Q&A

Frieze NYC Director Amanda Sharp on the New Art Fair

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Frieze NYC Director Amanda Sharp on the New Art Fair

This week New York's already crowded chorus line of art fairs will have to make room for a hot young ingénue—albeit a ingenue with a chic English accent, impeccable manners, and an MFA from Goldsmiths. That, of course, would be Frieze NYC, the first offshoot of the blue-chip London fair that since its founding in 2003 has set a new standard for adventurous, "curated" fairs of contemporary art. Created by Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover as an outgrowth of their respected Frieze art magazine, the fair is known for its special sections like Frieze Projects—a group of artworks and installations commissioned by the fair—and Frame, which is devoted to solo artist presentations. The New York fair, running on Randall's Island from May 3-6, adds to that a new section, Focus, and an outdoor sculpture park, plus an artisinal collection of food stands by some of the most critically acclaimed new (and not-so-new) restaurants in the city, including Roberta's, the Fat Radish, Sant Ambroeus, and Frankies Spuntino.

To find out more about the fair, Artspace editor-in-chief spoke to Amanda Sharp about what to expect in the inaugural stateside edition, how to cope with art-fair bling, and whether Frieze NYC will surpass Art Basel Miami Beach as America's hottest art fair. For those who can't make it to the fair (and also for those who can), Artspace has gathered a collection of works by artists who will be featured at Frieze NYC that can be purchased at right.

Click here to also read our interview with NADA director Heather Hubbs on her new NYC fair.

You have managed to sign up 180 exhibitors for your debut fair, which is actually larger than your flagship London fair last October, is that right?

It is. And we actually can't build a bigger fair on that site-it's built to its maximum size from year one. It's quite a shock when you walk out there and realize quite how big it is, but then I feel very comfortable with it because I know that the quality of the galleries is so strong.

Nearly 30 galleries this year opted to do your fair rather than the Armory Show in March. What do you ascribe the excitement over Frieze New York to?

We only did the fair in New York because a lot of galleries came to us over the years and said, "Would you consider doing a fair in New York? We'd love to do a fair in New York but at the moment there isn't a fair there that we feel is right for us." So it very much came out of people suggesting to us that we did it, rather than us going to people and asking them to do it—which is a good starting point. I mean, the fair in London was a very immediate success. To be honest, we thought we were doing quite a modest project when we started, probably something that was just for the art community, so it was a real shock for us that the fair received so much attention and was so high-profile right from the very beginning. The fact that it engaged and took over a city rather than just bringing together a small community of the art world was very unexpected for us, and I think that people perhaps liked the energy of Frieze—they liked the fact that it was a very contemporary fair, that it has a very strong focus on sort of mock-curatorial, discovery-type presentations, and that it's a place where each year it feels quite fresh and new. I think that certainly the galleries have some expectation that we will be able to do something similar in New York. And we're very excited about that.

There was a steady drumbeat of news articles over the years with dealers being quoted on and off the record saying how they hoped Frieze would come to New York, and a noteworthy amount of those were New York dealers, which says something.

That's interesting to hear—I hadn't ever really paid attention to that. New York is such a fantastic city, and despite the sort of radical macroeconomic waves to the East and the radical globalization over the last ten years, the art world, to a large degree, hasn't really shifted its center. And New York is the epicenter, and it is for good reason because it has such an incredible breadth and depth of galleries and museums and a thriving artist community, and that's very appealing to us because we like doing an fair in a big city where seeing art in an art fair is only one way of engaging with art. And we're very firm believers that you need to go see exhibitions, go see shows, go to museums, and go to galleries, so people coming to visit a fair in New York get a great opportunity to do all of that as well as go to the fair itself.

For years New York's art fair landscape has been dominated by the Armory Show, with numerous satellites popping up around it and the ADAA fair occupying the tonier reaches of the market uptown. How do you describe the Frieze-shaped hole that you saw in this landscape?

[laughs] How do I describe it? Frieze is a very focused contemporary fair that is really showing the best of art made now from all over the world. And it's a truly international, high-quality fair and I hope that we can present that fair in an interesting context on Randall's Island that will mean people have to think about Manhattan in a different way. You know, perhaps many people aren't familiar with Randall's Island and it's a new place for them to go, but it's actually a relatively easy place for people to get to, which is a nice surprise. They will turn up, it will be unfamiliar, it will be unique, it won't look like anything they've seen before.

