“After 39 and a half years in the art trade, and having shown at over 150 art fairs, I can still only think of two fair organisers who have added to my enjoyment of a fair – you [Gay Hutson] and Bunny.” (Jonathan Dodd, Waterhouse & Dodd, which was one of the very first exhibitors.)
Between them, Bunny and her partner, Gay, ran just under 120 art fairs and were known as a ‘dynamic duo’ in an association which spanned over 30 years.
Modern British flagship
They first worked together in 1986 when Bunny became organising secretary of the World of Watercolours Fair, which was set up in 1986 by Heather McConnell, Ivan Winstone and Gay Hutson. In 1988, at the suggestion of art dealer William Desmond, the same team started the 20th Century British Art Fair at the Cumberland Hotel, London. With the help of an advisory committee of dealers, the fair was founded on the premise that Modern British art was undervalued and needed a flagship.
After initial success, in 1991 the fair moved to the Royal College of Art. However, the recession hit and it came to a standstill.
However, with Bunny, Gay was able to create a new partnership to revitalise the event. With the help of a group of dealers headed by Peter Nahum, who was determined to put Modern British art on the map, top galleries joined the fair and, within a few years, both Modern British art and the fair flourished beyond expectation. Such was its popularity, the return rate of exhibitors was regularly over 90%.
In 1999 Bunny and Gay launched a second fair called Art on Paper, also held at the Royal College of Art and which took place in the spring. This time they were helped by art critic and journalist, Anthony J Lester. After five stagings they realised that the formula was not quite working and relaunched it as 20|21 International Art Fair, which did work and became extremely popular. Most of the participants were from the UK, but it was very international in content and served as a springboard for dealers wanting to get into the 20/21 British Art Fair (as the 20th Century British Art Fair had become).
In 2004, when the fair had finished and the pair were overseeing the dismantling of the event, Bunny suffered a heart attack.
She was taken to the Brompton Hospital and although in a critical condition during the first 24 hours, she survived. After this, she initially deliberated about retiring – she was, after all, 68 – but, demonstrating her energetic, strong-willed character, such thoughts were only temporary. Nonetheless, she did take that year out but reappeared for the next 12 years.
The two fairs ran smoothly: the 20/21 British Art Fair had an excellent advisory committee, including dealers David Archer, Richard Gault, Simon Hilton, Peter Osborne, Jess Wilder and journalist Colin Gleadell.
Also helping was Bunny’s husband, David, who was invaluable drawing up the plans, and Gay’s husband, John, provided additional help – it was very much a family affair. “The British Art Fair has the reputation of being one of the happiest fairs of the year,” said Huon Mallalieu (Country Life, September 2015).
However, disaster struck in 2015 when the Royal College, at short notice, decided to no longer host external events. With no time to find an alternative venue, neither fair took place in 2016. Again, retirement might have beckoned, but they had not reckoned with the dealers who pleaded with them to find another venue which they duly did. In 2017, the 20/21 British Art Fair re-emerged at the Mall Galleries, a smaller fair but one full of quality
She was the only fair organiser I’ve ever met from whom I didn’t mind getting a ticking off
However, last autumn, they were approached by Johnny and Robert Sandelson, whose parents had shown at the very first fair, asking if they could buy it. This time the two decided that as Bunny was 82, David was in poor health, and Gay was almost 70, that the time had finally come to retire. This they did and the 2018 event will now take place in September at the Saatchi Gallery as the British Art Fair.
Bunny was a strong, determined woman with great organisational skills and was very resolute. “If Bunny says no, she means no,” was always true but invariably said with an air of jocularity. She was vibrant, had a twinkling eye, a sharp sense of fun and was incredibly positive in outlook. If a dealer looked despondent because their sales were not going well, she would say: “Well, it’s just not your year.”
But most of all, she loved people of all ages, who in turn responded to her. Although Bunny and David had no children, they have loads of loyal friends and godchildren with whom they shared many happy times.