ROME (Reuters) - Italy's capital, heaving with marble and masterpieces, may not want for art. But Rome's first "Affordable Art Fair" tapped into a hunger for fresh, contemporary works as it opened with a splash of neon on Friday.
Crowds packed the event on its opening night to browse works from over 50 galleries, all of them by living artists and for sale at prices between €100 and €5,000 ($130-$6,500).
"The organizers thought that this being Rome, the people would arrive a bit late. Instead, half an hour before opening time there was already a queue around the block," said Milanese photographer Ruggero Rosfer, 43, who was selling works priced at between €2,600 and €4,000. "That's how huge the interest is."
Held in an abandoned 19th century abattoir on October 26-28 in the trendy Testaccio district, the event saw chic Romans browsing sculpture and neon pop art amid antique meat hooks and exposed brick walls.
Most of the art on display was by Italian artists, but there were also pieces by well-known overseas figures such as U.S. street artist Shepard Fairey, aka Obey, who made the iconic "Hope" poster of Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential election campaign.
Artist Sergio Vanni, who makes mixed-media pictures that contain art-themed jokes and play on the names of famous painters, said he had already sold two of his works for €550 each.
"This is a casual fair, less staged than the usual exhibitions," Vanni said. "Usually they are terribly self-serious. This is more youthful, full of cute ideas."
Offering art at accessible prices has a clear appeal in Italy, which is in the middle of tough austerity measures aimed at addressing a severe debt crisis.
It remained to be seen if recession-struck Italians could match the successes of previous Affordable Art Fairs, which have been held in different cities across the world since the first in London over a decade ago, selling up to $1.4 million in art at a time.
The art fair model, where galleries band together to rent stall space from the organizers, also helps less established artists promote their work, artist Daniele Alonge told Reuters.
"This is a great way for galleries who cannot afford the expense of running their own space to reach the public, not just collectors but also a younger crowd," said Alonge, 35, who is selling works priced between €140 and €1,400.
One debutante is 25-year old Matilde Giuliani, selling her collage works for between €100 and €150. "Creating is easy, what is hard is finding an audience," Giuliani said. "This helps."
Fair director Marco Trevisan said he hoped to introduce new faces into the art market and show art in Rome did not stop with the Renaissance masters Caravaggio, Michelangelo and Bernini.
He explained the show came about because of a surge in interest when Italy's first national museum dedicated to contemporary art, MAXXI, opened in 2010, attracting 1,500 visitors a day in its first year.
"In Rome there is a growing interest in contemporary art, I think because the new generation wants something younger, a bit more fun," Trevisan said.
"This might be the Eternal City, but it needs renewal too."
($1 = 0.7733 euros)
Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Pravin Char