The Frieze Art Fair: An Interview With Executive Director Amanda Sharp

by Art Fag City on October 12, 2009 Events


Frieze Art Fair signage via GTF

Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover founded Frieze Magazine in 1991 with artist Tom Gidley. Twelve years later the two went on to create the widely respected Frieze Art Fair.  Now in their seventh year, Frieze opens once more in Regents Park London this week, running from October 15th – 18th. In this interview, I speak with Executive Director Amanda Sharp about Frieze fair’s history, show highlights, and ongoing directives.

PADDY JOHNSON: I want to start out by talking a little about how and why Frieze Art Fair was founded. Could you give readers a little background about this history of Frieze?

AMANDA SHARP: In the late 1990s, we were in London and we started an art magazine, Frieze. London was historically an important art city, but it hadn't had an international contemporary art fair and we were just thinking, “why isn’t this happening” and waiting for someone else to do it. And we waited for about five or six years, and finally just thought, “Ok. Well, no one else is going to do it.” The city has developed enormously in the last ten years. We’ve got extraordinary museums here. We’ve had a fantastic artist community evolve in to the 90s. Loads of really interesting commercial galleries have been opening up. And we felt at that point that there was enough interest in the city, that if we could get a very good list of galleries from all around the world to participate, then an international collector audience would also find a lot of benefits in coming to London in addition to seeing all those galleries under one roof over the course of few days. It just seemed like one of those obvious things, to be honest.

PJ: The cost of London is very expensive. How did you address that?

AS: We were really mindful of that. We felt that if we were going to do a fair here, it had to be competitive internationally in terms of price. So when we set up what we would charge galleries, we very consciously aimed to make it one of the less expensive fairs for people to do in terms of stand price. It was very much in the middle of the spectrum of the prices to do a fair in 2003, even though other events in London would have been charging much higher per square foot. We could do that, because we were looking at an international audience of exhibitors. And then we worked hard with hotels to get deals for dealers and we tried to come up with all kinds of small subsidies or ideas that would help gallerists, either with the cost or with the ease of being in London and at the fair. This meant discounts at the cafés in the fair or advice on different kinds of restaurants they could go to or guides to the city. We tried to make London as easy to navigate and as affordable as we possibly could.

PJ: And I take it that it continues ’till today?

AS: Yeah, I think it’s really important. London has so many extraordinary attributes, but it isn’t one of the cheapest places in the world, even though, I suppose, this year it’s 20% cheaper than it was two years ago for an American to come to London. It’s what, $1.59 to a pound now? And this time last year, I guess, it was $1.80 or $1.89. It actually feels quite similar in a lot of ways to New York, I think, in terms of price of restaurants and things like that. That sort of shock of being in London and it being expensive has been changed a little bit through the currency situation.

PJ: This is going to be my first time going to Frieze. Like a lot of my New York based readers who have maybe been to Miami and the New York Armory, I've experienced fewer European fairs. I wondered if you could talk about how you feel Frieze is different from some of the others, the Armory and Basel Miami likely being the most familiar to my readers.

AS: Well, I suppose, the one very obvious thing is that we chose to position Frieze right in the center of the city, in a park, in a temporary structure, rather than in a convention center. We did that for lots of different reasons, one of which was that we wanted that feeling of being uplifted by going in, with nice, beautiful light and good, great restaurants. We wanted architects designing it so we'd have really good design running through it. Not that feeling that you might have seen a computer show or a car exhibition there, you know, five days before hand. And it gave us a lot of room to be playful with the space, which created a kind of buzzy, exciting, energetic environment that fits very naturally into the culture of the city that it’s in. Any fair takes on, to a large extent, the identity of its city. That first may be true of Miami, example, Basel or probably for the Armory, although that’s evolved a lot over time. And, you know, [our] history gives us a slightly different starting point from a lot of other fair organizers. We, right from the start, wanted it to be a place where artists would feel comfortable. We also wanted to use the fair as a platform for activities that may not be viewed as a necessary part of a fair structure by other people. For example, the various projects and talks programs that we run are very much a foundation block of the fair and not grafted on as an additional thought. In certain years, I would say, to some degrees the fair was built around some of those projects.

PJ: Following from that, is there a highlight over your years of building the fair that stands out to you, like a project or a specific work?

