Q&A

Frieze London Co-Director Matthew Slotover on the Rise of the Art Fair

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Frieze London Co-Director Matthew Slotover on the Rise of the Art Fair
Frieze Art Fair co-director Matthew Slotover (Photo by Ezra Petronio)

There's no question that the art fair has undergone something of an apotheosis in recent years, assuming a preeminent role in the way the art world conducts its business—some major galleries make as much as two-thirds of their sales at fairs—and spreading contemporary art to heretofore overlooked markets around the world in an endless variety of editions, both gargantuan-scaled and intimate. On the international stage, the Frieze Art Fair (now joined by Frieze Masters and Frieze New York) has been one of the most influential forces in shaping the way art fairs have evolved, injecting a curatorial vision into the trade-show format to create art events that resemble biennials as much as glitzy, high-ticket supermarkets.

This is in large part due to Matthew Slotover, who together with Amanda Sharp birthed the fair in 2003 out of the crucible of their highly-regarded Frieze magazine, where Slotover was the founding editor and Sharp the founding publisher. As an art journalist by training—and a veteran critical eye who was tapped in 2000 to be a Turner Prize judge, sending the award to Wolfgang Tillmans—Slotover has a unique perspective, as both a consummate insider and a trained observer, on the way fairs have impacted the art world over the years.

To mark the opening of this year's edition, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to the Frieze co-founder about what to expect this year, and why the market-driven upheaval of the art world cannot be blamed on art fairs alone.

This year, Frieze London returns to Regents Park with its highest visibility to date, lifted by its growing footprint of Frieze Masters as well as spring's Frieze New York fairs. At the same time, the art market is bullish and bigger than ever. This makes for an auspicious combination. What is new in this year's fair?

This year's fair is going to look completely different from any fair we've done before—it's been completely redesigned. There more public space, the floor has changed, the ceiling has changed, and there are other major additions.

Frieze is a curated fair, meaning that you have gone through and accepted all of the 152 exhibitors's booth proposals. Are there any new trends or currents in art that you can discern from what the galleries are bringing? What should we look out for?

That's always a difficult question. In many of the applications I saw there was an emphasis on post-Internet art, which is a very interesting direction. There are many works that relate to new forms of communication or have images appropriated from the Internet, for instance. It's not necessarily Internet art per se—it's more dimensional media, looking at using the tools of the Internet era to make sculptures and video, for instance. But generally speaking this is very much the current trend. 

Every year, the Outset/Frieze London Fund provides Tate Modern curators with a stipend—and a relatively modest one, compared to what the megacollectors have at their disposal—to go into the fair first and buy work by emerging artists for the museum's collection. This year, the sum is £150,000 and the selectors include special guests like Kunsthalle Zurich director Beatrix Ruf. For the artists selected, it is, in effect, a mini Turner Prize, is it not?

(Laughs) It's true. But it's not limited to British artists or to artists under 50, so they've bought work by dead artists, they've bought work by older artists—Jack Whitten was one of the artists selected last year. So it's incredibly global, with art also being chosen from established artists in Latin America and other regions. What has been amazing is that for £150,000 the curators have been able to buy 12 or 13 works, so it shows that there's museum-quality art at the fair and it doesn't have to be in the millions to be serious art that a museum would like to collect. 

This year, a rather obscure painter by art-world standards, the Gulf war painter John Keane, complained that this special relationship with the Tate combined with Frieze's curatorial preference for the most avant-garde work contributes to a larger atmosphere where more traditional artists—like war painters—are excluded from the public eye. This has the ring of the Stuckists' well-worn protest of the Turner Prize, but it raises an interesting question: In an era when they have unprecedented influence, do art fairs have a responsibility to be fair in terms of showing the widest range of contemporary art? 

Well, you know, we're not a public organization, we're a private organization, so we don't have to answer to taxpayers. And of course the Tate does. We are looking for new ideas in art beyond the art of the past, and I think that if you look back through the history of art—even to the Old Masters—you'll find that the most innovative key artists were making work that broke with tradition. So we're looking for artists who are trying to do something different, and that also goes for painters and sculptors. And, generally, the galleries that are accepted are ones that are trying to push the boundaries with the art they show—and obviously we can't include every gallery and every artist in the fair.

We get three times the number of applications than we can accept, so there has to be a selection process, and there are the artists whose galleries don't get accepted. It's very flattering that they care about it so much and want to be part of it. I think mixing it up with the Tate's collection is a weird thing to do—obviously the Tate buys masses of art outside of Frieze, we make for a small percentage of their acquisitions, so if they wanted to buy John Keane's work they would have lots of opportunities to do that. We're not stopping them from buying anyone's work, and this is not his only opportunity to sell something to the Tate. So it's a bit unfair what he said about the fund, which is relatively small.

