New York City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito speaks at a Teamsters press conference targeting Frieze New York’s labor practices (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

New York City councilmembers and labor leaders, united under the auspices of Teamsters Joint Council 16, gave a press conference on the steps of City Hall yesterday, again blasting the use of non-union labor for Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island. Though the event was sparsely attended, with organizers outnumbering the press two-to-one, a meaningful tactical shift was announced: contra last year’s efforts, Frieze sponsor Deutsche Bank is no longer a target, and picketing has been supplanted by proposed legislative reform mandating union labor at private events held in City parks.

Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito summarized the gathered labor stance to Hyperallergic: “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.”

Mark-Viverito went on to cite the financially embattled Tavern on the Green revival as a previous instance in which the City was successfully pressured into protecting unionized labor, though conceding that such lobbying is difficult in Bloomberg’s fief. “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,” she said.


New York City Councilmember Mark Weprin speaks against Frieze New York’s labor practices

Frieze stands apart from other New York art fairs, including the Armory Show and the ADAA Art Show in declining to use union labor. The London-based organization instead staffs event workers from allegedly as far afield as “Wisconsin” and “parts of Europe,” according to George Miranda, president of Teamsters Joint Council 16. This workforce is hired via the event-planning firm Production Glue LLC of Manhattan; they did not respond to our request for comment by press time.

When Frieze’s inaugural 2012 show in New York drew similar labor criticism, it was picketed by members of Occupy Museums, and gave rise to an alternative show, “Un-Frieze,” offering art on an exchange system. Though a union-staffed Frieze’s precise financial advantages to the City are unclear — under the present non-union arrangement, the fair still contributes to the City’s tax base — Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district comprises Randall’s Island, underscored the perceived inequity of blockbuster contemporary art fairs that Un-Frieze sought to combat last year. “The residents of my community are not going to be able to gain entry to that event because I’m sure the admission fee is too high,” she said.


Banner prepared by the Teamsters for yesterday’s event in protest of Frieze hiring practices

The tension at play is certainly not new. Commercial art fairs hosted on government property operate with a double purpose, at once cultural events open to the public and showrooms catering to collectors — a duality that is anything but frictionless. Even some of the most progressive voices can find themselves clotheslined by the divide: at last year’s Frieze New York, the leftist literary journal n+1 sold sundry objets and subscriptions to its art offshoot Paper Monument from a paid booth, while protesters outside distributed copies of n+1’s Occupy! Gazette. The coincidence illustrated the thorny bramble of cultural politics and practice, the challenge of disaggregating art and commerce. And n+1 is far from alone in awkwardly navigating this landscape — asked about Occupy Museums after he slammed Frieze’s union aversion at yesterday’s event, Councilmember Mark Weprin told Hyperallergic, “I have heard of [Occupy Museums], I have heard people mention them, and I’ve seen reports in the press, but I personally have not had any interaction with them, nor am I asking them to come to my house or anything like that.”

UPDATE: Here’s Frieze’s statement on this matter, which is more or less identical to last year’s:

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.

Frieze has a track record of producing high-quality art fairs and has contracted reputable mainly local vendors with the appropriate skills and experience to prepare the Randall’s Island site for the upcoming art fair. We are not engaged in the construction industry in any respect but retain contractors as needed to build the fair according to our participating galleries’ needs. Our contractors have assured us that they comply with all laws and that they treat their employees fairly.

Frieze has a non-profit component to the business, Frieze Projects New York, that supports some of the most exciting contemporary artists working today and provides a public program to accompany the fair. At Frieze New York we aim to make a positive cultural and economic contribution to the City by creating the best art fair experience for our participating galleries and the public.

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

One reply on “Labor Issues in Spotlight as Frieze NY Prepares for May Art Fair [UPDATE]”

  1. We’re glad to see this insightful coverage of the situation. Like many participants, we found out about the labor issues surrounding Frieze upon arriving at the fair. This year, we chose not to participate. We believe that the Frieze Fair should abide by the labor standard set by other fairs and contract with union labor. Roger White and Dushko Petrovich, for Paper Monument

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