Several institutions symbolise the burgeoning of contemporary art over the past 20 years – Tate Modern, the global Gagosian Gallery empire, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao – but eclipsing them all is Frieze Art Fair. This autumn saw its 13th incarnation, and it has long since changed the cultural landscape. Early October in London is now unshakeably Frieze Week, when the world’s major galleries set up shop in an architect-designed tented village in Regent’s Park. Gallerists and collectors converge on the booths and stands, and Sotheby’s and Christie’s even line up auctions to coincide with London being art’s undoubted epicentre.
This art behemoth in fact grew out of the frieze magazine, which was started in 1991 by Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover to cover the contemporary art world – in a way the established press didn’t. In 2003, the pair took things a stage further and set up a selling fair which, in its first year, brought in 27,000 visitors and 124 galleries – none knowing quite what to expect. Some £20m worth of artworks was sold. By 2015 the Frieze Week was a fixture – social as well as artistic – and the numbers had changed: 164 galleries from 27 countries drew more than 60,000 visitors. The fair no longer provides sales figures, but this year, for example, one Gabriel Orozco piece sold for $900,000 and the most expensive item to change hands was Damien Hirst’s ‘Holbein (Artist’s Watercolours)’,which went for over $1.2m within the first hour of the VIP preview. And whatever business is done at the fair, as much again is negotiated quietly outside its environs.
The unexpected (except perhaps by the founders) success of the London fair led in 2011 to the establishment of two independent offshoots. A sister fair, Frieze New York, now takes place annually in the first week of May in Randall’s Island Park, east of Manhattan, while Frieze Masters coincides with the London fair and is sited at the opposite, northern end, of Regent’s Park. Frieze Masters concentrates on historic art and artefacts – the cut-off date is 2000 or, to put it another way, the focus is on dead, rather than living, artists. Truly omnivorous aficionados can, given enough energy bars and isotonic drinks, cover the entire artistic gamut, from ancient Egypt to paint-still-wet productions, in a single day.
What all three fairs happily acknowledge is that they exist, not just for the buying and selling of art, but to provide a spectacle. As the organisers note: ‘Some people visit as first-time collectors of art while others view the fair more as an exhibition, enjoying the experience as a cultural day out.’ It is certainly true that the fairs are a form of theatre, with art-world professionals every bit as colourful as some of the artworks. For all the official talks, performances, artists’ commissions and film projects, it is perhaps the fairs’ winning mixture of art and anthropology that is the real reason they have proved such a hit.
Michael Prodger writes for The Guardian
Photography by Linda Nylind. Courtesy of Linda Nylind/Frieze
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