PRINT April 2008


Few, if any, contemporary art fairs would seem so emblematic of the phenomenon’s increasing prominence and changing complexion within the globalized art world during the past decade as the Frieze Art Fair. Established in London in 2003 by AMANDA SHARP and MATTHEW SLOTOVER, publishers of the eponymous British art magazine, the event was unique for extending beyond the traditional limits of the showroom floor to incorporate talks, performances, and commissioned projects by some of the most prominent artists and thinkers of our day. The fair’s success among collectors and the general public alike—sales in 2005 (the most current year for which such figures are available) totaled $57 million, while last October’s event drew nearly seventy thousand visits— has also prompted many to call the fair a signal moment in the transformation of London into an international arts capital. To discuss the fair’s inception and genealogy, ongoing development, and evolving relationship with art exhibitions and publications, Sharp and Slotover generously spoke by telephone with Artforum editor TIM GRIFFIN shortly before we went to press.

TIM GRIFFIN: As it happens, I’ve been editor of Artforum for four years now—my very first issue, in fact, coincided with the first Frieze Art Fair—and so I remember well the moment I first heard about your plans to create the fair, since it involved, to my mind, some reconception of an art magazine, if only by extending the infrastructure around it. In this regard, precisely what made me excited about the fair also gave me pause: At a moment when art seemed in ever greater proximity with culture more generally—and when commercial culture was increasingly interested in offering what had traditionally belonged to the terrain of art, in terms of transformative experiences, education, etc.—here was an effort plainly situating art within that broader landscape. There was a real risk for the reception and perception of art and criticism, I thought, but also amazing potential in shaping a public sphere and consciousness; either way, it seemed a gesture very much true to its time. But this is my experience from afar. Why did you create the fair? Where did the idea come from?

AMANDA SHARP: You know, it’s interesting, because it didn’t in any way come out of conversations about developing the magazine. London was a major arts city and, when all the other major arts cities had art fairs, it was just incredibly surprising to us that there wasn’t one here—particularly given the developments in the city over a ten-year period. When we started the magazine in 1991 there were, what, maybe five serious international galleries in London, and now there are somewhere between forty and fifty? And then you’ve got a massive change in London as a financial center, with different kinds of people moving to the city, many of whom already have an interest in contemporary art. In creating the fair, we were just a reflection of this, I think, and maybe we managed to bring everything more tightly into focus.

MATTHEW SLOTOVER: I also had very fond memories of the Cologne art fairs of the early 1990s, especially the Unfairs. They were fantastic. When we started the magazine and began traveling to look at art, fairs were already very important places for learning about artists and meeting people—for working out what was going on, basically.

TG: You were quoted recently in The Guardian as saying you first had the idea for the fair in 1998, which was surprising to me, given what I understand to have been the surrounding context at the time. There were fewer fairs, certainly. And I imagine, perhaps naively, that they did not yet have the complexion of creative entities. How were you looking at art fairs at that point?

MS: Well, I actually don’t think there’s been such a huge change; they were important culturally then, as they are now. Cologne had the kind of energy that I think Frieze has now. But I do remember our thinking that when you get all these interesting people together in one place, you could make the whole experience less trade-fair-like and more art-like, or more festival-like. Not to say there aren’t great distinctions between these endeavors, but we saw ignored opportunities for making fairs more interesting places.

AS: The first person we employed was actually a full-time curator, Polly Staple, with whom we set up a nonprofit foundation to really arrive at what would be most interesting to us within this particular context.

TG: Polly created a remarkable program that, I should say, gave me the opportunity to see things I wouldn’t have otherwise. But I would like to take a step back and ask how these and other moves—some art-like, some not—set your fair apart from others. You’ve already mentioned the earlier example of Cologne, but what about our own day?

AS: That’s hard to answer, because we didn’t set out to purposely be different from everyone else. But, that said, I do think that our desire to integrate artists into the fair through the projects program has changed the feeling of the whole environment.

MS: I think we were the first fair to commission artists’ work.

