Why Artists (Secretly) Love Art Fairs: Ryan Gander Interviews Frieze Founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover

Artsy Editorial
Oct 12, 2013 2:14PM

When artist Ryan Gander asked Frieze co-founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover if their next stop was world domination, he wasn’t the first, or last, to question the trajectory of the pair, named by ArtReview as the 8th most powerful people in the art world. The duo founded Frieze magazine in 1991, Frieze London Art Fair in 2003, and last year, the latest of the Frieze empire, Frieze Masters and Frieze New York. After over a decade in the spotlight, Sharp and Slotover are well-accustomed to the pre-fair press circuit—as is Gander, who, as an artist, is asked again and again if he attends (and enjoys) art fairs. Sensing a promising dialogue between the three, Artsy paired Sharp and Slotover with Gander for a chat and listened in as Gander asked questions on the past and future of their fair, and—artist vs. art fair assumptions aside—confessed his love, and intimidation, for the alluring art bazaars.

RG: Right. So maybe we should start with [Frieze] Masters, because it’s the newest addition. It's interesting, because I saw you both coming out when I was going in last year and you looked really happy—sort of like you’d been to some Zen detox center. And I went in, and then I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more than any art fair I’ve ever been to, I think. And I was talking to someone the other night, and they suggested that artists enjoyed Masters more than other fairs because if you’re an artist of my age, there are things that you’re looking at that you have no direct competition with. It’s really interesting—that there’s not this air of jealousy or envy.

MS: Yeah. And also for artists, that’s the ambition, isn’t it? In one hundred years’ time to be in Masters. You’ve already made it into the contemporary fair.

RG: Well, you’re never around to see that bit, are you.

MS: [Laughs]

AS: [Laughs]. Not really... not unless there’s something you don't know. I mean part of the idea [for Frieze Masters] came out of a conversation, sitting around late at night with friends, with artists, just literally fixating on something that they were really interested in, whether a varnish on a 17th-century painting or something that they had ripped out of a book that you can see up on the wall in the studio. And you’re just thinking about what actually impacts the things that are coming out of studios today—what artists are thinking about when they’re making art. And quite a lot of those influences are the past. And then we thought: Well, we’re not art historians, but we can sort of figure out what seems relevant now. So that was the kind of logic there to us—creating a situation where that fair could happen.

RG: I think it works. Really well. I’m surprised, though, how busy the main fair is in comparison to Masters. When you go to the main fair, you see a lot of young art students, and school groups, and things like that, and you would imagine that the education system would be in history, not in this kind of very ‘now’, bling-bling kind of modern...

MS: Ryan Gander kind of stuff. [Laughs]

RG: [Laughs]

MS: It’s quite amazing. We’ve been looking at the ticket sales for this year, and they are up from last year because I think, you know, the buzz has got around, but it’s still 25% of the number of the contemporary fair. It is surprising. And I think what happened in Britain was that, you know, 20 years ago no one was looking at contemporary art; they were looking at historical [art]. You would get no one coming to contemporary art exhibitions. And basically the media interest has swung massively in the other direction—from much more about historical art and very little interest in contemporary art in Britain, to sort of the other direction where now if it’s historical it's kind of boring, but the media just want whatever is new and exciting.

RG: Do you think that has got something to do with the legacy of the young British art era, like a hangover of recent history?

MS: That’s a complicated question, I suppose, because I think certainly that was a generation of artists who wanted to connect with the broader public. And you could see it in their work—that they wanted it to be accessible. And they succeeded in that, for sure. But I think it's also a factor of the media now. You know, it’s a very competitive broadsheet newspaper landscape in Britain where you’ve got four competitive newspapers fighting to get the story first. And plus, a lot of people who visit the contemporary fair are artists who might be in the fair, they might have friends who are in the fair, they might have family in the fair, they might want to be in the fair one day, they might be students. So when you’re talking about living artists, you’ve got a big ecology there around the participants in the fair, which you just don’t have with historical art, I suppose. So I think it’s a combination of those things.

RG: It’s funny because as an artist I’m asked a lot if I enjoy going to art fairs. And I know that it's kind of unpopular or unfashionable to like art fairs or to admit to going to them because it seems like the practice is money-driven and there’s no integrity, blah blah blah. But essentially I love going to art fairs.

AS: Why?

RG: Well, because they scare me. Because I see things so many things that I’m jealous of or envious of. And the first thing I want to do is race back to the studio and make some work because I know I’m capable of better. So it’s almost like it’s instilled some kind of work ethic in me by going to them, which is funny. It’s like in a way that's the best drive, is to see something that you’re envious of. Like the negativity of it is actually positive in a way. But I was thinking about the way that artists go around fairs and the way that other professionals, curators or museums directors, go around the fair. And I was thinking that for artists the main currency is not actually money. You know, the time to make art and the studio space are the two most valuable things—time and space. I know you've made some recent changes to the main fair to do with time and space in its essence and how that functions with the spectators at the fair?

