Q&A

Frieze's Abby Bangser on Why Art Fairs Matter More Than Ever

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Frieze's Abby Bangser on Why Art Fairs Matter More Than Ever
Frieze's new Artistic Director for the Americas and Asia, Abby Bangser (photo by Stefanie Keenan).

Fundraising may not be the most alluring job in the art world, but it's certainly one of the most vital. Through her work at such influential institutions as the Guggenheim, LACMA, and the Serpentine Gallery, Abby Bangser has toiled behind the scenes to secure the capital necessary to support world-class collections and exhibitions. Now, in her new position as Frieze’s Artistic Director for the Americas and Asia, Bangser develops and maintains relationships with all of Frieze’s gallery, institutional, and collector contacts in those areas—a mammoth undertaking.

In the run-up to Frieze New York 2015, Artspace caught up with Bangser to talk about the centrality of art fairs in the new art economy, the swirling rumors of a Frieze Asia, and her affection for New England modernist architecture.

You became Frieze’s Artistic Director for the Americas and Asia earlier this year. What exactly does that position entail?

It’s a newly created role that’s part of the new management team for Frieze. Victoria Siddall, who founded Frieze Masters, is the overall director of all three fairs beginning this fall. Right now, we’re learning from Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover on this Frieze New York, and then we’ll be up and running in the fall.

Victoria’s reach is kind of global, and my colleague Jo Stella-Sawicka and I work with her as artistic directors. We’ve divided the globe, so Jo is working with Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and Africa and I’m working across the Americas and Asia. The idea is to be someone who can really be focused on all of our galleries in those regions of the world, and also all of the institutional relationships, the collector relationships, to make sure that we really have great intelligence of what’s going on in these areas and ensure that each Frieze fair is really representing them in the best and most dynamic way.

We also comprise what we’re calling the Frieze Art Fair strategy team, so we also participate together in conversations about overall vision and future ideas for the fair. I work out of the New York office, they work out of the London office, and we certainly meet a lot on Skype. 

Before you secured this position you worked at a number of other high-level art institutions, including the Serpentine Gallery, the Guggenheim, and LACMA. Through all of these different positions, how have you defined yourself? Are you an administrator, an organizer, a fundraiser, or something else entirely?

I would say in all of my roles—and this is true in my role at Frieze as well—I’ve worked to build communities for the institutions where I’ve been employed. In my background at LACMA and the Guggenheim, I was primarily working with the acquisitions groups. We raised significant dollar amounts, but what was more interesting about those groups, to me at least, was that they became communities, families, groups of friends, of people that cared about a specific thing. It’s thinking about how to extend what the museum is doing, what the art fair is doing, to reach new audiences and make sure that the audiences that do care about them are fully engaged.

At LACMA we had to bring in Hollywood, which historically was not engaged with the museum. We developed a great group that was purely focused on emerging L.A. artists, so we would go once a year over a weekend to about 12 artists’ studios back to back to back and make selections at the end of the weekend. There’s a lot of focus on emerging L.A. artists, so we’d have Angelenos who would support that but also people would come in from Boston and New York to join that group.

Similarly, at the Guggenheim I worked at a great group called the International Director’s Council, which was people from all over the world that wanted to get behind something at a high level at the museum. Now, at Frieze, we welcome thousands and thousands of people to the fairs, and all different types of people. It’s artists, it’s curators, it’s writers, collectors, gallerists, everyone. What I find really fascinating in this realm is working in the global art world while also discovering the intricacies of the art community in São Paulo or Minneapolis or San Francisco.

Part of your role as an organizer is to keep all these moving parts functioning as one, an often-unsung role. How did you find yourself working in this side of the art world? 

I enjoy collecting information and being able to use it, as well as my relationships, as a resource. I like to be very active—I have big, long days, and I like to think in lots of different directions, so that kind of central, gathering role works for me. I enjoy working with lots of different types of people, so I’m equally comfortable and happy to be in an artists studio or with a very academic museum curator or with a collector working on building a great collection in another part of the world.

In the three months since you’ve taken this post with Frieze, what would you say are the major differences between this organization and the institutions you’ve worked for in the past? 

The most obvious thing is that I’ve always worked for non-profit institutions. Frieze is of course a commercial art fair, but I think it’s an art fair with a sensitivity to the non-profit world. Even at Frieze New York, you’ll see that we have three booths that we offer complimentary to non-profits—Bidoun, SculptureCenter, and White Columns are all there. We also have a non-profit at Frieze called Frieze Projects that Cecilia Alemani curates and programs for New York.

The other key difference that’s kind of exciting about Frieze is that, for me at least, it’s more global. My work with the other institutions has been focused on very local communities. For example, I was very involved at LACMA with what was happening in Los Angeles specifically, which was an amazing opportunity to get to know the L.A. scene on every level, from artists to collectors to institutions. Here, the task is really to know all about art in the Americas and Asia, which is a huge part of the world. Luckily, we have a wonderful team of consultants that also join us throughout the world, so I work with consultants we have in China, in Brazil, in Mexico.

The biggest differences are actually in working styles. The fair could almost be seen as the run-up to a major exhibition, with all the programming and outreach that goes around that. At Frieze the majority of our staff is in London, so I’m here in New York at what is essentially a satellite office. In terms of working with collectors, it’s very different because the metric of success in this case is “Are collectors turning up to the fair, and are they buying art?” The ideal is that collectors and curators will be buying art for museums. My question in the non-profit institutions was “Are the collectors writing big checks, to fund exhibitions or acquisitions or programs?” Turning up and writing a check is a somewhat different ask. 

Which do you find to be the easier ask?