AS: As far as I’m aware, that’s the case. Also, the talks program has brought major thinkers and artists to the fair; the music program even brought Karlheinz Stockhausen to London. And so the atmosphere changes as whole different audiences come to the fair than would have come otherwise. I also think the simple fact that we put the fair in the middle of a beautiful park in a major city gives you a completely different feeling from a convention center. And by having brilliant architects designing temporary structures for the fair, and deliberately confounding people’s expectations by physically changing the entrance of it each year, we’ve tried to create a place of discovery and excitement. And the galleries have used it, I think, to do incredibly interesting projects that they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in the environment of any other fair. Klosterfelde’s Elmgreen & Dragset project—where the stand was divided in two, and one side replicated the other, complete with a bewigged stand-in for Martin Klosterfelde—is a case in point. Or the presence of the Wrong Gallery, which showed Tino Sehgal the first year. Bringing his work to audiences in this context was very, very powerful.

MS: So there’s a kind of art feeling when you walk in and, as Amanda said, a kind of confounding of expectations. I don’t know if that’s good for the market side or bad for it, but for us the program makes the fair a much more interesting place. It’s much more engaged.

TG: In fact, the thought immediately comes to mind that confounding expectations is actually essential to a successful business model—or at least according to various theorizations of business during the past decade where, say, a store might double as a community center of sorts. And so the fair presents this interesting little crystallization of potential and problem when it comes to art’s presentation.

MS: Well, both the potential and problem do exist, and it’s important to remind people of that. But I think of what Gavin Brown—who’s on the committee of the fair—once said to me, which is that galleries should be places for radical thought. We’re supposed to enable artists, who are making the most bizarre propositions about life, to do their work. I think almost all the galleries in the fair have that in mind somewhere—that they’re not just selling beautiful things to wealthy people. There’s another important aspect to it.

TG: That reminds me of a text Okwui Enwezor wrote for Artforum’s September 2007 issue, arguing that art fairs’ becoming more like grand shows has changed the critical context to some extent—that the seeming conflation of terms makes people pay more attention to the market than, perhaps, to artistic practices. And yet, as you say, there are still meaningful differences between the grand show and the fair.

AS: Our fair can be successful only if work is sold. It is a market, first and foremost. That isn’t true of a biennial. That’s a simple definition that separates the two.

MS: Of course, works are sold from biennials, and works are exhibited but not sold at fairs as well. But at a fair you’ve got two or three thousand objects never intended to be seen together. Unlike biennials, where there is some kind of relationship conceived for the objects, here we have a distributive method of exhibiting. It’s a completely different thing, and we’d never pretend otherwise. You can try to view an art fair like an exhibition—and you might actually get some fantastic moments—but you’ve got to have your blinkers on, because when you’re looking at one thing you’ve got a hundred others shouting for your attention. A lot of people can’t focus in that context, though I think we’ve managed to train ourselves to do it.

TG: Speaking of training, did you find at the outset that you already had the business acumen for a fair? Up to that point, you were running a magazine.

MS: Well, by default, when Amanda and I started the magazine we had to manage the business side. No one else was going to do it. So while we were editing the magazine, we had to do accounts. We’ve had to do cash-flow projections.

AS: We’ve done every single job, both of us, on the magazine and every single job on the fair.

MS: You know, I remember someone saying to us, “Oh, my God, you were intellectuals, and now you’re businesspeople.”

AS: Oh, yes.

MS: And it was hilarious for us to hear that, because we don’t see a huge change.

AS: Oddly enough, I think people’s conception of what we do is quite different from the reality of it, because we always had to manage the business side, but it’s not as if we are directly involved with the sale of art now in any way.

TG: What does a gallery want from a fair organizer?

AS: If a gallery comes to a fair, they want the logistics to work. They want to walk in and see that their walls are good, the light’s good, the floors—everything that enables them to get on and do their work. And that includes providing a place that attracts curators, collectors, and critics. They want a productive environment.

TG: Matthew, do you agree there?

MS: Absolutely. The first thing is getting the walls up.

AS: I mean, we try to do better walls than anyone else. We try to do a better lighting system. As I said, we’ve brought in architects to design the display hall; this year, it will be Caruso St John. You know, we want an environment where people don’t feel it could have been a computer show the week before—where you have that feeling of elation as you come in, and your spirits rise. But that’s all for us. For the galleries, it’s frankly still key that we facilitate their business.