AS: I think there are quite a few of them. I mean, obviously, we’re indebted to the galleries because they so often do really amazing, ambitious projects for the fair. From the start we talked to galleries and tried to encourage them to take a curatorial view on the fair and see if there were risky projects that might work for them within this context. Quite a lot of them stepped up and have done things that helped create a different atmosphere. Gavin Brown’s flea market that Rob Pruitt did on the stand a couple of years ago is a perfect example of that and was a real highlight. Rob’s got lots and lots of friends, many traveled from the States to set up stands and create this very concentrated, very active flea market where you could buy all kinds of things ranging from lipstick to an opportunity to have your photograph taken sitting on Rob Pruitt’s lap, dressed as a panda”¦That was a great project.

And then there’s been highlights from the Frieze projects program, like, for me, the Mike Nelson project, three years ago, that was first up in New York [through Creative Time]. Basically, he created a hidden sequence of three rooms that were almost like a forensic study of the fair. And when you walked in through one of the hidden doors into this labyrinth of rooms that occupied about 11 hundred square feet, it was almost if you walked into The Silence of the Lambs. They were discreet rooms separated by corridors and lit in the main by red bulbs in dark environments. One was a room where photographs were being developed and they were sort of disturbed and it looked as if someone was has just fled from the scene of the crime, in a way. And he actually had taken a thousand photographs of the build of the fair and they were strung up on the walls and on lines across the room. You could have been walking into a Late Victorian building in the center of London, for all you knew. You had no awareness, inside, that you were in a fair. It felt like a permanent structure that you were winding your way through and trying to figure out what was going on. It was really extraordinary, in the context of all this activity. It was hidden – there was no signage to lead you to it, so you had to discover it by walking into one of these doorways. It was encircled by gallery stands. It was a very substantial piece. And he was nominated for the Turner Prize because of that piece, that year. And I thought that was a real highlight for me. It was just really thrilling to be able to facilitate museum quality works by artists being created at the fair.

PJ: In contrast to that, what are some of the tougher parts of the job that you have to deal with?

AS: I’m going to sound awful. I don’t really know if there are any. I mean it’s really fun to do what we do. We get to work with 164 galleries from all around the world. It’s strange, perhaps, working the whole year towards a five-day event because it takes you a whole year before you can apply the things you've learned through out the year. And if you see something is wrong, you can’t necessarily fix it for a while.

But I’ve got no complaints. We’ve worked a lot with artists through the projects program and we’ve had the opportunity to introduce awards like the Cartier Award, now in it's fourth generation. Emerging artist Jordan Wolfson won it this year. Also Superflex made a film in four parts for our film program that will only be shown in the fair but will be screening on one of the main terrestrial television channels in Britain over four nights in three-minute segments. That could get audiences of over a million people a night. It is unusual to be in that privileged position to take contemporary art to that broad an audience. And we also get to do music. We’ve done all kinds of things in the past with people ranging from Stockhausen to Sunnn O))) and this year, you see them with dancers. Martin Creed has been co-commissioned to do this piece with Saddler's Wells. So that’s happening over the weekend during the fair. I don’t really know that there are any difficult bits there.

PJ: What tools does Frieze Fair have to combat economic downturns?

AS: I don’t know if we do have any. We’ve always believed that you put the faith in the art. By creating a very high quality fair the people who have a long sustained interest [in art] will continue to be interested in it. And that was a significant group of people before we even started the fair. [The demographic] has only grown and will continue to grow; the deepening interest in contemporary art is not going to change.

One new addition to the fair that might work well for people is a new section for younger, emerging galleries. It’s something that we’ve been working on for about three years and decided to do about 18 months ago, which is the Frame section.

PJ: Do some of them come from Zoo? Is it similar to the partnership that Basel have with Nada, where emerging galleries “graduate” as it were after their five yet limited stay, to Basel?

AS: No, no, but we’ve always been very supportive of Zoo in a way that I’m sure Basel are with Nada. This project with Frame came about because as the fair became very established, very fast, the pressure on space became really high. With so many good people wanting the space in the fair, it was becoming very hard for the committee to find space for new galleries. We didn’t want to be in a position where really interesting artists couldn’t be found space for in the fair. So that’s where the idea for Frame came from. And to make it possible for the younger galleries, we felt that it would be appropriate to help them by subsidizing the cost of it, to some degree, as well.

PJ: This sounds great.

AS: I am looking forward to Frame — I’m always excited when we do something for the first time. Until I walk into the fair on Wednesday morning, I don’t really know what it’s going to look like, so that’s always very exciting.

This post is the first in a year long interview series with art world professionals made possible with the support of Creative Capital.

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