From Frieze to triptych

It was, Peter Aspden writes, a joke designed to amuse New York’s art world: a caricature in last week’s New York Observer of the Frieze Art Fair’s co-directors, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, towering over the city’s skyline in a clear echo of the famous movie poster for the 1950s sci-fi classic Attack of the 50ft Woman. “The British Are Coming!” announced the headline, before cutely hedging its bets: “Maybe ... ”

It is hard to imagine anyone less likely to terrorise civilisation than Frieze’s intense and softly-spoken founders. But the rumours reported by the Observer turn out to be true. The British are coming, and fast. Slotover and Sharp have just announced their plans for a New York version of Frieze, to take place next May on Randall’s Island, a site in the city’s East River that is better known for concerts and sports events.

The fair will be the same size as London’s Frieze and its organisers hope to attract 170 galleries. As if this were not enough to set art world gossip swirling like a Damien Hirst spin painting, Frieze announced another coup at the same time: the launch of Frieze Masters in London, to take place at the same time as the contemporary art fair on a nearby site in Regent’s Park.

If not quite standing 50ft tall, Slotover exudes an air of quiet satisfaction as we talk about the twin projects in a Clerkenwell bar. The decision to announce both new fairs at the same time was taken to cause maximum impact, he says. “It is just before Art Basel and the Venice biennale. They kind of converged on one another at around the same time.”

In truth, the rumours surrounding the New York move have been circulating for the past couple of years, while Slotover and Sharp have been taking “gentle soundings” from an art scene that evidently felt that it was missing a trick.

“I don’t want to bash the Armory Show [New York’s current art fair], nor to be compared to it, but we got the feeling that it was overshadowed by the success of Art Basel Miami Beach,” says Slotover. The Florida extravaganza and Frieze were founded within a year of each other at the beginning of the last decade and raised the bar for the shrewd packaging and sale of art.

When I ask him if he regards New York as the world’s most important art centre, Slotover replies: “I am loathe to use that word but it is the city with the most galleries in the world. It has an amazing art history and an amazing infrastructure.” Sharp echoes his views, calling New York “one of the most desirable cities in the world for an international art fair”.

What Frieze can add is those touches that have made its London edition such an overwhelming success with the public. “We are a small company and organisation. We treat the galleries really well and we make [the fair] a great experience for the visitor: great architecture, fun stuff to do, good food, interesting projects. Running an art fair is a difficult and expensive procure, but we always try to give a ‘we care’ feel to the whole thing.

“We will try our hardest. Art fairs are vastly compromised situations in so many ways. We know that. It’s not like going to a gallery and spending hours with a single work. But it is a great opportunity to see loads of stuff and there is a buzz which makes it exciting.”

To that end, there will be a special ferry service to Randall’s Island and plans are under way for complementary outdoor events around the fair. Slotover is confident New Yorkers will embrace the fair, notwithstanding the “Brit invasion” overtones. “I am optimistic about that. The responses have been overwhelmingly positive so far.”

Contemporary art, he acknowledges, is not for everyone, which explains the impulse behind Frieze Masters. The new London fair, comprising about 70 galleries, will sell art from every period up to the year 2000. Its director will be Victoria Siddall, Frieze’s head of development. She says the juxtaposition of the two fairs will allow visitors to see works in a fresh context. “People are more interested than ever in seeing how the old and the new fit together.”

The fair has already been welcomed by Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, who looks forward to “the world’s most adventurous and imaginative art collectors” converging on the capital. It is part of the spirit of the times to look at art more broadly, rather than narrowly focusing on a single interest, says Siddall.

The new fair will give further impetus to the notion of a “Frieze Week”, says Slotover, although he denies playing any part in the birth of the phrase. He says it came from the hotel and restaurant world, which reported record takings when the gilded marquee was in town. “We still have the ‘season’ in London, Ascot and Wimbledon and so on, although that is quite old-fashioned, I think. It doesn’t really reflect the vibrant international city that London has become.”

He dislikes using the word “brand” (“there is so much crap talked about it”) but wants to bring some of that broad recognition of the Frieze concept to New York. “I want it to be something that all the taxi-drivers know about automatically,” he says hopefully, proving once and for all that there really is no limit to his ambitions.