TG: When you’re saying that the walls are better and the architects are remarkable, all these things are true. Yet here I think, within a branding sense, there’s definitely an attunement to the magazine—in a sort of design consciousness and overall cultural savvy, if not just by name. To what extent were you conscious of creating a continuity?

MS: I guess we could have called it the London Art Fair, but it was going to be Amanda and me running it, and we were known for doing Frieze. So we thought we should just be straightforward and call it Frieze Art Fair. It certainly sounded good. But having said that, we don’t influence what goes on in the magazine’s editorial whatsoever. We’re not the editors of the magazine. They’re independent.

TG: Would you say that the fair benefited from its association with the publication when you first began?

MS: I think we wanted to call it Frieze Art Fair so the two things would help each other—which is ideal for anyone who’s expanding what they do. We thought it would get the name of the magazine better known, and the magazine is, in fact, better known today both nationally and internationally. And probably we were first able to do the fair partly because we had all these relationships with galleries through the magazine.

AS: I’ve always said that people considered what they liked and disliked about us, and they knew us because of the magazine. We had the personal relationships. We could go in and talk with people about our vision for a new project.

MS: Amanda’s being in New York was really key in that regard. But again, it’s always been quite important for the magazine to remain a bit aloof, as I’m sure you know and would agree, Tim. The editors and writers have got to have independence.

TG: Absolutely. Along those lines, I’m tempted to return to the question of business acumen. For the time being, Artforum has a fair amount of advertising—knock on wood. So we’re leasing space, in a sense, to galleries and institutions; in the fair, you’re doing that in terms of square footage. Is there a meaningful distinction to be made between those two plans?

MS: It’s a quite similar business model, actually. Just as in a magazine you have advertising, and that gives galleries an opportunity to market themselves, so in a fair you have space that you rent to galleries, and that gives them the opportunity to market themselves.

AS: And then you have readers and subscribers, just as an audience comes to the fair. But there’s a much easier relationship with the galleries at the fairs than there is in the magazine, because in the magazine they sometimes would like to affect the content, but at the fair, they are the content.

TG: When it came to the line you were drawing between the publication and the fair, this leasing of a different kind of space didn’t give galleries any more leverage?

AS: I don’t feel there’s been any change, personally. We were very clear right from the outset that our editorial and advertising were separate, and you couldn’t buy editorial in any way. Unfortunately, we’ve all had tricky situations with people, but anyone sensible can understand that a critic has to be able to write what they think. Otherwise, they’re of no use to anyone.

MS: Our mentor on the magazine was Stuart Morgan, who was a fantastic critic and just drilled into us the fact that you’ve got to have a completely independent editorial department or else no one will ever take you seriously; and if any advertiser puts pressure on you, you’ve got to resist it, and that will translate into respect in the long term. We came into doing a fair with that reputation.

TG: Does the fair underwrite the magazine in any way?

AS: They are completely separate. And having been through quite a few different economic cycles, we know how to manage a magazine financially, and that isn’t in any way affected by the fair.

MS: I honestly think you’re much more likely to have much more pressure at a magazine than at a fair. I mean, Tim, do you often get questions about Artforum and its independence from the market and advertisers? If you’re on a panel somewhere, do people say you’re just writing about your advertisers, or does that not come up?

TG: I’ve never been asked that point-blank, actually. But I’m very aware of how perceptions can make it difficult for people to actually “read” what’s in front of them—in other words, to look at a text without thinking it’s merely some figure of the market. I’m also aware that I’ve never been an editor in an economic downturn and that it might be easier for me, paradoxically enough, to give over an issue to Jacques Rancière or Paolo Virno precisely when we do have many advertisers backing us—again, knock on wood. But I guess I want us to talk more about this difficult question of context, since as an editor I’m also aware of how that necessarily affects the ways in which we discuss art. In terms of the fair, do you feel that you’ve got a new kind of ability to set the stage, literally, for what’s talked about, offered, and put on view? Looking at the explosion of the fair, it’s moved to a different cultural stratum; you have a genuinely mass-cultural interest in art.

