After two years of protest, Frieze New York, the American offshoot of the London fair launched by the founders of the British magazine Frieze 11 years ago, will be employing union labor — in part this year and in full in 2015 and 2016. “What it simply was was a recognition that we all had to get along — we got together and made an agreement,” George Miranda, president of Joint Council 16, told Hyperallergic of the resolution. For his own part, Matthew Slotover, director of Frieze, wrote in an email that “We were really pleased with the agreement with the relevant unions, which followed an honest and constructive negotiation process.” The art fair, set for its third annual run on Randall’s Island this week, seems, by all accounts, poised for another successful weekend of selling art.
It doesn’t take a union absolutist to think that maybe an art fair, especially one publicly proclaiming progressive politics (Pussy Riot are set to speak this year), should be mindful of its labor practices.
Indeed, all participants interviewed for this story agreed that Frieze came to the table and negotiated in good faith, often going “above and beyond” what was being asked of them, according to Bernadette Kelly, a representative of the International Teamsters. “They wanted to make a difference,” Blithe Riley of Arts & Labor, an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) offshoot, said of Frieze’s intentions. The tenor of the praise was a world away from previous years’ rhetoric, where opposition to Frieze ran up the flagpole to the fair’s main sponsor, Deutsche Bank, and the mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg, a public proponent of the fair.
Frieze’s decision was, at least within the world of art, precipitated by the mounting visibility of objections to the fair’s labor practices — objections that last year passed from 2012’s peripheral protests to condemnation from Frieze-invited speakers and presenting artists. The fair’s unwillingness to reconsider this policy also cost them at least one minor participant in 2013: the art journal Paper Monument, which had a table in the publications section in 2012.
More important still was the tectonic shift in municipal politics. Out went Bloomberg the perceived oligarch, who in his final year in office was seen shopping at Frieze with his decorator, just as he had in 2012. (On encountering him there in 2013, Guy Trebay of the New York Times wrote: “The mayor was not taking questions, his aides said, perhaps to deflect further controversy over his outspoken support of the Frieze Art Fair which, unlike other local art fairs, employs low-wage, nonunion labor, although located on public land.”) Bill de Blasio’s inauguration in January 2014 elevated Frieze opponent and Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito to the position of Speaker of the New York City Council. Mark-Viverito had forcefully critiqued Frieze’s labor practices at an April 2013 press conference, and later organized a permit hearing regarding the fair’s use of Randall’s Island in October of that year. It’s unclear to what extent the organization resisted these efforts, if at all — Matthew Slotover denied that the fair ever lobbied municipal officials on the subject of permitting. “We … look forward to building relationships with the new administration and demonstrating our commitment to making the best possible local impact,” he said by email.
George Miranda, of the Teamsters, attributes the union success to this broader political change. “Obviously it helped that Melissa [Mark-Viverito] held hearings, and knowing that she was going to be Speaker, and that there was a progressive mayor. This never came up specifically [in discussions with Frieze] but that was the underlying theme,” he said.
Randall’s Island is a long way from New York’s fulcrums of cultural and political capital, a spit of land up the East River, more peninsula than island, protruding from a narrow strait along the southern border of the Bronx, its length running parallel Manhattan some 30 blocks, down to East 100th Street. Acquired under dubious circumstances by the Dutch nearly 400 ago, the island has variously served as private fief and public asylum, settling on its present use as a public park in 1930. Today it is home to parkland and sports facilities, including the Icahn Stadium, and is operated by the Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA), a public-private partnership founded in 1992 as the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation; in other words, the organization receives both public parks funding and private monies.
Already established as a major fair in London, Frieze New York required a great deal of open space for its Guinness World Record–setting tent. This project would receive the blessing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself an enthusiast of art, bigness, and London. The sitting mayor would trumpet the commercial fair in an official press release:
Frieze has a reputation for hosting world-class arts shows, and with Randall’s Island Park as the location and New York City’s waterfront as the backdrop, this new event should be extraordinary.
Bloomberg’s sympathies toward Frieze were complemented by his relationship with its venue: nonpublic tax records, accidentally disclosed and obtained by Hyperallergic, reveal that Bloomberg, via Bloomberg LP, had donated $1.42 million to RIPA by 2011. This made him the organization’s second-largest donor, after the activist investor Carl Icahn, who is the name sponsor of the sports stadium sited on the island. Bloomberg’s administration has been criticized for its lavish spending — nearly $200 million — on sporting and leisure amenities for the park, including a tennis center, while surrounding schools and parks languished. Mayor Bloomberg was also a client of Production Glue LLC, the non-union event production company hired to construct and manage the logistics of the fair.
Befitting this largess, the tent pitched in 2012 was a grand one, as Frieze has been sure to note. A recent press release (dated April 9, 2014) explained that the fair “is held in an architect-designed, temporary tent constructed on Randall’s Island. The 2012 installation set two Guinness World Records for the 225,000 square foot, 1,400 foot long tent — largest temporary stage and largest single-unit marquee in the United States.” (In 2013, Production Glue claimed that the tent swelled by a further 5,000 square feet — presumably another record.)