They’re just different. When people care so much about an artist’s work, and they really want to see it in the collection and have the capacity to do so, there aren’t a lot of barriers in place. In both cases, for me—and this isn’t everyone’s museum professional strategy—the strategy is to create a community that they want to be a part of. That’s the same at the fair as it is at the museum.

The Brazilian curator Adriano Pedrosa organized this year’s Frieze Spotlight section, mostly before you arrived on the scene. What was that process like for him, and how will you be involved in future Spotlight sections going forward?

The galleries applied to be in the Spotlight section last year, and the committees listened to and approved the curator’s selections last fall. We’ve been fine-tuning and organizing the presentations in the interim. I’m in the process of working on Spotlight with our new curator Clara Kim for the fall at Frieze London. Clara will also be carrying over to do Spotlight in New York in 2016.

This year is the first time we’ve had Spotlight in New York. It’s a section that we developed at Frieze Masters in London, and we’re really excited about it because it’s solo artists’ presentations with a specific concentration on work from the 1960s and ‘70s. I think it will be an interesting slice of art to look at alongside the more contemporary works at Frieze New York. We’re very lucky that Adriano is curating it—this is his final section with Frieze, as he’s now the artistic director at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo. With that job he can’t continue on doing sections for us, because it is a big undertaking. I’ve been really impressed by the amount of dedication and real work and commitment the curatorial advisors and in this case the curator really put in. I’ve already seen Clara do this for the fall.

The upcoming Spotlight section will focus on lesser-known 20th century artists. What’s the reason for including these sorts of figures? 

We think about Spotlight as a section to make discoveries. We’ve seen that in London this is often the first section museum curators go to at the fair, and we’ve had a number of museum acquisitions happen through this section. It features artists that are a little bit under the radar or overlooked that need to be revisited. These are not the people and paintings we know well. You’ll see a lot of craft-based work, you’ll see women artists, and you’ll see non-Western artists.

There’s a lot of responsibility and power that comes from wielding this kind of spotlight. When putting together an exhibition like this, one that aims to be a kind of corrective to the art history we’ve grown up with, what are the sorts of concerns at the forefront of your mind?

That’s a really good question. That responsibility doesn’t sit solely on our shoulders—that’s why we bring in such great curators. Really, my role is there to make sure that the section’s curator—in my case, Clara Kim—has every tool she needs to make those selections. That could be helping to make sure a gallerist is able to afford to do the section, so we help with barriers around that. We try to facilitate governments to step in with shipping, things like that. We want to make sure that these sections can happen according to that curatorial vision. That’s my role here, and historically that’s been Victoria’s role with Frieze Masters.

As someone who’s worked with all kinds of world-class curators over the years, what do you think makes for a great curator or curatorial program?

I think the desire to really want to realize an artist’s vision and to give the artist the space to do so. I think it’s important to have a real respect for that artistic process.

So it’s more about realizing an artist’s vision rather than presenting their own?

In my mind it is, especially when working with a living artist.

Switching gears a bit, a more personal question: do you collect art yourself? What do you look for in an artwork?

Not extensively. I’m very lucky to have some great artist friends who have been generous with me in the past. I’m married to someone who works in a gallery as well [Matthew Bangser, Senior Director of Blum & Poe New York], so we do support a lot of their artists when we can.

Personally I’m also very interested in design and architecture, so when moving back to New York from L.A. I actually moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, outside of the city. I think I’m the only person who has done this specifically for architecture [laughs]. We found one of the Modernist houses from 1964 that was associated with the Harvard Five group. This artist, Hugh Smallen, was from the next generation of architects in New Canaan working in the 1960s—he went to Yale rather than Harvard. There’s one street in New Canaan where there’s a cluster of these houses, right by where the Marcel Breuers are and very close to the Glass House as well. I’ve become quite passionate about the modernism of New England and the East Coast.

I’m from Connecticut myself, so I always like to hear people talking about that. It’s a history I think a lot of people don’t know about.

I so admire what the Glass House has done, and certainly thousands of people come on this pilgrimage to see it, but I do wonder when people go if they only think of Johnson in the area. So much of that story is missed—there’s 90 other Modernist houses still standing.

Whether in the press or in private conversation, it seems like people at all levels of the art world hierarchy love to hate art fairs. What do you think the role of art fairs is in today’s art economy? 

The art market is very important to how this whole system operates. Many galleries end up making contributions to museum exhibitions, or when an artwork sells the artist is directly profiting as well, which sustains his or her life and ability to keep making work. I don’t think we can completely distance ourselves from commerce, because it’s kind of what makes the system work. 

We’ll have 60,000 people come to Frieze New York, and the people that are coming through are the tastemakers of today’s art world. These fairs have become the gathering places, I think more than any other instances other than some of the the biennales, where you can share conversations in one space with colleagues from China and Beirut and Moscow and London. If you walk into any Frieze café during the fair, you’ll see major curators conducting important business with collectors and artists—imagining the next museum exhibition. These become the places that we get things done.

It’s a pilgrimage you almost have to make, that people do make, and it ends up marking your calendar for the year. You know that you’re in London in October, that you’re in Venice and New York in May. They’re opportunities to share in incredible conversations, and also to get a snapshot of the art world in a small space. To be able to walk a single tent and see galleries from Mexico, Italy, Germany, Korea, all over—that’s pretty unique.

Upon hearing about your new position at Frieze, several art news sources speculated that this might be a sign of a new Asian edition of Frieze. Can you put any of these rumors to rest? 

I saw that! I think it’s just a reading of the title. We do not have any plans for Asia right now. It’s truly just a way to give us a scope of where we’re working. We have galleries from Asia that come to the fair, so we need to have someone who has an awareness of and relationship with those areas. Very similarly, my colleague Jo Sawicka’s title includes Russia, the Middle East, and Africa—we’re not starting fairs in all of those areas either. 

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