Expert Eye

Tom Eccles on Transforming an Art Fair Into an Arena for Discourse

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Tom Eccles on Transforming an Art Fair Into an Arena for Discourse
Frieze Talks curator Tom Eccles

Here’s a riddle for you: why do people recoil from videos at art fairs, viewing them as confounding time-sucks, and yet so often gravitate toward the fairs’ talks programs? The answer is probably because the public programming at these perennial art souks tends to be strong, even occasionally unmissable, bringing together the field’s equivalent of thought leaders for intimate sessions that can yield valuable, and productive, sparks. This is particularly true in the case of the talks program that Bard Center for Curatorial Studies executive director Tom Eccles has been leading at Frieze New York since last year.

His maiden voyage was one for the history books. The lineup included Pussy Riot in conversation with New Yorker editor and heavyweight Kremlinologist David Remnick, Beatrix Ruf with Helen Marten and Jordan Wolfson, and other talks with Okwui Enwezor, Ubuweb founder Kenny Goldsmith, and Adam Szymczyk. This year Eccles is back with another ripped-from-the-headlines program, including Whitney curator Chrissie Iles chatting with Paul McCarthy and Leigh Ledare, 2016 “Made in L.A.” curator Hamza Walker chairing a panel on funny art, Manifesta 11 curator and artist Christian Jankowski in an imaginary conversation with Caetano Veloso, and a very special live edition of “Ask Jerry” with New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz.

How on earth does someone pull together such disparate voices, particularly in a finicky art world that brings to mind the title of Trent Lott’s congressional memoir Herding Cats? And why are there talks at art fairs in the first place? Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein raised these and other questions with Eccles, who organized this year’s edition of Frieze Talks with Frieze magazine associate editor Christy Lange.

When you gave your first Frieze Talks series last year, you really came out guns blazing. It was one of the most impressive discussion programs I’ve seen anywhere, with the highlight being David Remnick’s interview with Pussy Riot at the exact moment they were at the center of the news—it was great. So, what does it mean to curate a talks program? 

What does it mean to curate anything? That’s a question we examine a lot at Bard. The first goal of curating the program is to try to understand the context of where you are, and then to think “Ok, what do we do with the context of an art fair?” The first consideration is figuring out what you don’t do. I think for both Christy and I, the first impulse is to run miles away from your standard art-fair talks. They’re usually pretty promotional, they usually have something to do with collecting, all within a very affable setting with the guise of cultural relevance. We said, “Ok, let’s not do that.” 

Frieze and the other art fairs are phenomenal platforms. You get an intensely interested, knowledgeable, and engaged professional crowd, and you also get a very broad public. Our talks are free—they’re open to anyone who comes to the fair on a first come, first served basis. Last year we hit upon Pussy Riot and got David to moderate that conversation, and I like the idea that these are conversations rather than presentations as such—that they allow people into the kind of conversations that happen behind closed doors. They’re more like dinner parties than presentations. It’s quite an intimate theater that seats about a hundred people, so you’re sitting very close to the people participating. 

What are your considerations when drawing together a lineup?

The way we think about it is to first come up with a topic. What’s happening now? And can we maybe not address this absolutely directly, but instead touch down on various themes and ideas and hopefully some politics that are in the air at this moment? We certainly were in the post-Ferguson moment when we started putting this together. One of my first conversations was with Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem.

We had the Whitneyopening a few weeks before the fair, and it’s been 20 years since “Black Male” [Golden’s seminal 1995 Whitney survey]. I asked her: As someone who has been a museum director for almost 20 years, what would you say has changed? Is there a lack of change? What are the issues today? Who would you want to be in conversation with about it? It was really interesting to me that Thelma actually proposed [Brooklyn Museum director] Arnold Lehman.

How did the pairings come about?

We threw some names around with all the participants—it was a dialogue. For me, curating is always a dialogue, normally between the artists and myself. In this case, it’s a dialogue between myself and Christy and the participants we invite. What we like is that our participants are conversational, and the nature of these events is that people say things a little more freely because they know the person they’re talking with, so they can’t just get away with rhetoric.

It builds the intimacy of the space and showcases the fact that the people who are speaking actually know each other well, either through professional contacts, social contacts, or maybe even friendship, which is fine by me too. In this case, I knew that Leigh Ledare was friends with Paul McCarthy. If you did go to a dinner party or something you’d say, “Oh, that person really knows that person,” and then you start to wonder what they have in common that makes that bond. 

We were thinking about the talks series in the context of the post-Ferguson, post-Charlie Hebdo world, with particular emphasis on Charlie Hebdo. It’s funny, a lot of people were saying to me in private that they were kind of flabbergasted at the level of rhetorical support for Charlie Hebdo despite the fact that everybody has great reservations about what Charlie Hebdo was actually saying. We thought that Charlie Hebdo was kind of laughing down at its targets. Could we do something around laughing up? That was the starting point for thinking about how we might put this program together. 

These are hugely important topics, and polarizing ones as well. Is this is a challenge when pulling together speakers?

It was quite interesting as we were developing this, because I talked to a number of people who were willing to say things in private that they just weren’t willing to say in public or, let’s say, not ready to say in public. Finding people who either do or are willing to do so is a challenge. Let’s be honest—part of this is also to say, “Hey, there are actually many interesting voices out there, but they’re not being heard through conventional mechanisms.”