Perhaps more so than in other arenas of commerce, there can be a great deal of ideological slight-of-hand involved in selling high-cultural products. Between the enlightened editorial sensibility of Frieze, the fair’s dedication to programs that bring socially engaged and progressive artists and causes to the fore, and its long-term sponsorship relationship with Deutsche Bank, the organization has, like countless other art (and educational) organizations funneling capitalist patronage to conscientious programming and progressive art, played out the classic role of “both victim and executioner,” as Baudelaire once put it.
One of the most significant consequences of the Occupy Wall Street movement that descended on lower Manhattan in 2011 was a rejection of that cynicism and a renewed vigor in the alliance between cultural workers and actual workers. From Adbusters to n+1, cultural reviews found common cause with labor, united against the increasingly oligarchic structures of capital freed from democratic accountability. So when it first emerged that the Frieze fair, unlike the Armory and the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), New York’s other two major fairs, would not be employing union labor for the construction of its vast (and vastly temporary) facility, the initial protest fell not just to the slighted unions but to an offshoot of this newly formed consciousness. Occupy Museums staged protests at the exit of the 2012 Frieze Art Fair, passing out pamphlets and copies of the n+1-produced Occupy! Gazette into the hands and windows of fair patrons. An alternative event was also organized: Un-Frieze, a barter-based fair. The unions picketed Frieze sponsor Deutsche Bank at 60 Wall Street and joined Occupy Museums at the fair with a signature inflatable rat.
The Frieze art fair stuck by its decision, ostensibly made through Production Glue, the non-union contractor it had hired to produce the event (and the one that had staged events for Mayor Bloomberg). “Frieze is aware of the letter sent by the New York City District Council of Carpenters and would like to reassure everyone that we are not in a labor dispute with them or any other collective bargaining organization,” the organization told Gallerist. The following year, with no change in Frieze’s willingness to come to the table with the unions, the labor organizations brought their objections to City Hall, where a press conference was organized on April 18, 2013.
At that press conference, members of City Council joined union leadership in denouncing the fair’s practices and the Bloomberg administration’s complicity in the state of affairs. “There’s a lot of work to be done here. It’s unfortunately another example of how this administration has not been friendly to labor,” Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose District 8 encompasses Randall’s Island, told Hyperallergic then. “It’s not acceptable that a public resource [Randall’s Island] is taken offline for two months, and adding insult to injury, we have the operator of this event basically saying: we don’t want to hire local people, we don’t want to pay benefits,” she said, adding: “The residents of my community are not going to be able to gain entry to that event because I’m sure the admission fee [$42] is too high.”
Again, the Frieze fair denied that it was in a labor dispute, sending Hyperallergic a statement similar in language to the one issued in 2012:
Frieze would like to reassure everyone that we are not in a labor dispute with Teamsters Joint Council No.16 or any other collective bargaining organization. Frieze has never had a dispute with any union and has no disputes with any of its employees.
But this time, the unions had several inside sympathizers. Arts & Labor came to the fore, the Occupy offshoot that had come to work with the unions through the Sotheby’s art-handler’s union lockout in 2012. Arts & Labor was able to broker participation in a panel, organized as part of the “Frieze Talks” program, that brought together Nato Thompson, a curator at the public arts organization Creative Time, and Suzanne Lacy, the activist artist and professor at Otis College in California. Approached by Teamsters and Arts & Labor, the pair agreed to allow a representative to read statements on their behalf for 10 or so minutes.
Reached by phone last week, Suzanne Lacy had the following to say about the intervention she enabled at the 2013 fair:
Art fairs in general, Frieze being a good example — they are the most blatant aspects of art world consumerism and its lack of regard for social and economic equity. It’s a tremendously important site of intervention. It’s not just showing political work — I guess when they invited me that was part of their agenda — but I don’t believe in that; I believe in political action. Unions in this country are under deep attack, and I don’t think the Frieze people were aware of this in the broader sense. Unions support Democratic [party] politics, which is enormously politically significant.
Joining Lacy and Thompson in supporting the unions was the artist Andrea Bowers, who posted a letter of protest in the booths of the two galleries showing her work at the fair: Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects and Kaufmann Repetto, from Italy. Bowers recounted her struggle with participation in the fair, explaining that she ultimately decided to stay both to support her female-owned galleries, which she was afraid would experience undue hardships as a result of her withdrawal, and the possibility of critiquing Frieze from within. “There was a lot of debate as to whether or not I should take my work out,” she told Hyperallergic. “But looking back at the work of Michael Asher … for example, you get more attention if you leave your work in and post a letter.”
