Bringing exciting work to enthusiastic collectors, Frieze London is celebrating two decades of success. As the style tribes of the art world converge upon the capital, Thomas Pink offers a guide on how to fit in (or not)
This month, London’s Regent’s Park once again plays host to the Frieze art fair. Now in its 20th year, Frieze has grown from humble beginnings to something rather more significant. With a proposition now comprising fairs in New York, Los Angeles and Seoul, Frieze can stake a genuine claim to be the world’s most influential contemporary art show.
In the coming weeks, a vast fleet of trucks will descend upon Regent’s Park’s Outer Circle, the 4.5km loop that rings this historic green space. In their wake will appear a small town’s worth of temporary galleries and exhibition halls, convened and constructed with the sort of logistical expertise more readily associated with military engineers. First held in 2003, Frieze London was the brainchild of Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp. Entrepreneurial types, the event began life as a magazine, Frieze, which the pair founded in 1991. The publication was a success from the get-go, attracting leading commentators such as Peter Schjeldahl and, latterly, Hilton Als, both revered art critics for The New Yorker.
Over the next few years, their contacts book swelled so impressively that Slotover and Sharp conceived the grandest of brand extensions for their fledgling title. Frieze London brought together the two things that, for all the posturing, have always made the art world tick: exciting new work and the collectors willing to pay for it, in some cases handsomely. In so doing, Frieze filled a gap in a polarised commercial landscape. For upand-coming artists, finding a route to market can be problematic. Even space at small, well-regarded galleries is at a premium, while vast legacy institutions, such as Tate Modern, prioritise the sort of marquee names their generous patrons demand.
Like its printed progenitor, Frieze London hit the ground running. Visitors to the inaugural event topped 27,000 and this year will exceed more than 100,000. That Frieze’s international roster now bulks up those already impressive numbers has not gone unnoticed by the art market’s big players. Indeed, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s now hold sales to coincide with Frieze London, knowing that, during the four-day event, the capital will be awash with affluent collectors.
What drives Frieze’s success is, undoubtedly, sales – the 2003 fair generated revenues in the region of $25m. Comprehensive figures for the most recent edition are hard to come by, yet among those exhibiting in 2022 were big-cheese dealers such as Johnny Van Haeften, David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth; those brokers alone sold three individual works for $10m, $6m and $4.8m respectively.
In 2012, Slotover and Sharp added yet another Frieze offshoot, Frieze Masters, an event which runs concurrently and showcases work produced before the turn of the millennium. If this has brought better-known names into the Frieze fold, they are those who champion the new, with exhibits and talks from the likes of Maggi Hambling, Tracey Emin and Wolfgang Tillmans. With a watchful eye on turnover, Frieze Masters has also meant the chance to sell the work of, say, Robert Rauschenberg or Jan Brueghel, the Flemish master who hasn’t been contemporary for about 400 years. Despite an avowed commercial focus, Frieze’s door policy is come-one-come-all. The majority of footfall belongs to the general gallery-goer, those seeking to spend the day in search of nothing more than inspiration. In the world of visual art, appearances are everything. So, whether you’re the latest enfant terrible or simply a benign browser, it’s important to look the part. Thomas Pink offers a guide.
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When it comes to dress, there are no hard-and-fast rules for the modern artist. No longer is it a requirement of entry to turn up aggressively dressed down, in the hobo-chic manner of, say, Lucian Freud. Warhol, after all, was a famously dandy Andy, while Gilbert and George only ever appear in public fully suited and booted. If you tend towards more smart-casual attire, bear in mind that Damien Hirst could easily pass for an ad-agency creative. And given his penchant for expensive gimmicks (dot paintings, jewel-encrusted skulls) there are plenty among his critics who aver that Hirst has always favoured marketing over masterpieces.
If you want to take the temperature of the modern art market, just follow the money. It’s an old adage that what constitutes art is anything you can get away with, so it is another that the monetary value of an artwork is whatever people are prepared to pay. There are those collectors who, by patronising artists big and small, are genuine benefactors; just as there are those who protest too much, whose claims that their collections are not about the money merely prove the opposite. For every Saatchi or Guggenheim, there’s a Steve Cohen (squillionaire hedgie) or UBS, the Swiss bank rumoured to own more than 35,000 contemporary works. It’s fine if you power dress for the upper floors of Wall Street or the City, just remember to avoid accessorising (give berets and scarves a hard pass). Remember, it’s the buyer who sets the tone, so best project an air of quiet confidence.
The curate’s egg of the art market, a cynic might suggest the dealer is a failed version of the above; lacking the talent to be an artist and without the resources to be a player. In terms of this year’s market, the hot tip is for abstraction, the trend for which is being driven by public appetite rather than curatorial influence. ‘The curators have not noticed,’ observed the critic Waldemar Januszczak recently, ‘because they learn all their stuff from biennales. The biennales haven’t noticed because they are still obsessed with identity politics.’ Not so art fairs such as Frieze, where dealers will be only too familiar with what’s selling now. For example, the painting Sunflowers, an unheralded abstract work by the more or less unknown Joan Mitchell, will shortly go on sale in New York – conservative estimates suggest it will go for well in excess of $20m. The dealer is hard to view sympathetically because he or she works on commission. If your primary objective is getting the best deal for the artist, that inevitably means the worst outcome for the purchaser.
Last but by no means least comes the general punter. Middle-class, middlebrow and occasionally nursing a watercolour habit, they are as well-versed in art history as they are curious about art’s future. If their more natural habitat is the Royal Academy or National Portrait Gallery, they come to Frieze with open minds and, as such, are the art fair’s unsung engines. Having seen trends come and go, they were there, for example, for the first Frieze fair, conceived as (surprise, surprise) a disruptor. With its strong emphasis on conceptual work intended to shock, or at the very least provoke, they were told that painting was old hat, that Van Gogh was as verboten as Vermeer. They understand, however, a market whose swings and roundabouts can result in outrageous misfortune. Not having the funds to partake protects them from the fickleness of the market, thus the regular Frieze fan is happy their buying power extends to little more than some merch or a macchiato.
Frieze London and Frieze Masters are in Regent’s Park, London, from 11- 15 October; frieze.com