You probably have to search a little bit to learn about some of the people we’ve put in the talks. You have Casey Jane Ellison who’s a YouTube sensation, which is something of a first for me. When I first called her I said, “Oh my god, I’ve never spoken to a YouTube sensation before.” Whereas we’ve also got someone like Jerry Saltz, who we knew through the Village Voice or New York magazine, but who now has thousands of followers through Twitter and Instagram and social media. 

Running through the program are a lot of different approaches to media, whether it’s film, comedy, online publications—different modes of distribution and creation. If you went through the whole program and sat and watched every one, which I doubt anyone does except for me, you would recognize that. For example, in the first talk, “Next Top Models” with Alex Provan, you have a really interesting group of collaborative collectives who also work primarily through social media and the Internet.

You said earlier that your immediate reaction to setting up a talks program at an art fair is to avoid anything about collecting or the market. Could you explain that a little bit more? It’s a precisely counterintuitive move. 

I mean, I’ve got nothing against collecting. It would be a very bad position to have today! But there seems to be a certain saturation—all discussions around collecting tend to have certain tropes, which by the very nature of being tropes are such played-out ideas that I won’t go into them. They tend to be trotted out onstage at various art fairs. We kind of know what they are, and I think a talks program at an art fair should be something that’s quite unexpected.

I’m not saying it should be like going to a candy store and being served asparagus, but in a way you might enjoy your candy a little more if you’ve had your asparagus. If you take the possibility of having all these people coming to this cultural event seriously, you use that platform for something critical, intelligent, and—this year in particular—intelligently humorous.

One thing I’ve noticed is that you love curators in your talks. In your first year, for instance, you had Okwui Enwezor, who’s now the the curator of the Venice Biennale, and you had Adam Szymczyk, who is currently organizing dOCUMENTA. This year you have Thelma Golden, Hamza Walker who will curate the next “Made in L.A.” show, and Christian Jankowski who is curating the next Manifesta. What is about curators that you think makes them so ideal for this kind of format? 

Hopefully if you’re a good curator you’re articulate, you have a good synthetic mind, and you’re able to introduce ideas both on a high level and in an accessible mode. What we’re trying to do by bringing in the curators is to say to our audience, “This is going to be important—this is worth listening to.” It’s not just curators, of course, but curators are very good for this program because they tend not to talk about themselves but to talk about others. For an audience, they provide both information and an articulation of why something is important.

It seems that since the art world is such a social, information-craving kind of ecosystem there should be more mixed talks programs like this. In fact, a variety show format might lend itself to the art world, don’t you think? 

I set up a thing called “Tuesday Night Talks” about 20 years ago when I first started running the Public Art Fund. I think it was in 1996, and we didn’t really have any money. It was funny—we were called the Public Art Fund, but nobody knew who we were. I thought of setting up a talks program quite literally because of two things: talk is cheap, and it presented us and the artists we were working with in a public format.

I was astonished by how many people would come. The fact was we chose Tuesday night because in those days in New York there was nothing to do Tuesday night. I think times have probably changed—now there are too many things to do on a Tuesday night in New York. 

Art fairs are interesting in a way because you suddenly realize how big the art world has become. It’s huge! I was standing in a Frieze tent in London and just thought, “My gosh! I didn’t know all these people worked in the art world!” And everybody except for me was busy working. 

Now it's a global phenomenon, too, with numbers of people streaming into fairs around the world that are more in line with the crowds you see at arena concerts. When you put together these talks, how do you think about this audience?

If you look at our program this year, some people are almost household names—like Jerry Saltz, for example. But I don’t know how many people know Casey Jane Ellison, and I don’t know how many people know Leigh Ledare. They might know Paul McCarthy, but they probably don’t know Karley Sciortino, who is a really interesting author. What I’m hoping is that people will come and engage. Last year seemed interesting because we had this mass of people wanting to come to Pussy Riot, and people came back for the other talks. Each one reinforces the other.

I think you could definitely do two or three and see someone that maybe you always wanted to hear speak, but maybe also be introduced to someone who is completely new to you. On another level, I hope people come to these with the notion that they’re going to be engaged intellectually too. Part of the curating of it is also to say, “There are a lot of people who are interesting, but how many people can really get on a stage and hold an audience for an hour and come out with something that’s actually worth listening to?” 

How do you differentiate between this kind of programming and something you would do at Bard? 

We usually do our discussion on very specialized topics at Bard. At Frieze, one is always aware that the talks program has to appeal to a wide audience. It’s quite difficult to put together a program that sets a very high bar but that almost anybody could walk into and come out with something. 

What is “Ask Jerry” going to be? How is that going to work? 

Jerry is constantly firing out these missives across the art world through different platforms, so what we wanted to do was to have anybody from the audience or from the wider public put their own questions to Jerry. That will be mediated by me, and then we’ll also find a live way that people can ask Jerry questions. We’re putting Jerry on the spot, which he’s very good at handling. 

So you’re bringing Facebook to life.

Exactly.

To round things out, are you still doing the Sculpture Park? 

No. I did the first two in New York. The last one had the big Paul McCarthy balloon dog in front of the fair, and I thought that was so good we should never do it again. Sometimes you have to know when to stop.  

One last question: what would the ideal panel or artist talk look like?

In abstract terms, I think it would be a talk that becomes an artwork—an event that will never be repeated. I think we’ll have a few in this one.

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