AS: It wasn’t something that I was aware would happen when we started the fair. I hoped that, if we got together a great list of galleries, very good collectors and curators would come to the fair. The amount of public interest was the biggest shock of the whole experience for me. Where that goes now, I don’t know. But it’s interesting that in London, if you look at the way the programming at the Tate in contemporary shows has changed over the past ten or fifteen years, and you look at the way someone on their day off on a Thursday afternoon might wander down to Tate Modern, you see that contemporary art has moved quite far into the mainstream now in Britain. I’m sure that’s partly responsible for the feeling of the fair now.

MS: I think it’s been happening for the past forty years. We did an issue a few years ago titled “How Has Art Changed?” and one responder said that the art world is literally one hundred times bigger than it was in the ’60s. It used to be a very small group of people that cared—a small group of galleries, museums, collectors, critics. And now every other city in the world wants its big contemporary art museum, and everyone wants to go see it.

TG: How specific would you say the fair is to London? And to Frieze? Could you imagine yourself taking it to another city? Could you imagine yourself selling it at some point, and would it remain the Frieze Art Fair if so?

AS: We didn’t set up the fair to sell it. We really enjoy doing what we do.

MS: I mean, we’ve had the magazine for some seventeen years—almost half our lives—and the fair now for five years, and we love doing them, and we love running them and having control. We didn’t do this as something to flip in a few years’ time. And London is where we felt we could do something truly international. I mean, if London stopped being that kind of place and, whatever, Madrid became the best city for the international art world to gather, then we might go there. But we know exactly who our primary audience is.

TG: Matthew, I want to go back to your question about advertising. What’s been curious to me is how, when I think Artforum is becoming increasingly serious—some would call it stuffy, I imagine—it’s apparently become that much more of a magnet for advertising. Obviously, there are other components in play, whether it’s the American dollar, or just the sheer size of the art world, or even the history of the publication, where people want to be part of whatever they imagine Artforum to be. But there is that strange feedback loop where if, as you say, the editorial remains independent, then weirdly that might actually draw more people to commit their money to your project. The other thing I’m finding myself having to grapple with is this whole elusive notion of what criticality, per se, is. The moment something appears in this magazine, or in any magazine, even if it’s a very critical position, you create a kind of niche market. And then there’s a potential flow of money into that area, changing it. So you have to at least denote, I think, an awareness of these things, and this has for me been the greatest challenge.

AS: I think you can do that, can’t you, in the way you structure the publication, where it becomes obvious it’s something for the review section, or a feature, or meant to be online, which has been an increasingly important and popular venue. You can create sections in the publication and online where things are more about a rapid response than a reflective response. I think it’s possible to set up some codes that allow you to deal with that very responsibly, by framing the way you cover things.

TG: And then you count on your reader to know exactly what they’re looking at.

AS: You should never underestimate the reader. And I think that it’s not our responsibility as magazine publishers or editors, ultimately, to determine the market. There are many constituencies that come together. Our only responsibility is to cover the things that we feel should be covered, and not to factor in market concerns.

MS: You’d just get too obsessed with it. I mean, you have to ignore it. I think that when we were editing the magazine long ago, we had very little idea about the ups and downs of the market. Similarly, I think the editors now just aren’t that interested in it. If you put someone on the cover and it makes a huge difference in their career, then that’s nice, but that’s not why you did it.

TG: And yet, looking back at those early issues you were editing, I think one sees a desire to create a meaningful counterpoint between art and, if not mass culture, then cultural concerns generally. I think that thread continues through the fair in a complex way.

AS: Well, I hope so. I think that there should be a relationship between these things. That’s what a magazine does. It holds up a mirror to society. It’s the first place you find ideas. If the magazine were completely isolated from that now, then I don’t think it would have any resonance over time.

MS: But these questions of contexts . . . I’d love someone to point out where the conflict is, doing a fair and a magazine. I really would. Because we’ve thought about it, and we can’t see it, as long as the editorial remains independent.

TG: Well, as you said, much depends on that insulation of the editors, and, speaking as the editor of a publication—and in yours mine was, I believe, recently called “an ad-larded art glossy”—I do think it is possible. But it is all contingent on the division. At the same time, I believe a publication like Artforum has to be read almost as an object, where each of these different contexts inflects and implicates the others. If you’ve got a larger infrastructure, it probably makes sense to reflect on its different aspects in light of one another.