Back to art fairs, today they rule the art world, bringing snapshot-like views of contemporary art as it is being made at the moment to cities around the world. They have been a tremendous force in terms of creating a global art dialogue, but they have also been accused of a slew of harmful side effects: galleries are doing a bulk of their business at art fairs, meaning mid-tier dealers who can't afford the punishing travel schedule and booth and shipping fees are being pushed out of the market; dealers, as a result, are pressing their artists to turn out reams of new work to meet the international fair calendar, often curtailing creative development in favor of market-ready product lines; less of this art is being shown at local brick-and-mortar galleries, depriving hometown viewers of seeing it and of reviewers of weighing in. What do you make of these issues? Do you think they can or need to be ameliorated?  

It's a lot of stuff that's being left at the art fair's door in terms of responsibility. I have another take on this. There are some socio-political and economic reasons that the dynamic of gallery service has changed in the last 20 years, and I think those reasons drive all of the activities you mentioned. One of these reasons is that people have less time than they used to, so they're generally people who work and travel a lot and they don't have as much time to visit galleries as they used to, so art fairs are a very convenient way for them to see a lot of things in one place at one time. The other is the newly global nature of art. It used to be that for the majority of galleries, their collectors would live around the block and the dealers would bring art from around the country or around the world to the gallery and the collectors would basically buy it from them. In these times of much quicker communication and Facebook and Instagram, people are much more savvy about what's going on in art, and they don't need to go to their local gallery to find what they want—they can go to a gallery in a small town in Mexico or anywhere else. The art world is also much, much bigger than it used to be, so the market is much larger and there are many more galleries and artists now. This means it's also become more competitive. So this accounts for major shifts that none of us can do anything about, but to lay that responsibility with the art fairs is quite unfair, because there are such huge factors. 

When it comes to the work that's being made, I think, of course, that individual galleries need to side with their artists and responsibly regulate production. And, of course, that's completely within the artists' control. You know, artists can make one work a year or a thousand works a year, and they make that decision based on what they are comfortable with, what their public desires are, what their credibility desires are, and how many great ideas they have. But artists are extraordinarily strong personalities in most cases—they're not going to let their galleries tell them what to do because of an art fair.  

And of course, galleries are not obliged to do art fairs. Art fairs really exist for the galleries—the galleries are our clients, and we're there to serve them. It's up to them whether art fairs exist; if they don't want them to exist all they need to do is stop participating and art fairs would immediately not exist. So I think there are a lot of things being confused here.

But you could say this goes hand in hand with the way that, before, the direction of art was guided by the critics, followed by the curators, followed by the collectors who were trailing behind. Now that order has been reversed, with the collectors having unprecedented power in the way that they're able to build careers and sway the critical consensus, and art fairs are becoming the way that work is entering more and more private collections—which is the way that many people are seeing the latest work—and also museums, by way of gifts.

Yeah, that may be the case more in the United States more than it is in the rest of the world. But even in the States… I know the curators, I know the collectors, I see how museum collections work, I see how their boards work, and I think that the idea of the sway of collectors is massively overemphasized. You have to look at different levels of artists, and where different people encounter their work. And, ok, in the '50s you had Clement Greenberg who was very influential, and one critic could make or break a number of artists. Was that a healthy scenario? I don't think it was. There were artists who Greenberg championed who turned out to be pretty average and there were artists who he ripped to shreds who turned out to be good artists. But I do still think that critics have power, but I think that no one individual has the power that they did in the '50s and '60s—there's no individual critic or curator or collector or dealer who can make or break artists in the same way. It doesn't happen. This is because the art world is so much bigger. When there were only five or ten power-players that could happen; now there are more like a thousand, so you need at least a hundred of them getting behind someone for something major to happen. It's just a different world that we live in. 

But I'm not sure I buy the line that collectors are now more powerful than critics. I see people collect and I see the works they have, and I also see the way that curators make decisions on what to include in shows, and it's all part of a consensus—it's a consensus that builds up, it can be quick and it can be slow, but it requires a group of people. Collectors by themselves can build a market for certain artists—and we see this all the time—but if curators and critics aren't also behind those artists they're not going to enter the canon. And it's the same thing with critics—there are critic favorites who will never develop a serious market.

The much-liked Zoo Art Fair disappeared in 2009, and Frieze has existed without a serious contemporary-art competitor in London. Do you feel its only a matter of time before the Art Basel combine or an unlikely contestant like the Armory Show opens a satellite there?

Zoo was always the young art fair, kind of like Liste in Basel, but now there's a new young art fair called Saturday that has some good galleries participating. And I've noticed that there are two other new art fairs this year, so there are loads of satellite fairs, but I don't see anything coming in that has the scale of Frieze. As for Frieze Masters in New York, we have no plans for that right now.

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