We're taking on a lot of the benefits of being on the island, where we can put up a sculpture park around the waterfront looking back out onto the Manhattan skyline. Cecilia [Alemani]'s done this wonderful program of artists' projects that, again, takes on a lot of the history and opportunities that Randall's Island affords us. We've got architects who have re-engineered structures to create a bespoke space that is very light and takes on the landscape as well, because it literally follows the contours of the land and has these open vistas where you can look outwards to the river and to the park. So you have a sort of permeable relationship on the site between the outside and the inside. And, gosh… I don't know quite how you describe what we're doing. I mean, it's an art fair! [laughs] But, really, I think it has the best of the rest of the world married with much of the most interesting work being done in America today as well.

And the dealers you have brought on are terrifically high-profile. You even managed to land Gagosian, the bluest of the blue-chip galleries in New York or anywhere, and they've never done a New York fair before. How did you convince them to come on board for what is really, at the end of the day, an experimental debut fair?

I guess they decided that they know us well—they've done the fair in London since the beginning—and that they believed we would do a good fair in New York. I hope they believed that we would bring in expanded audiences and people from all over the world to visit the fair. I guess it's a vote of faith in the fair that they were prepared to do it from year one, but I'm sure it's based on the experience of working with us from over the last decade.

Frieze has a reputation for taking a curated approach to the art fair, which makes a lot of sense considering both you and Matthew Slotover are editors after all. How would you describe your vision for how an art fair should operate aesthetically?

Well, you want to set up conversations between artists and galleries of different generations, don't you? So you want to create a space where the art can be displayed as best as possible, where there is the least distraction from the art. At the same time you want it to have clean lines, you want it to be as optimal a space as you can have within this kind of structure, which is very, very busy visually. So you want to pare things back, and if you go for spectacle or you create enjoyment aesthetically for visitors you have to ensure that where you do that it doesn't impact on gallery presentations. So we can introduce a great experience to a fair by doing some kind of architectural interventions, say, on the entrance to a fair, but then you wouldn't do something in the middle of a gallery area that could in any way aesthetically draw attention away from a gallery presentation. So you want to assure that, as an environment, the galleries have the opportunity to be most present, while at the same time making it a light sort of place that doesn't have too much of a didactic system to it but at the same time is easily navigable. You also want to give galleries all the tools possible to do the best presentation they can, and then you want to give visitors as many tools as possible to make it an easy site to move around.

How do you balance the needs of the visitor with the needs of the exhibitors?

There's no tension there—those things are work hand-in-hand—but I think the reason we work with architects is to make sure that you have a good flow, that it works like a city. This is like city planning because of the scale of it, and you want everything in the city to work well but at the same time you want to ensure that as people approach the fair they have a feeling of excitement through architecture and presentation and design. Already they're aware of the content of it, but there should be some transition from the world through to the site that the architecture helps you with, with the entrances as transition spaces that set up an expectation of what you're going to encounter when you go in. That's why you spend a lot of time thinking about how you light the entrance and why natural light is an important factor, and what the color spectrum of the official lighting is. And so you spend a lot of time and thought on that whether a wall is ten centimeters shorter or higher, or what color the floor is. In one of the very first years of the fair we had this beautiful chocolate brown carpet. We loved it, it looked gorgeous, absolutely fantastic. But every German gallerist in the fair hated it because they could see a speck of white in it. The minute there was anything that resembled dirt they wanted us to be hoovering it up because, for them, that was a disaster. Whereas the British gallerists loved it because it looked so beautiful. So I know that these are tiny details, but we agonize for months over what color paint within the grey spectrum we will use on the floor. I'm not sure whether many people are aware of these things, but I think it's the accumulation of all of those details that create the feeling of the environment.

Now, on the other side of this refinement of detail is what people love to complain about as "art fair bling"—the kind of show-stopping, often large-scale pieces that really draw attention to themselves. But, at the same time, when a fair lacks these kinds of grandstanding statements it can seem slightly anemic. How do you reconcile that at Frieze NYC?