MS: Well, it’s going to be amazing, actually. I think anyone that’s been to the fair over the last ten years will walk into the fair this year and notice a major difference. The ceiling will have this linen fabric which will hide the tents and the lights. The floor is going to be a kind of wood painted gray throughout, so there might be a mixture of the carpet and the bare floorboards and the vinyl. The aisles are at least 20 to 30 percent wider. We’re reducing the number of tickets we sell by about 25 percent to make it calmer. And we totally redesigned the layout of the galleries, which distributes the big galleries throughout the fair as well. So I think it’s going to be quite a different experience. We were just looking at a map of it and we were inside yesterday looking at this new floor; it's really exciting. And the floor’s more solid as well. It will add to this stability. So we’ve put a lot of investment into it this year. We tried to get a wow factor.

RG: As a company, how do you quantify the experience—how good it is? I mean, what are the characteristics of finding out whether it’s working or not working?

AS: There are a few obvious ones: You look at the press response, you look whether galleries come back the next year. We’ve always had a very, very high re-application rate. So maybe that’s not such an easy one because we’ve done well on that historically, but it’s still an important indicator. And we actually do surveys of the general public, exhibitors, collectors. And of course this year some of those questions are focused on the changes that we’ve made, and we’ll see how people respond to them. So there are real metrics and data. And then of course there’s just the feeling that you can smell in the air, and the look on people’s faces; you know you were talking about how Matthew and I looked when we were walking out of Masters last year. You do see whether the people are happy and having a good time, and whether it feels like there’s a nice atmosphere in there.

RG: Yeah. It’s harder to validate and quantify though, isn’t it?

AS: Yeah. That’s why we do these surveys and research.

MS: And it is partly about how we feel walking around fair as well. If most people say to us, ‘it’s brilliant’ and we felt it wasn’t, we would still make changes. We know it really well now; we know what we think when we walk in. I mean, there are of course a lot of competing requirements: there’s general visitors, there’s collectors, there’s galleries, there’s artists, there’s our budgets, so you know it’s a lot that’s pulling us in different directions. We have to weigh factors to make the whole thing work, and it’s quite delicate. I mean, you have to get 98 percent of those decisions right. And there’s the [Frieze] Projects as well, which I know you took part in, which we want to disrupt the fair, but you don’t want it to disrupt the fair. [Laughs].

RG: I didn’t realize until I did a Frieze Project, what a difficult thing it is to do in that context. Because I mean, essentially for a lot of artists the first thing to do is to pull away from the politics of the situation that you’re in and to do some critique of that. I think it’s really tricky to get right. Is [Frieze] Projects still going to be dispersed around all the booths [this year]?

AS: Well no, actually, not this year. Nicola Lees has been the curator of [Frieze] Projects, and her vision for it was to create this constantly changing, performative space. It’s sort of a stage within the fair. And the remnants of what’s happened previously remain within it as it evolves. It was designed by an architect-artist, and there will be a different artist leading each day within the program. So it’s quite different; it’s a different kind of punctuation mechanism within the fair itself. I suppose it will become more overtly a destination. So it’ll be interesting to see how that feels differently this year. But it’s quite a significant change, because it will change from something passive to something that was more interactive, giving permission to an audience to be present in a different way than is normal within an art fair. For me [Frieze Projects have] been super impactful, and have created a whole atmosphere that give the fair an identity. So moving them into one site I think is quite brave on Nicola’s part. And we won’t know until we do it how it’s going to feel.

RG: Yeah. Well, change is as good as the rest.

MS: [Laughs]. Exactly.

AS: Gotta keep moving forward.

RG: So I wanted to ask you about the growth of Frieze—do you call it Frieze Family? The Tate calls it Tate Family.

MS: [Laughs]. That’s very nice. I think we should start doing that.  

RG: It’s an obvious and very cliché question, but because Frieze is an entity that is growing so much and that has changed so much in the last ten years. I was wondering where you imagine yourself in ten years’ time?

MS: [Laughs]

AS: On a really long holiday.

RG: Can I come with you?

AS: It’s been really fun 23 years. I mean, of course we’ve learned a lot the whole way through. Probably in terms of business, we’ve learned the most in the last 10 years as we grew from a magazine publisher to organising events as well; and that’s been a whole new set of challenges to  learn about—how to manage changes within it. It’s exciting times for us because we’ve worked with really great people, and everyone’s had an opportunity to get to grow, together. It’s really fun to get up and go to work every day, just thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to do this a bit better every day, I’m going to look at the world and see if I can add value in new ways each day’. And I think there are lots of things we want to do, and I really hope we manage to do quite a lot of them in the next ten years.

MS: I think it would be nice to just continue, organically, adding projects every few years, when we feel that the time is right and that we can do them properly. When there’s a demand. I mean, it’s funny, because we started two new fairs this year, so I think we get a lot of questions this year saying, ‘So, where next?’ as if we're going to start two new fairs every year. [Laughs] But that was ten years after the first fair.

RG: I think everyone expects world domination now, that's the problem.

MS: Yeah, exactly. So we’ve been trying to temper down those expectations, because as it turns out, the real trend is that every ten years we do something new.

RG: Finally, what is Duchamp’s favorite color?

AS: White

RG: I think the answer is that no one knows.

Portrait of Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp by Linda Nylind, courtesy of Linda Nylind and Frieze; Portrait of Ryan Gander at ‘Locked Room Scenario’ by Julian Abrams; Fair images, photography by Graham Carlow, courtesy of Graham Carlow/ Frieze.

Explore Artsy’s Frieze London and Frieze Masters features and follow our editorial coverage of the fairs.

Artsy Editorial