It’s a new British invasion. All the buzz this month is about Frieze as the London fair organisers extend their brand to New York, setting up a new contemporary art fair on a little-visited island off Manhattan. “Excited, curious and annoyed all at once,” is how art adviser Lisa Schiff sums up attitudes, with the “excitement” definitely at the forefront of people’s thoughts.
There is surprisingly little animosity from local dealers towards the arrival. On the contrary. “There’s huge anticipation,” says Adam Sheffer of Cheim & Read. “Here we have a new fair in New York, in a completely radical location. No one quite knows what to expect but if it’s like Frieze London it should be a smash hit.”
Why are New Yorkers so excited about the arrival of the event, as the city already has the Armory Show, a big contemporary and modern art fair held in March, Art Dealers Association of America’s Art Show, plus many other smaller fairs? Does the city really need another one? As many point out, the Chelsea district and below is already “one long art fair, all year round”.
One reason may be that the Armory Show, despite a new director and improved layout, is still unpopular with New Yorkers, even if some big names, such as David Zwirner and Sprüth Magers, returned this year. Adviser Michael Frahm says: “The Armory brand is weakening. This year’s edition didn’t get great reviews. The Frieze brand is already established and the US event will bring in a rich international mix of galleries.”
Others say the Armory has nothing to fear from the new arrival. Londoner Darren Flook of Hotel, who organises the Independent fair in New York at the same time as the Armory, says the clientele is different. “It’s not the same crowd. Frieze and Independent are about New York, in-the-loop collectors. The Armory attracts a lot of out-of-towners who don’t go to Frieze London. I don’t think it will suffer.”
The greatest talking-point, however, is the fair location and a growing controversy over labour on the site. Few New Yorkers have ever set foot on Randall’s Island, which sits off the north-east corner of Manhattan, near the Bronx, accessible by a toll bridge. One dealer was reported to have decided not to do the fair after his taxi driver announced it would take two hours to reach the island from the financial district.
One reason it was chosen, apparently, was that the island is union-free. This has drawn the ire of New York’s Council of Carpenters, which has written to the fair sponsors to complain about the use of non-unionised workmen. The Occupy Wall Street movement is planning a demonstration. Frieze has said it is not in any labour dispute with the council “or with any other collective bargaining organisation”.
“The island is the big question mark,” exhibitor David Maupin admits. “But the first year should be fine, because there is so much goodwill.” New Yorkers are notoriously difficult about where they will go. “People are stressed about getting to the island,” Schiff says. “But if the weather is good that could be a plus, as it is generally awful during Armory week.” And Angela Westwater of Sperone Westwater, who is not doing the fair (“We are doing Frieze Masters [in London in October], but we just couldn’t manage New York and Hong Kong in the same month”), said the boat ride to the island, organised by the fair, “sounds fun”.
Will clients go more than once? For the big galleries selling “brand name” artists, this may not be a problem, as they will email images to their clients ahead of time; one visit at the opening will clinch the deal. This may not be the case for the smaller galleries with lesser-known names: visitors may see them for the first time and want to return before making any decision. Flook says he expects Frieze New York to be a “front-loaded” fair. “Like Frieze London,” he says. “City destinations have so much else to offer in the way of gallery shows and museum exhibitions, I expect that business will all be done on the first day.”
The other major talking-point is the question of timing. It is sandwiched between the major May sales in New York – and this year they are simply massive. Coming up before the fair is Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1895) – probably heading for a new auction record for any work of art – and then afterwards are Roy Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl” (1964), estimated at $30m-$40m, Yves Klein’s “FC1” (1962), with the same estimate, and a group of six Gerhard Richter abstracts looking for more than $40m.
“There is just too much being offered in a short period,” Schiff says. “The calendar is jam-packed: there are the auctions, then Frieze New York, then Hong Kong, then Art Basel, then the London sales. I know the collector base for art is growing, that the market is bullish, but there must be a limit to how much inventory can be absorbed in two months.”
Linda Blumberg, executive director of the Art Dealers Association of America, says she doesn’t see Frieze New York as competition.
“There is enough engagement in the arts here for everyone,” she says. “The new fair will add to the mix and we hope it will give our members choice and opportunity. We wish the organisers well.”
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