It's an interesting question, isn't it, whether the grandstanding piece is about scale or is it about quality. You know, for a curator attending a fair if there's a very small early-'90s Peter Doig that hasn't been seen in 20 years that could be the thing that makes a fair. Or a piece by an artist that really doesn't produce work very often and is highly sought after, so it's exciting to see something new from them. David Zwirner, for example, is doing a Minimalist art stand in the fair—is that about spectacle or not? It's going to be drop-dead beautiful, incredibly elegant. I think that we'll see many people who do that in a quiet way and yet take a lot of the oxygen because it's just so good. There's been a lot written in the past about "art-fair art," the kind performative, interactive art that I guess Frieze Projects introduced when we started with presentations by artists like Paola Pivi slope and Mike Nelson that were actually initiated by the fair as opposed to the galleries. But then you've got the flea market by Rob Pruitt at Gavin Brown that was equally grandstanding in a different way. So I think that the way people are reading fairs changes very rapidly. And I have no doubts that at the fair there will be some very strong curatorial statements from certain galleries who are very good at delivering that, and those will get attention and I'm sure that both collectors and press will enjoy seeing them. But I think that for a lot of people who are very informed it will be either the unexpected special projects or single pieces that they are excited to see.

If you saw something that a gallery brought on the morning before the opening that was distracting from the overall presentation, would you ever ask them to remove it or shift it?

[laughs] Well, I think that we have faith in the galleries that are in the fair, and they all made proposals of what they wanted to show. They're all very good galleries, so you have to trust that they're going to make very interesting presentations. So, no, I wouldn't ever censor a piece.

Now, art fair food is usually a grade above airline food, but you've somehow managed to gather some of the buzziest and best-loved restaurants in New York City to set up a sort of deluxe food court at Frieze. How did you pull that off?

Um, by asking them. We have a tradition of this, and in London we've always worked with really fantastic restaurateurs as well. Matthew and I have always been very interested in food, and I think that one of the things that makes the fair a very enjoyable experience is simply being able to go there, spend time, and not need to leave—to have a fully rounded experience where you can actually sit down, have a nice cup of coffee, refresh yourself, take a pause, and go back out and see more art. We really want people to have an enjoyable experience, and part of that is being able to do the fair at their own pace and be able to have something nice to eat or drink whenever they want to take a break. And New York has fantastic food, so it just seems obvious that you would want to have good food in the fair the same way that you want to have good art, good design, and good architecture. I think it's very hard for people who do events in, say, a convention center to have great food because they may not be able to choose the way things are set up-they may have to work with the food vendors who are already in that space. But one of the great benefits of us being in a temporary structure and building our own site is that we can choose who we work with. So I'm really excited about the food at the fair.

I might point out that one of the nice places to get a cup of coffee at Frieze will be Sant Ambroeus, which is famous as a Gagosian hangout. I just can't help but wonder if that helped sweeten the deal for them.

You'll have to ask Larry. What can I say? I have no clue. It's funny, when we started in London, we brought in a restaurant called the Caprice where Leslie Waddington and Tim Taylor and various people eat lunch day in, day out. And of course it's nice for the restaurants because they see their regular clients and they feel part of this world, so there's this sort of natural fit for them to do the fair because they're actually involved in this world on a day-to-day basis. I think that's why they're excited about doing it probably.

You've said that if Frieze NYC is successful it will "change the art calendar in New York." I wonder: what criteria do you have for this inaugural fair to be deemed a success? What target are you aiming to hit?

I guess we hope that the galleries enjoy the fair and want to come back. That's the starting point, of course—it has to work for them. For us, I think it's important that we attract not only a local audience but a broader audience and I think also it would be wonderful if beyond the art audience we could bring in more of a cultural audience as well. I think all of those factors would help us look back and think, "Yes, that went well."

Speaking of bringing in a wider audience, much has been made of the fact that the fair is going to be on Randall's Island, which even to a native New Yorker like myself sounds complicated to reach. On Frieze's website, though, there are extensive directions for how to get to the island by subway, by bus, by ferry line, and by taxi. It's probably the case that most of the traffic is going to be coming in over the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, which is already a pretty busy bridge. How have you war-gamed the traffic scenario for the fair?

