On an Island in the River – Sunday in Randall’s Park with Frieze
I guess it is time to eat some words. In a welcome extended to Frieze Art Fair New York that was measured to the point of being somewhat surly, in which as it happens a culinary comparison figured, our editorial promised that “artcritical will do its duty and report on what it finds.” Well, what was found is, simply put, the best art fair this writer has visited in America.
At least, that is, in terms of creature comforts. The general level of art on show was respectable, in relation to other fairs, but not significantly or demonstrably higher than such rivals as the Armory Show or Art Basel Miami. And, by and large, this was not a fair of seriously high-end, blue-chip offerings. Instead there was a focus on younger artists, with an emphasis on collectible objects – with a predominance of painting and domestically scaled sculpture and not much by way of installation or video. Frieze seems to attract a classier, savvier average exhibitor perhaps on account of the very fact that it settled on a leaner roster of participants than its humungous, sprawling rivals; under one roof, it was in more than one sense contained.
And beautifully managed. The snaking tent is a triumph of design, affording a blessing rare enough alas in museums and almost unheard-of in North American fairs: natural, diffuse, overhead light. (This was perhaps a tad over-augmented the Sunday of my last visit with harsh artificial light to compensate for an overcast start to the day.) The curved layout avoids the oppressions of the grid so that as the viewer moves through the space there is a sense of progress, of arriving at a new bend in the curve. Spaces are neat but individualized and sight lines nicely varied. According to David Nolan of David Nolan Gallery, the organizers managed to “get rid of the politics” that is the art fair norm. The management told him “not one gallery complained about placement.” There is ample space between sections, booths are big, the floor is strictly a uniform, gray wood paneling – rather than the oppressive concrete, cheap carpeting and pretentious cacophony of individual booth flooring solutions that mar the fair going experience at convention centers and armories.
And because they had struck out with their own temporary structure at Randall’s Island, Frieze didn’t have to work with the catering contracts and intransigent unions of these venues. This meant invitations to top-notch eateries like The Fat Radish and the late Leo Castelli’s watering hole, Saint Ambrœus, and it meant relaxed, friendly staff. The perceived remoteness of the location and the steep entrance fee of $40 meant an absence of crowds. Exhibitors I spoke to do not regret the selected volume of attendees as it meant a more committed (read “likely to spend”) kind of viewer had a better time of it. According to Frieze exhibitor Alexander Gray, of Alexander Gray Associates, who has never exhibited at the rival Armory Show but has had challenging experiences shepherding collectors around the piers, “Art is an aspirational market; if the surroundings fail to inspire and engage, then some people are not going to bother.”
Other dealers I spoke with were candid about sales. A mid-level class of collector was identified who might have “blown their wad” for the year at the March fairs. Sales were “decent but not great” according to another trusted source. As word gets out of the superior visitor experience (for collectors and professionals if not the average enthusiast) that might change in 2013. But there is no question, whoever comes out top in sales figures, that the British invaders have raised the bar in the fair going experience.
Frieze continues Monday, May 7 through 6pm, with reduced tickets from 1pm (last entry at 5pm)