Art Car Boot Fair’s Karen Ashton on going viral

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Art Car Boot Fair’s Karen Ashton on going viral

As James Joyce and other artists prepare for the latest Art Car Boot Fair – in its first digital incarnation as the Viral Art Car Boot Fair due to the ongoing Covid situation – we talked to founder and director Karen Ashton about the fair, its history and how the move online has gone.

Art Car Boot Fair first appeared in 2004 in London, with about 30 artists taking part, including Bob and Roberta Smith and Gavin Turk. Today, ACBF happens twice a year with a line-up of over 150 artists, all of them appearing in person offering art exclusive to the event at one-off reduced prices. The artists involved range from long-established fine artists to up-and-coming street artists and the day aims to be a fun event, where you can meet artists and go home with a real piece of art for a bargain price.

Karen has always been an art enthusiast, with a background as an independent art consultant and writer. We caught up with her as she prepared for the Viral Art Car Boot Fair on 4 October.

Where did your interest in art come from?

I always had a fairly varied cultural interest and would take in all the main exhibitions and galleries – I had a particular fascination for photographers like Josef Sudek, Duane Michals, André Kertész and Diane Arbus. I got much more engaged in the contemporary art scene when my younger sister went to art school and I started to visit independent galleries and artist-run spaces. That’s when I really became enchanted. Eventually, I left my job in PR to take a Fine Art MA and after that I started working with art and artists, curating and producing exhibitions and events.

Is ACBF director your full-time role these days?

I’d say it’s a three-quarters-time role, although putting this Viral Art Car Boot Fair together has turned out to be full-on and all-hours, plus we have a lot of new plans so it’s becoming more like a full-time role.

What inspired the first ACBF?

The content of the idea was inspired in part by Joshua Compston’s Fete Worse than Death in 1993 – a magical day with all the YBA-era artists doing bizarre things and acting like market traders in Hoxton. It was a decade later when the real catalyst happened, when my sister Helen Hayward introduced me to a PR person who was looking for cultural ideas for her client Vauxhall. I was producing the first Brighton Photo Biennial at the time and suddenly had the idea of a London to Brighton Art Car Rally and Car Boot Sale. It was small – I think just six cars with ContraVision images on all their windows – and it featured Martin Parr, Jake & Dinos Chapman and Jeremy Deller. It was such fun and so we decided to run the Art Car Boot Fair as a standalone event in London in 2004, just off Brick Lane.

Did you expect it to develop into what it’s become since?

Good question and no, not really. It started as a complete sideline, a fun thing to do once a year to re-inject some fun into a London art scene that had become increasingly commercial. We had a regular annual sponsorship from 2004 to 2017 and it’s only really since that ended that we’ve taken it more seriously and realised that artists and the public alike really need events like the Art Car Boot Fair. We have a relationship built on trust with the artists that we feature and participation is by invitation or direct referral from artists. So we see it, in part, as a curatorial exercise. It’s evolved into what it is very naturally and this on-line edition is a response to the times we are living through – we would prefer to run live events, however, it’s a beautiful site that we think reflects what we try to do pretty well. In the future, we will run a digital counterpart alongside our live events.

Have you bought anything yourself?

Yes – I have bought a lot and have been given a lot of artworks – more than I have wall space for, so a lot of work is propped up around the place! I regularly buy art to give as presents. 

Do you have any favourites among James Joyce’s works, or indeed by other artists?

I love James’s fallen clown face, it’s become a contemporary classic. In terms of other talent, there is so much that I love so I’ll just mention some highlights coming up on October 4: these are Mat Collishaw’s ‘Purple Emperor’ – it’s a stunning image of a butterfly on fire. I love Geraldine Swayne’s intense paintings, often small-scale and made with enamel on metal, Julia Maddison’s melancholic messages hand sewn on to vintage tea towels, Camille Phoenix’s beautifully simple, characterful drawings, Nick Grindrod’s very aesthetically pleasing paintings, Hi-Noon’s Tish Murtha edition, Rankin’s startling portrait of Bowie, and Amelia Troubridge’s extraordinary photo archive. 

How big a challenge has the switch to digital been?

Huge. I often used to joke that I’m not keen on going to regular car boot sales, they confuse my brain! The other thing that confuses me quite a lot is technology – so here I am doing a combination of two things that almost give me panic attacks! Also, we had a huge tech meltdown the night before we were due to hold our inaugural Viral Art Car Boot Fair and were forced to postpone till 4th October. Luckily, we haven’t lost any artists or audience and in fact will have more of both next Sunday, however I will be fairly anxious till we deliver.

Is the digital event also a springboard to ACBF going global? Is this an accidental side-effect or had you always intended to do this eventually?

We have often thought about holding our live events in other countries and this has definitely been discussed and planned. The digital event will allow us to build awareness and audiences further afield and it’s a great calling card for holding live events in the future. Though we’d like to do that in a thoroughly responsible manner, by hooking up with local partners and artists and not involving too much air travel! 

Will Viral Art Car Boot Fair still have the same spirit as the offline version?

Yes – absolutely yes!

Will artists be offering works influenced by or reflecting the Covid crisis and lockdown?

The artwork and wares have all been produced exclusively for the 2020 Viral Art Car Boot Fair and so, yes, many reflect the way that artists have risen to the creative challenges posed by this year’s pandemic and finding extraordinary inspiration in the new normal. Pam Hogg’s new series of film posters reference the amount of films she has been watching in lockdown; Jessie Voorsanger’s drawings similarly take shape as TV characters. Susie Hamilton has produced an extraordinary series of paintings titled MASK, depicting masked NHS workers, and Marcus Harvey’s ceramic sculptures, including darkened, blackened Union Jacks, reflect the times we are living in with perhaps a brutish humour.

What does the future hold for ACBF?

In the short term, our Viral Art Car Boot Fair next Sunday, and a Food & Drink Christmas special online on Sunday 29th November, where all the work will have a connection to food and drink including artists like Christian Furr who has a wonderful series of oil-painted still lives featuring cheese! Then we plan another themed event online in the Spring, and we’re also developing our Art Cycle Basket Fair idea and our all-new dusky Electric Art Car Boot Fair for 2021 and beyond. We have just started a membership scheme too. It’s a great deal – only £12 for the first year and free access to all our digital events plus special discounts to live events. We will be developing partnership offers for members and have all sorts of exciting ideas for that. Overall, it’s a great chance to consolidate and reward our incredibly loyal and passionate followers and artists alike.

Viral Art Car Boot Fair takes place on 4 October 2020, starting at 12pm for Members and 2.30pm for general entry (free after 5.30pm).

Artwork: James Joyce, Geraldine Swayne, Amelia Troubridge, Camille Phoenix, Mat Collishaw, Hi-Hoon/Tish Murtha and Rankin.