I don't think there's much concern about the bridge itself being busy. I've been over that bridge many times and I've never personally had a problem crossing it. And we've created a transport infrastructure to augment the one that exists already, and our ferries will be running every 15 minutes, so it takes about 20 minutes to go between 35th Street and the island. The bus shuttle I think runs every three or four minutes from 125th Street. And I know for a fact that there have been larger events on Randall's Island. For example, in the summer there is a concert program called Electric Zoo, and I went along last year and they had about 25,000 people, and all of those people left the island in under an hour. And they used exactly the same kinds of systems that we're creating for people to access the island. You know, I can trust this because I've seen this.

You're debuting a new section in this fair called "Focus" where you're presenting galleries that have been around since 2001. Why did you decide to introduce this section in New York rather than in London?

I felt with the New York fair it was very important for us that anyone who was doing good work could apply for the fair. We didn't want anyone to be excluded. And with "Focus" and "Frame," both sections are less expensive than the main section of the fair. I think that made it possible for any gallery who wanted to participate to apply, and I think that it also helps for the audience to gain insight into programs that they're not as familiar with if the stand presentations are very focused. So I think it works from both sides. When you do a "Frame" presentation with an exciting new artist and people get to see their work and have it explained to them, they get to know the gallery through that. With the "Focus" section the galleries are presenting between one and three artists, and as such I think it's a very good introduction to their programs for the audience. And for the galleries it was a manageable way of then being involved in the fair.

You've brought on a number of galleries like Canada, James Fuentes, and Simon Preston that are traditionally associated with NADA, even though NADA is introducing its own New York fair next week. How do you see Frieze and NADA relating?

Well, all of the three galleries you've mentioned have also participated in the London fair in the past couple of years, so they're not new galleries for Frieze. With NADA, I mean, I think there's a lot of opportunity for other fairs to exist around the Frieze fair because we can't accommodate all of the good galleries that apply to participate. So I certainly welcome any other interesting projects that happen around the same time as our fairs.

Now, while the art world is tremendously excited about Frieze coming to town, other constituencies have raised complaints. The New York carpenters union has brought up a labor issue with Frieze, with the main issue being that Frieze contractors are not receiving what they call "area standard wages." What is the situation there?

It's pretty simple. We've employed very reputable local vendors and they then deliver the job to us, and that's as much as we need to know, because these are people who do this all the time in the city and they have the appropriate skills and experience to work with us. We're not in dispute with anyone. So that's our perspective on it anyway.

Then there's also Occupy Museums, which has said that its members will stage a demonstration at the fair as a blow against the "financialization of art." As somebody who lives in downtown New York, I'm sure you've been following the Occupy movement and its various art offshoots. What do you make of their case?

Well, I'm on the board of Artists Space and they occupied Artists Space at one point for about 24 hours. And what was really disappointing I think for Stefan [Kalmár, director of Artists Space] and everyone involved was that there wasn't a very articulate political position, and that the more conversation was had the less they were able to sustain any position or engagement, and they just ended up leaving. So that's my own personal experience of it. It would be great if they had a clearer vision, perhaps, of what they were trying to achieve. I mean, I grew up in England and I was very lucky that I could visit the great museums without having to pay a fee to get in and that was fantastic for me as a child growing up in London. But that doesn't even seem to be their agenda, so I'm a little confused about what they're trying to achieve, to be honest.

Part of their protest seems to be driven by the notion that wealth isn't streaming into the art world in an equal proportion to its artists.

Interesting. I didn't know it was this sort of net-sum game. It's a very recent position, isn't it, the expectation that as a career choice you make art to be wealthy. I mean, when I entered the art world, it was a tiny minority of artists who were even able to subsist off their work without teaching or doing other kinds of activities. That used to be the norm, and I suppose that should probably continue to be the norm just because there are so many people who make work but there isn't necessarily an economy to support them all. So, yeah, it's complicated. Not everybody's a good artist, either.

Now, it's premature to talk about this, but there's already been some speculation that Frieze New York could one day supersede Art Basel Miami Beach as the preeminent American art fair—and this is in the air before your first stateside fair even takes place. Well, what do you make of that notion?

I think I should take the Fifth on that one. I think there's always room for anything good. They do a good fair, we'll do a good fair. Ultimately the only reason a fair is a good fair is if it has good galleries and good art—it's really not that much more complicated. So I'm confident that Frieze New York has a great list of galleries and so I think it will be a good fair. I don't really think about what other people are doing to be honest.

In closing, how do you get to Randall's Island?

Take the ferry! It's the really fun way to go.

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