Following weeks of well-publicised talks between David Lester of IFAE (International Fine Art Expositions) and Simon Kimble, chief executive of Clarion Events, owners of the two Olympia fairs, it was announced on July 14 that the two companies would own Clarion’s flagship fixture in a joint venture.
In the official statement Mr Kimble said: “We are pleased to join with the Lesters to create the type of international fine art event that London deserves and build on the international strategy we started three years ago.”
Clarion were keen to emphasise that this “is a positive evolution for the 37-year-old fair”.
The release stated that the Lesters will serve as directors for the Olympia June event with the existing Clarion team providing support to the partnership.
However, when ATG spoke to David Lester at his Naples, Florida headquarters following the announcement, he was much more specific and forceful about his and his wife’s role.
“This is a 50/50 venture with Clarion Events,” he said. “We are executive managers of the fair, in charge of the organisation and everything. We own half the fair and we manage it. Clarion, though, provide support.”
With regard to the ownership, under the terms of the deal the financial aspects have not been made public, with Mr Lester saying: “We are not allowed to discuss the money side.”
While retaining their Florida base, the Lesters are known as hands-on organisers and intend to make frequent trips to London where they will maintain an office.
The trade is familiar with the Lester style from his successful Florida fairs, and his ability to galvanise and inspire exhibitors, as well as implement marketing strategies, is not in question.
He has made no secret of his desire to put together an upmarket, truly international fair in London and it became clear that summer Olympia was his target.
But despite all Clarion’s recent efforts, Olympia is not just an upmarket fair, it has and must maintain a strong core of middle-range dealers to fill the hall and make the event profitable.
While David Lester already has strong support from the coterie of top international dealers at Olympia, he must also appeal to the mass of other traders.
In a less grandiose tone than in the past, last week David Lester told ATG he fully realised what he was taking on.
“The whole fair is not going to be that grand, we can’t change it overnight. My goal is a three-year strategy with Clarion, and I will work with all the Olympia dealers to enhance the event,” he said.
Last Tuesday Mr Lester wrote to all the Olympia exhibitors and on Friday he was was in London where he held an exhibitors meeting in a St James’s gallery.
However much Mr Lester understands the task ahead, his global ambitions and striving for quality at Olympia remain intact.
His vision for the event is to create the international summer fine art fair he feels London needs and deserves. Presentation will be overhauled with a new floor plan, and he also wants a more international exhibitor list.
In plans familiar from the promotion of the Lester’s flagship American International Fine Art Fair in Palm Beach, the new organiser proposes to target specific areas to bring new clients to West London. These include South American, Indian, Chinese, Russian and Middle Eastern collectors; museum curators, decorators and ultra high net worth individuals.
It will be interesting to see just how much of this new vision will be in place by the first summer Olympia with David Lester at the helm next June. The organiser made it clear he is not interested in Clarion’s other antiques fair, which is scheduled for November.
One person who will not be around for next June’s fair is Freya Simms, who for the past four years has been Clarion’s show director in their antiques division.
There was clearly no obvious place for her in the new management structure and last week she wrote to exhibitors wishing the new partnership every success and saying she had already decided in June to leave and extend her interests and career in the broader international art market.
She said her plans were interrupted by the Clarion/Lester joint venture discussions and she will remain at Olympia until the autumn to assist with the transition to a new leadership team.
By David Moss