While rumours had been circulating for some time that London’s Frieze Art Fair was planning to create a New York event, Georgina Adam says the news of its major expansion, simultaneously moving into the Big Apple and creating a new London fair, has taken the art world by storm. “This is hugely important for art galleries. Art fairs have become a growing force in today’s market and provide a platform for everyone, not just the major players, to present their artists globally,” says leading dealer Iwan Wirth of Hauser and Wirth.

Frieze was founded in 2003, and in the wake of its success a whole new art season has been created in London in October, with auctions, satellite fairs and gallery openings. With these two new events, Frieze is simultaneously tackling a gap in the London market and a weakness in the New York one, a worrying development for existing fairs. Frieze New York will be launched next year in early May: like the London Frieze, it will focus on contemporary art by living artists, with about 170 booths. While it does not conflict with New York’s existing contemporary art fair, the Armory Show (in March), this seems certain to be impacted; the event has been weakening over the past few years, with significant galleries dropping out and exhibitors complaining of fewer serious collectors strolling the aisles.

Also affected might be Independent, a fair launched last year, which came about as a reaction to the Armory. The timing of Frieze New York is attractive, designed to pick up the high-rollers in town for the summer sales fortnight: “This is when we schedule our prime shows, and we expect to see all the major international collectors then,” says New York dealer Tanya Bonakdar, who has already signed up to the new fair. Its location, points out director Matthew Slotover, is convenient for the expressway from Connecticut – which is where many massively wealthy hedge-funders live.

Meanwhile, Frieze Masters seems set to redraw the fair landscape in the British capital. It will be held simultaneously with Frieze in October in Regent’s Park, offering fine art from antiquities and old masters right up to modern painting, ending in 2000, with 70 exhibitors.

“London needs another major fair for galleries like ours, a sort of mini-Maastricht without the furniture,” says Hugh Gibson of Thomas Gibson Fine Art, whose father is on the committee of Frieze Masters. He previously exhibited at the Pavilion of Art and Design (PAD), a boutique event with 57 booths run by the French partnership of Patrick Perrin and Stéphan Custot, held simultaneously with Frieze but in Berkeley Square, and which covers modern and decorative art, design and photography. “PAD was very well received, it looked good, but our sales there were weak and we didn’t meet any new people,” says Gibson. He believes that the Frieze “powerhouse”, as he calls it, with its massive organisational, curatorial and marketing team, can make Frieze Masters work from day one: “If anyone can do it, Matthew [Slotover] and Amanda [Sharp] can,” he says.

Probably less affected will be London’s Masterpiece fair, getting ready to launch its second edition next month. This was an instant hit last year for its layout, its smart catering (from Harry’s Bar to the Caprice) and its mix (not to everyone’s taste) of everything from antique silver or modern British sculpture to fast cars, diamond-studded carpets and vintage wines. It garnered more plaudits for its concept, though, than for hard sales, according to a number of exhibitors.

On the global level, Frieze’s expansion comes shortly after the granddaddy of modern and contemporary art fairs, the Swiss behemoth Art Basel, announced that it had bought a majority stake in the Hong Kong art fair, Art HK. Basel already has a US offshoot in Miami Beach and this acquisition now gives it access to the potentially lucrative Asian market.

All this is part of a process of polarisation in the whole art market, which today has shifted from being a mainly personal and individualistic sector to a significant financial industry worth about $65bn a year. The auction market is dominated by two giant players, Sotheby’s and Christie’s (with two Chinese salerooms, Poly and Guardian, racing up behind them). The dealer market is increasingly split between a few major, international players, such as Gagosian, Hauser and Wirth, Pace or Zwirner, and a fragmented landscape of smaller galleries.

Now, it seems, the fair world is going the same way, with a few big groups and a constellation of smaller fairs spinning around them. But as Iwan Wirth points out: “Art fairs can only be successful if they continuously raise the bar. Today they need to be highly professional structures. For many galleries they are the only way to meet new clients; for example in Asia.” And Frieze’s expansion, he concludes, “reflects the energy and activity we’ve been seeing in the auction world”.

The FT is media partner of Frieze and Frieze Masters

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