Frieze’s first chief executive, Simon Fox © Harry Mitchell

Simon Fox, chief executive of the publishing and art fair group Frieze, has a confession. “I would have been a magician, had I not come last in a competition when I was 18,” he says over Zoom from Buckinghamshire. It is tempting to suggest that joining an events-based business at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic must need every trick in the book, but luckily Fox has other skills beyond his Magic Circle endorsement.

His recent senior roles — as chief executive of the music and books business HMV Group and of Reach, the UK’s largest commercial news publisher — mean that Fox knows plenty about industries facing digital disruption. The healthy looking 60-year-old father of three seems quietly to relish a challenge. “I never set out to jump from frying pans into fires. But it is fair to say that I am more comfortable facing headwinds than just driving in a straight line,” he says.

Fox seems a good fit for Frieze, which has grown far beyond its niche beginnings in 1991 as a magazine about contemporary art. By the start of 2020, when Fox was headhunted to the new role of chief executive, Frieze had grown into one of the world’s most prestigious art-fair franchises with events in London, New York and Los Angeles. The business is now 70 per cent owned by the Hollywood sports and entertainment mega-agency Endeavor, whose other events include Winter Wonderland, the Taste Festivals for food and the Miami Open tennis tournament.

Visitors at Frieze Los Angeles in February 2020 © Casey Kelbaugh

Frieze’s original founders, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, own the remaining shares in the group and are on its board, but have stepped back from the day-to-day management since Fox joined. “They wanted someone to keep their business successful,” he says. His media background — at a time when the delivery of content seems to dominate art market minds — is the latest necessary skillset for the industry. The owners of rival fair franchise Art Basel now boast James Murdoch as an anchor investor.

Art is not a particular passion for Fox, though he had visited the Frieze fairs before his appointment and, he says, has “always enjoyed working in industries that shape culture”. He is clear on where the business of visual art differs from his previous areas of expertise, particularly when it comes to the product on offer. “The changes [in the art world] have been less extreme than in other areas, art still needs to be seen,” he says.

He warms to the theme: “The pace of digital change in news was extraordinary with the physical product substantially replaced by an online experience. In music, digital products have completely replaced CDs or cassettes. For books, the Kindle took a huge chunk out of the fiction market before it found its level. For art, the development of digital work is interesting and will grow as digital natives get older, but it is not replacing everything, it is additive.”

Digital has, of course, been a large part of his job, starting in April 2020 when the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic began to bite. Frieze’s New York event the following month was one of the first fairs to go online-only. The two London fairs in October 2020 also couldn’t happen physically, while Frieze Los Angeles was cancelled, with a digital edition taking place instead next week (July 27-August 1).

“We did well to launch digital viewing rooms and a considerable amount was sold [over the platform]. But it was mostly work by established artists. It is hard to discover online,” Fox says. The pivot was also a financial challenge for Frieze. “Our business model requires us to run fairs. It has been a very tough year,” Fox says. He is grateful, he adds, for the continued support of Deutsche Bank, Frieze’s main sponsor since 2004, which has continued to back initiatives such as Art:Live, a broadcast and video programme.

The most distinct changes that Fox has overseen so far have been physical rather than digital. A new Frieze fair has been announced for Seoul in September 2022, in partnership with the Galleries Association of Korea, which runs Kiaf, a more regional event. “It’s a great city, full of culture, but there isn’t an international fair there. At the same time, it isn’t a market we know very well so [the partnership] felt the best way to move in,” Fox says.

Frieze’s other new venture is a building on Cork Street in London’s Mayfair, which will operate as a small gallery hub. The move to landlord helps diversify the group from mass events, as well as keeping business running throughout the year. Fox is conscious of the changing needs of galleries and hopes that such moves make Frieze a “better partner and a positive force for change” in the industry. “It’s an experiment but hopefully we can scale it to other cities, initially those where we already run fairs,” he says.

The New York fair returned this year in a scaled-down format at The Shed in Hudson Yards © Casey Kelbaugh

Meanwhile, the fairs themselves are also gradually coming back, with some pandemic-induced changes looking more permanent. A much smaller Frieze New York, with 60 physical exhibitors rather than nearer 200 in pre-pandemic times, was well received in May and gave the opportunity to find a new venue in The Shed on Hudson Yards. Previously, Frieze had been on Randall’s Island — something of a trek from Manhattan — but the intention is to stick with The Shed, for 2022 at least. The expanded online viewing rooms (OVRs) that ran alongside the main event will also remain, with more standalone OVRs a possibility, “another way to keep things going all year round,” Fox says. For the flagship London fairs in October, Fox is clear and confident. “They will happen and hopefully to the same scale as in previous years,” he says.

The broader future for fairs is, it seems, the same but different. Physical events need to get “better and more experiential each time” and the role of digital supporting the physical will prove “very significant,” Fox says. He sees that “the art fair timetable was perhaps too congested and galleries are rightly concerned about the environment, so they will be more selective. My job is to make our fairs the ones they choose to do,” he says. And in his spare time, he is still prepared to wave a magic wand for children’s parties and Christmas events. “It’s fun, it makes people happy,” he says — what more could you want from an art fair organiser?

Frieze Viewing Room Los Angeles Edition, July 27-August 1, frieze.com

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