The gambit succeeded, with an accidental takedown of one of her letters by security staff further drawing attention to her cause. Bowers, whose work deals in appropriated labor signs and emblems, pursued other collaborations with the Arts & Labor and union coalition, contributing designs to their pamphlets. “Andrea gave us a little bit of moxy; she was very important and we’re very grateful,” Bernadette Kelly said. Bowers also spoke with Frieze Director Slotover, who reached out to her directly. “I was really impressed that he wanted to speak with me once he found out.” As for the fair’s reasons for refusing to sit down with Frieze in the first place, Bowers was told via one of her gallerists that “Matthew said he was being advised by some people” not to engage with the unions; exactly who that was remains unclear.
These gestures, while unsettling Frieze’s message from within, among its target audience, were paralleled by more significant changes in the broader political landscape of New York City. In October 2013 Melissa Mark-Viverito held a hearing on the use of Randall’s Island by the Frieze Art Fair. In January of this year, with de Blasio sworn in, she assumed the position of Speaker of the City Council. The departure of a sympathetic administration, one with a financial relationship with both the land and production company being used, probably mattered more than Art Review‘s downgrading Frieze’s Matthew Slotover and his business partner Amanda Sharp to the 27th slot (from 23rd) in their annual “Power 100.” The British publication even noted, in an accompanying entry, the fair’s continued use of non-union labor as “one likely reason why, although more US galleries signed up this time, the city hasn’t definitively clasped the British interloper to its bosom.”
With the writing on the wall, Frieze swiftly reversed course, in January 2014 hiring a lobbying firm, Capalino & Co, and a lawyer specializing in union negotiations. The conversation began in earnest, and by the end of February the negotiations became public in an article in The Art Newspaper. In April, the Teamsters and Frieze announced, in a joint press release, the resolution of their dispute. The agreement ensures that in addition to this year’s partial participation, the 2015 and 2016 workforce for Frieze’s setup and takedown will be fully staffed with union labor. At the two year mark, the contract will be up for renewal, though sources familiar with labor law explain that it’s difficult for organizations to de-unionize.
Joshua Smith, an artist who helped popularize the #StrikeFriezeNY hashtag on Twitter in February of this year, expressed surprise at the relative indifference in the art community to Frieze’s old labor policies. “I was kind of shocked that more people weren’t indignant … you want to keep yourself in check, you are part of an industry. Most artists I know have some pretty utopian social ideals, and historically that has gone hand in hand with organized labor. So it seemed really easy to me to be talking about that in public,” Smith said. (He briefly worked at Black Frame, the PR firm that now represents Frieze, though he says he quit for unrelated reasons before work on the account began.) After his tweets picked up the support of such prominent artists as Raymond Pettibon and Nicole Eisenman, among others, Slotover reached out to him directly over Twitter’s Direct Message function. Though he declined Slotover’s offer of a meeting, Smith appreciated the note and shared a statement from the Frieze director on his account. By that point the negotiations were already underway, and Slotover’s engagement was, in Smith’s words, “savvy and cool crisis management.”
It doesn’t take a union absolutist to think that maybe an art fair, especially one publicly proclaiming progressive politics (Pussy Riot are set to speak this year), should be mindful of its labor practices. That Frieze’s “come to Jesus” moment happened to take place after every possible card was stacked against it makes the decision to unionize, though certainly welcome, appear less like noble reform and more like noblesse oblige. In this mode, doing the right thing is significantly less important than having the right message, the appropriate affect, the correct brand.
There is a lot to be gained from keeping a cool distance, assuming a diplomatic indifference. As Ken Auletta observed in his withering assessment of the Bloomberg administration published in The New Yorker last August, public support for the mayor was abetted by the perception that Bloomberg was somehow “cleaner” than the city he represented, an enlightened technocrat who is himself a rarefied patron of culture, above the horse-trading fray of city politics:
Part of Bloomberg’s appeal to New Yorkers is that he is perceived as being above the grubbiness of city politics. Many Democrats and independents, especially among the upper middle class and the wealthy, are grateful for the money — more than two hundred million dollars — that he has donated to the city’s cultural and social-service organizations.
This impression turned out to be a mirage — just as Bloomberg’s patronage of the Randall’s Island Parks Alliance paled in comparison to the public funds he tapped to build recreational amenities there for his affluent Manhattan constituents. It’s a contradiction so obvious it’s nearly a truism: in its default mode, culture is not neutral; it is mercenary — in existence if not message — to the power structures that bring it into the world. In an August 2012 interview with Frieze magazine, the curator Nato Thompson opined on the hypocrisy engendered by this superstructure: “the arts in general reflect the conservative logic of their underlying economic values. … This is in some ways the problem of Frieze having an art fair. It is a basic conflict of interest.” If Frieze, by all accounts a thoughtful and intelligently edited magazine, can find itself so clotheslined, what hope is there for the rest? “I realize Frieze isn’t the only one in this conundrum,” he continues. “We all are. But it isn’t enough to just put our hands in the air and say, ‘oh well.'”
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!