Founders of Manchester Art Fair, Sophie Helm and Thom Hetherington, were told they couldn’t, but they went and did it anyway

It was 2008 when Sophie and her partner, Executive Chairman of Manchester Art Fair, Thom Hetherington, were told they’d never be successful in establishing a consumer art fair in the North.

The couple had taken an interest in art having inherited a small amount of money and decided “they better do something sensible with it and buy a proper piece of art”, something to remember Sophie’s late grandad by.

It was during their search for that ‘proper piece’ that the first seeds of Manchester Art Fair were sewn.

Great British Life: Sophie Helm and Thom HetheringtonSophie Helm and Thom Hetherington

“Back then Manchester only had three or so commercial galleries, so the range was quite limited,” Sophie says. “We took our time and eventually found a piece of art we loved by researching local artists and purchased a piece after visiting their studio directly.

“That’s when we realised that we could create an event that would make it so much easier to view and buy an artist’s work. We spoke with good friends in the art world about our idea, and they said, memorably, there are no galleries in Manchester because no one buys art. Thom refused to believe that and argued that no one bought art because there were no galleries. Drawing on our own experience he was firm in his belief that it’s about access, about habit, about people feeling comfortable, confident, and familiar with the idea of buying art. He was adamant that Manchester deserved an art fair and so, decided to launch one.”

In 2008, the first Manchester Art Fair, or Buy Art Fair as it was then known, launched at Urbis.

Thom and the team faced copious challenges in the beginning. Buy Art Fair launched in the middle of the recession and lacked the credibility that artists, galleries, and collectors passionately sought.

Great British Life: Discover art you love. Photo: Sara PorterDiscover art you love. Photo: Sara Porter

There were, however, for all the challenges, some fantastic wins in those early years too, with the team securing a selection of exclusive Damian Hirst doodles for a charity auction in the first year along with the support of legendary artist and avid art collector, Shaun Ryder, to follow.

Relentless in their drive, the team pushed forward, consistently growing the event year-on-year. It was a period of progressive change with their passion and commitment to building the city’s art market earning Manchester Art Fair the support of two of the art world’s most respected individuals: Maria Balshaw, then Director of The Whitworth and Manchester Art Gallery; and Frank Cohen, one of the top 200 art collectors in the world.

In 2017, Manchester Art Fair took residence at Manchester Central, the event’s ‘forever home’. It’s a venue that has afforded Manchester Art Fair the opportunity to grow, and grow it has, with the event pausing only in 2020 because of the pandemic.

Sophie admits she was apprehensive about how the event’s return would be received post-Covid. She needn’t have worried, however, with Manchester Art Fair 2021 enjoying record visitor numbers and art sales, figures the event would go on to significantly exceed in 2022.

Great British Life: Iris Blue, courtesy of Art by Natalie WilliamsonIris Blue, courtesy of Art by Natalie Williamson

Pausing to reflect on what it is that makes Manchester Art Fair one of the UK’s most anticipated cultural events, Sophie says: “I believe it's because we offer a complete art experience. I can’t think of any other event that offers the breadth of appeal that we do, with a uniquely diverse mix of acclaimed galleries and independent artists, and a rich programme of talks, workshops, and installations. It’s the only fair for the collector, the curator, and the simply curious.”

Sitting alongside Manchester Art Fair and adding to that breadth is The Manchester Contemporary, a collegiate fair for young galleries, artist-led spaces, charitable organisations, and partner institutions, providing a critically engaged environment for artistic exploration and development.

“Manchester Art Fair blurs the boundaries between the traditional and the contemporary, creating a friendly, unpretentious and uniquely Northern art-buying experience,” Sophie adds. “We’re inclusive and that’s incredibly important to us. We wanted to make art accessible and are committed to catering for all.”

Great British Life: Love it, buy it, take it homeLove it, buy it, take it home

That’s a challenge in any market, but perhaps none more so than the rapidly evolving art sector where tastes are diverse. “It is difficult”, Sophie admits. “When we first launched Manchester Art Fair we had to work hard to secure exhibitors. Now we have an extensive waiting list of artists and galleries from which curating the perfect selection can be a real challenge; there is so much that we would love to show.”

And it is quite a list. This year’s event will see a broad range of up and coming, established, and world-renowned artists and galleries exhibiting, including Rogue Women, Air Contemporary and Laura Pedley.

With so many incredible works available you might ask where to start if looking to make your first art purchase. Smiling, Sophie insists it is simple. “Follow your heart”, she says. “Don’t overthink it. Go with the piece that speaks to you and that you know will make you happy every time you walk past it. If you do that, you’re never going to lose out.”

For those looking to make an investment purchase Sophie encourages visitors to do their research. The event’s website and sibling online business, a platform created to support artists and promote year-round sales, are a great resource. She also recommends allowing time to speak with the artists and gallerists at the event, who, she says, “love nothing more than to engage in conversation.”

Great British Life: Still Life, Jane PineStill Life, Jane Pine

With just weeks until the return of Manchester Art Fair on November 17th, Sophie reflects on the event’s journey, trying to capture the key highlights. “There really are too many. Over the last 15 years we’ve been proud to attract over 90,000 visitors and sell almost £6m worth of art. We’ve enabled artists based in the North and beyond to build an audience of buyers, collectors and patrons, who share a real connection to the city of Manchester, and in turn have helped commercial galleries to flourish within the city.

“Since the conception of Manchester Art Fair there have been a number of new openings in Greater Manchester, including Smolensky Gallery and Saul Hay Gallery, as well as artist studios Paradise Works, all of which are exhibiting at this year’s fair.

“We’re also incredibly proud of The Manchester Contemporary Art Fund, a fund we, along with a group of local business-people, launched in 2017 to support rising artists. It is now the largest philanthropic art fund in the North and has acquired 18 incredible pieces of art worth almost £35,000 for Manchester Art Gallery and the people of Greater Manchester.”

With such significant success under their belts, it would be understandable if Sophie and Thom had the desire to tell those early doubters ‘I told you so’. Instead, Sophie simply says: “We look forward to seeing you there.”

Manchester Art Fair returns to Manchester Central this November with modern and contemporary paintings, sculpture, photography and editioned prints all available to buy under the one roof. The fair opens with a VIP preview evening at Manchester Central on Friday 17th November from 5-9pm, followed by public days on Saturday 18th (10am-6pm) and Sunday 19th (10am – 4pm). Tickets are available now.