Energizing the Art World

by Alex R. Travers 

7202907610_eb4aeff8c9_oThe Armory Show is over, the Whitney Biennial is winding down, and Frieze magazine founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover are on their way to the Big Apple to put the final touches on Frieze New York, one of today’s most innovative art fairs. When they arrive in town, they’ll check on the 280,000-square-foot tent, revisit a few galleries, take in the museum shows, and eat at some of New York’s hottest restaurants, eateries that will, no doubt, have outposts at the fair when it opens on May 9. Their trip will be filled with adventure. A new kind of adventure, that is. So when visitors disembark on Randall’s Island for the third year of Frieze, they’ll be in for some surprises.

That sense of the unexpected is the driving force behind Frieze. The founders make a habit of challenging conventions, first focusing on merit over expansion—throwing down a gauntlet to cash-craving competitors like the Armory Show—then holding Frieze on the hard-to-get-to Randall’s Island, and now underscoring “play” and “free time” as this year’s themes. But it’s not fair to pin the program down as being rebellious or frivolous. So much effort and research goes into screening galleries that Frieze actually projects a more accurate image of the global, competitive art world in the United States than other party-centric fairs like Art Basel Miami, say, or Scope.

“We’ve found that to be a very good discipline for us,” explains Slotover of the vetting process, “especially having seen other fairs grow enormously, because, while you can make more money that way, the quality often goes down and people can’t find anything.” His remark is a testament to the wellspring of stimulating artworks and projects that Frieze offers each year. In fact, the fair’s directors encourage galleries to showcase both emerging and established voices, giving gallerists a new canvas on which to paint. As for the location, says co-founder Sharp, “I think we did something pretty significant by putting it on Randall’s Island. We’ve gone to an area that is intrinsically part of New York—actually a part of Manhattan—and yet it’s unfamiliar to many Manhattanites.” And since the island’s history is associated with recreational activities and sports, Frieze’s themes of play and free time feel entirely appropriate.

According to Frieze Projects curator Cecilia Alemani, this year’s site-specific artists are encouraged to react to the location of the fair and to “create new spaces of social interaction.” Which means that the possibilities to provoke are endless. Alemani lets us in on a few secrets, however: The installation artist Naama Tsabar will organize a mini music festival; Koki Tanaka, whose work deals with the possibilities of choice, will invite representatives from local communities to share their experiences and life stories; and Marie Lorenz, a lover of strong tidal currents, will take viewers on boat trips to explore the shores of Randall’s Island. Also, Alemani says, “look out for a surreal soccer field with goals covered by glass.” (Talk about moving the goalposts, artistically and literally.) Since two of Alemani’s passions are philosophy and aesthetics, it’s easy to see why she’s continually tapped to helm Frieze Projects. Each year, the outdoor sculpture program echoes the pioneering spirit of the fair.

The restaurants are irresistible, too. Last year the Fat Radish, Frankies Spuntino, Mission Chinese Food, Roberta’s, and Sant Ambroeus all served their signature dishes at the fair. Perhaps a lot of them will return this year, except, obviously, Mission Chinese Food, which closed. In late 2013, however, Mission Chinese Food owner Danny Bowien opened Mission Cantina, and fans followed. But in New York, it’s a known fact that people follow the food. Slotover caught on to this: “We know our people love food, but we didn’t quite realize how much until we did this fair.” (A note to Slotover: One visitor told me she went to Roberta’s at Frieze last year just because there was “never a wait.” She also said, “Oh, and the art was amazing.”)

Now, as the dominant figures of the contemporary art world get ready to land on Randall’s Island for Frieze’s third go-round, art lovers wait in anticipation. It’s become one of the most talked-about events in the art world; more people—artists, critics, curators, fans—are paying attention, as well. It seems the fair’s directors and curators are keenly aware that New York’s hyper, art-packed month of March is wrapping up. And when the craze ends, Frieze’s story is just beginning.