‘Frieze week’ in London brings out all sorts of strange behaviour in people. Journalists everywhere feel inclined to write the kind of article Peter Aspden just wrote for The Financial Times, which patronises readers and industry professionals with equal vigour. The piece is typical of the paradox that surrounds the fair.
Many, barely familiar with the contemporary art market, choose this of all weeks to dust off their interest in art. Strictly speaking, it’s not a bad idea, but it presents a woefully distorted image of the industry: cold, aggressive gallerists, obnoxious oligarchs, a gnawing sense of financial inadequacy and a conviction that Frieze is the art world’s only face.
The status anxiety felt by all but the haughtiest of visitors is matched by that of young (and not so young) gallerists and dealers. A visit to the ICA’s ‘A Journey through London’s Subculture: 1980s to Now’ – an excellent exhibition apart from the tokenistic inclusion of numerous ‘on-trend’ artists – included a timely vitrine dedicated to the first issue of Frieze magazine (1991). I almost became a touch misty eyed. Here was the first issue, with Hirst on the cover, discussing the eccentric notion of pickling a shark.
The rise of London as a global centre for contemporary art can be attributed to a number of causal factors: the rise of London as a truly global city, the frenetic inpouring of global wealth from East and West, the mainstream cultural interest in the yBas, Tate Modern, and a robust museum-building policy towards the end of Labour’s recent government.
Among these factors stands Frieze as an institution: which some now cynically perceive as an art fair with a magazine attached. I couldn’t help ruminating upon the idea that it has, in many ways, become synonymous with the contemporary art industry here in London: an odd situation given how stark the division is between those in the fold and those outside, and not least because of the huge raft of exhibitions and other fairs (like Sunday) which occur during the same week.
Anyone familiar with the fair and the magazine will quickly notice their unwavering synergy: the same galleries exhibit at the fair, advertise with the magazine and receive the reviews. It’s a notoriously closed shop. Although some lucky beggars slide straight in, the sense of dread felt by those excluded can be crippling. A feature on Frieze New York published by ArtInfo documented a related concern: once accepted, being dropped the following year as the industry ‘chews through the new meat’, can make a gallery sink.
I find it hard to forgive Aspden for a dangerous comment in his article, in which he likens buying from pop-ups as ‘the art fair equivalent of bringing back a sombrero from your Mexican holiday’. All buyers should buy slowly, carefully and after a lot of research, but propagating this disparaging image is, actually, irresponsible in an industry that purportedly supports emerging galleries and smaller spaces. Many galleries can’t afford the overheads of permanent spaces when they set up, or wish to be near the fair at this important time of year. For them, a few good sales can make the difference between ongoing survival and a downward spiral.
Conversely, I can forgive any Frieze gallerist for being disagreeable while exhibiting at the fair: it begets a fatigue which cannot be described in words. And having taken a significant financial gamble, don’t be surprised if they are less interested in talking to an art school undergraduate than the well-dressed European who looks like he’s ready to buy something.