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Frieze, which started as an arts magazine in 1991 is turning 30 and announced several events to celebrate it, including an in-person Frieze New York, their annual art fair which was held online last year due to the pandemic. The 2021 fair will be a scaled-down and exclusive version of the previous fairs, featuring only 60 leading galleries, and held at The Shed, which is part of the high-end shopping and dining destination of Hudson Yards, Manhattan. It will be sponsored by Deutsche Bank which also sponsored the previous Frieze fairs in New York and elsewhere. Frieze New York already has a controversial history, but given the current state of the city, the choices listed above come across as even more controversial. In the middle of the worst pandemic in New York’s history, Frieze appears to be unfazed and aggressively pursuing making money.

The history of Frieze suggests that its founders, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover always had a soft spot for the riches of the art market. According to a staff writer who wishes to remain anonymous, they were intent to publish

a more readable, and less academic version of Artforum, which would also pay more attention to the market. So, they positioned themselves with the big money from the very beginning. Even if they thought they could serve the artist community, they always collaborated with sponsors who were too powerful to let such naïveté get in the way of making money.

Performing artist and educator Alicia Grullón, whose work focuses on the politics of presence agrees: “For someone like me, Frieze is an exclusive and elitist publication, designed to sell to the class who oversees the art world. They don’t appear to be interested in deeper, moral issues.”

In the late ‘90s, Frieze became arguably one of the most successful art periodicals of all time, and in the aftermath of the 2001 information technology crash, from which the big money recovered with remarkable ease, it decided to reinvent itself as a media events company. The debut of Frieze London in 2003 and the actions taken the following decade suggest that Sharp and Slotover saw themselves as media entrepreneurs. Multimedia artist Brett Wallace whose work focuses on labor and economy, believes that at some point in its trajectory, Frieze decided to attach itself to “the blue chip art market.” It was then they decided to become a brand. Wallace says “The idea of becoming a brand is something that became popular in the recovery from the dot-com bubble burst, and many emerging companies like Frieze  sought to promote themselves as content destinations, wanting to imitate successful models like Amazon.” Currently as well, Frieze is in the middle of a new rebranding campaign, to which end it hired Simon Fox, a media veteran, as their CEO.

That the founders were always interested in positioning themselves according to market dynamics is also evident from an anecdote, dating from preparations for the first fair. A gallery owner who wants to remain anonymous relates:

Once Sharp and Slotover decided to organize the London fair, they reached out to all the big galleries, and requested the contact information of their top five customers. Without an exception, every gallery supplied Frieze with these details. Mathew was exhilarated saying “Can you fucking believe they actually did it?”

While such moves helped them build an elite base, the success of Frieze London is also attributed to the art world’s own vanities. “The art world responded well to the fair because the art world inherently hates being left out,” says the gallery owner. “Besides, we all have this common notion that London always creates the  best hype.”

The next turning point was the 2008 market crash, from which the common people never truly recovered, but thanks to the government handouts and tax breaks, big capital emerged stronger than ever, and the art market grew exponentially. Frieze was well located to enjoy this market boom, and consolidated itself as an ideal conduit for fungible assets for the rich. Having developed good relationships with the billionaire art collector and the mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, in 2011, they were ready to bring their fair to New York.

Nighttime view of The Shed from the west, in Hudson Yards, Manhattan (photo by Ergo Sum courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Frieze New York’s 2011 debut was shadowed by labor disputes and protests which lasted for two years. In order to save money, Frieze refused to hire local union labor, which made the workers, activists, and artists irate. “In UK, there exists a general class of common people who willingly serve the upper classes,” says the staff writer. “This arrangement between the classes is consensual and cultural. But to imply a relationship of this sort in New York is considered a taboo. Amanda and Mathew, who are from London, simply didn’t understand the local nuances.”

Brett Wallace agrees and adds:

This is probably something unique to the big US cities like New York, where the unions are strong. But we have also learned during the quarantine that, there are places in the US where conservative governors expect common people to die in order to get the economy running.

Eventually Frieze came to terms with the local unions, a decision the arts writer Mostafa Heddaya thinks was “precipitated by the mounting visibility of objections to the fair’s labor practices.”

Between 2011 and 2019, Frieze New York became one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world. By 2015, the fair’s Guinness World Record breaking tent was 250,000 square feet, housing over 200 galleries, 11 restaurants, and a hotel hosting over 40,000 visitors. Determined to portray itself as an exclusive gathering for the upper classes, the fair charged $49 per ticket, and $19 extra for a ferry ride from Manhattan to Randall’s Island, public land for which it only paid $1 per square foot to rent from the city.

Last year, due to the pandemic, Frieze New York was held online. During the lockdown (unlike UK or London in particular), the United States and particularly New York were devastated. Seven times more people were infected, and four times more people died in the US, with nearly 10% of the more than half a million deaths happening in New York. The brunt of this humanitarian crisis was mostly shouldered by low-income communities. While ordinary citizens, many of whom are artists, suffered, the rich clientele to which Frieze cozies up took refuge in their country estates. It took more than two weeks to find a place to get tested, and another week or two to receive the results for ordinary people, whereas the rich threw lockdown parties at Hamptons, with private doctors on site, administering tests and delivering results to guests within minutes.

“At a moment like this”, says another artist who also would like to remain anonymous , “choosing The Shed as a venue to hold an in-person exclusive art fair exposes everything that is wrong with Frieze and the art market’s reliance on dark money. The Shed was originally marketed as a semi-public space, but became a symbol of privilege. It houses some of the most expensive brands and restaurants in the city.” It should be noted that The Shed hired Hans Ulrich Obrist as its senior artistic advisor, and Obrist is also the artistic director of the Serpentine Gallery in London, which suggests The Shed wants to attract a clientele very similar to Frieze.

Meanwhile Grullón asks whether Frieze is even aware of the financial controversy that surrounds The Shed. “The money for this structure was diverted from less wealthy neighborhoods” she points out. “The officials literally manipulated the zoning laws to take the funds which were destined for Harlem and gave it one of the richest sections of the city to develop another high-end shopping destination.” (However, none of The Shed’s financing came from the EB-5 loans that Grullón is referring to; these loans were given to the Related Companies, the developer behind Hudson Yards.)

Probably more controversial is Frieze’s insistence on teaming up with Deutsche Bank under the current circumstances. Historical facts like Deutsche Bank’s ties to the Third Reich, and its bankrolling  the Auschwitz concentration camp, are more intolerable today, because until recently the bank was also willing to provide Donald Trump with the necessary loans to maintain his business empire. Only after Trump lost his reelection bid, and his white supremacist supporters stormed the US congress in a coup attempt did the bank feel morally obliged to sever its ties with him. The toll of the pandemic on New York was a direct result of the incompetent Trump government, and it was exacerbated by rapacious policies that enabled him while pushing ordinary people into poverty. Today, New York seems to have effectively kicked out Trump, therefore it may not be the right place for Frieze to pretend as if nothing has happened.

Editor’s Note: In the above the author stated that the 2021 Frieze fair would be “held at The Shed, a high-end shopping and dining destination on Hudson Yards, Manhattan.” The piece has been reworded to make clear that The Shed is only part of the leisure destination that is Hudson Yards. Also, Alicia Grullón’s statement about The Shed’s financing is not entirely correct. None of The Shed’s funding came from EB-5 loans, so a line has been added in the text to indicate this, and to clarify the distinction between The Shed and the Hudson Yards complex.

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Murat Cem Mengüç

Murat Cem Mengüç is a freelance writer, artist and a historian who holds a PhD in history of MENA. He is the founder of Studio Teleocene, and currently based outside of Washington, DC.

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