Thom Hetherington - Founder and CEO of Manchester Art Fair

Thom Hetherington

Thom Hetherington - Credit: Archant

In 2007 Thom Hetherington was told he’d never be successful in establishing a consumer art fair in the North, a challenge he accepted

Art from new and emerging artists

Art from new and emerging artists - Credit: ©Sara Porter

Thom Hetherington and his partner Sophie had taken an interest in art having inherited a small amount of money and decided 'they better do something grown up 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 sown.

'There were probably about three commercial galleries where you could buy art in the city centre at that time, and they were all quite old school,' says Thom. 'They were frequently shut and sold a very specific sort of work, and I just found it incredible that it was so hard to buy art in Manchester.

'I spoke to friends of mine in the art world, who were all London based, and they said, memorably, there are no galleries in Manchester because no one buys art. I said I absolutely refused to believe that. I said no one buys art because there are no galleries. It's about access, it's about habit, it's about people feeling comfortable, confident and familiar with the idea of buying art. In my eyes there was no way that an art fair could not work in Manchester; so, we decided to launch one.'

Be inspired at the Manchester Art Fair (c) Sara Porter

Be inspired at the Manchester Art Fair (c) Sara Porter - Credit: © Sara Porter

Experienced in staging exhibitions, having hosted everything from fashion to media events alongside Northern Restaurant & Bar, the largest hospitality exhibition outside of London, Thom admits he was naïve in thinking it would be easy.

'We didn't know what we didn't know. If I had, I would probably have never done it. But we went in blindly and optimistically. The art world is based around credibility, advocacy, context and positioning. Everyone wanted to know who we were, what we'd done before, what other artists or galleries were going to be involved, and we really misjudged how difficult that would be.'

Most Read

Nevertheless, Thom and his team pulled it off and the first Manchester Art Fair, or Buy Art Fair as it was then known, launched at Urbis in 2008.

'The first couple of years were difficult,' Thom says, 'but there were some great wins.' The team secured a selection of exclusive Damien Hirst doodles for a charity auction in the first year and the support of legendary artist and avid art collector, Shaun Ryder. 'But Buy Art Fair launched in the middle of the recession and lacked the credibility that artists, galleries and collectors passionately sought,' Thom adds.

Discover something new
Photo: Sara Porter

Discover something new Photo: Sara Porter - Credit: © Sara Porter

For all the challenges, the event grew year on year, hosting live works from artists such as Pure Evil and delivering record arts sales including works by Tracey Emin, Dan Hillier, Peter Blake and Grayson Perry.

It was five years in, Thom recalls, when the event took a real shift in direction. Impressed by the team's passion and commitment to building the city's art market, Manchester Art Fair earned 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. 'It was then we knew we had arrived,' says Thom. And arrived they had.

Over the last 12 years Manchester Art Fair has established itself as one of the UK's most ambitious art fairs, attracting 120 carefully curated exhibitors annually. It has developed into two distinctive events. The first, Manchester Art Fair, providing a platform for commercial galleries and individual artists, and the second, The Manchester Contemporary, a platform for emerging galleries and artist-led spaces.

It has attracted over 68,000 visitors and sold over £4.5m worth of art. It has enabled artists based in the North to build an audience of buyers, collectors and patrons, who share a real connection to the city of Manchester, and in turn it has helped to generate a market that has also helped other 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 Leon Martyn, Artzu, Saul Hay Gallery and Contemporary Six, as well as artist studios Paradise Works, all exhibiting at this year's fair

Committed to supporting artists of all levels, the event has also provides a platform for students of Manchester School of Art and Salford Art School to showcase their work in a professional setting.

It's the introduction of The Manchester Contemporary Art Fund, however, of which Thom is most proud. Launched in 2017, the fund - created by a set of local businesspeople passionate about their city and its cultural heritage - seeks to support rising artists, providing them with a platform through which to achieve critical acclaim and greater popularity. It is now the largest philanthropic art fund in the North and has acquired incredible pieces of art by talented emerging artists for Manchester Art Gallery and the people of Manchester.

I close with one last question: what would he say to those early doubters now, those that said no one bought art in the North?

'I told you so,' he replies, 'just I told you so.'