly original initiative really boosted our morale, which has been sorely tested lately. Freed from financial constraints through the tremendous generosity of the organizers, we experienced the last three months as a new adventure with a lot of fun aspects," said Philippe Bismuth and Vincent Amiaux of the Galerie des Modernes. We should point out that this edition was financially neutral for the participants thanks to a partnership with Delen Private Bank: a weighty argument in these times. For many, the initiative was also an opportunity to revive links with the public by proposing a specific project. "We welcomed a hundred-odd people on Saturday," said Vincent Matthu, who collaborated with the Gokelaere & Robinson gallery, presenting a selection of works from the 1960s and 1970s, including not only furniture but also drawings by Lee Ufan.
While not all exhibitors received such a stream of visitors, the site's traffic made a big difference, as with the AB-BA gallery, which sold two sculptures by Étienne Viard to a new collector. Charles-Wesley Hourdé decided to show recently acquired pieces of ethnic art at reasonable prices. "I felt this was not necessarily the best moment to unveil major pieces," said the Paris dealer, who admitted to some fine sales at the opening of the event (between €10,000 and €20,000). He continued: "While weekdays are pretty quiet in the gallery, Saturdays have become very busy again because other art-related activities like museums are non-existent." Collectors and art lovers feel a very real need to reconnect with a cultural offer. "In these difficult times, the art market is still a top sphere for investment and the best place to put your money," said Charles Bailly, delighted to have sold a painting by Sam Francis and to have attracted three new buyers.
However, though BRAFA's 2021 edition was undoubtedly a success, all the players are longing to return to the status quo. "This was an amazing initiative, but it was a response to a specific economic context and there are no plans to do it again, if only for budgetary reasons. It's not the BRAFA's job to sponsor its participants," said Philippe Bismuth and Vincent Amiaux. In any event, driven by its national market, the welcoming, friendly Belgian event is managing to survive, with a strong digital experience that could open it up a little more to international markets.