"We may not be the biggest, but the most competitive"
Interview with Matthew Slotover, director of the Frieze Art Fair
After starting up the art magazine Frieze in 1991, publishers Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp founded the Frieze Art Fair in 2003. Set in the idyllic surroundings of Regent's Park, the fair enters its eighth consecutive year in good health, thanks in part to Deutsche Bank's sustained sponsorship. Ossian Ward speaks to co-director Matthew Slotover about Frieze Art Fair's continuing importance and why London still rocks.
||Ossian Ward: This is now the seventh year of the fair with Deutsche Bank as its sponsor. What does that relationship mean to you?
Matthew Slotover: The beauty of Deutsche Bank is that they understand art. They have a long relationship with it and have the biggest corporate art collection in the world. Their commitment is long-term; that won't go away with the arrival of a new CEO, for example. For us it's a great sponsorship; they're not just there to supplement the bottom line. There's a huge crossover between their private wealth clients and our art collectors, but there's also a huge take-up from bank employees who want to come to the fair. It sends a positive message to the galleries as well; they like that Deutsche Bank buys art at the fair for their collection.
Looking back on the years of cooperating with Deutsche Bank, how did this partnership start in the beginning and how has it developed over the time?
The partnership began in the second year of Frieze Art Fair, when Mary Findlay and Alistair Hicks from Deutsche Bank's art department contacted us and asked us if we'd be interested in working with them. Naturally we jumped at it. Board members, including Pierre de Weck, also got involved and through many discussions we found ways that the relationship brings great benefits to both sides. Of course there is a written agreement but the relationship is good enough that if one side has an idea for an improvement, the other is happy to try to help. I can think of several times this has happened over the years and it has led both to improvements in the fair and to the value of the sponsorship to Deutsche Bank. For me this is the mark of a really successful relationship.
In 2010 there are 173 exhibitors at Frieze, which is more than at any previous edition of the fair. What was the reason for expanding?
This year we had more applicants than ever before. Maybe that's because the financial situation is a bit rosier now, or perhaps it's because - even in a difficult year like 2009 - the fair tends to perform pretty well. The number of galleries may have gone up slightly, but the fair is basically the same size: we've managed to even out the sizes of booths a bit, so that the main section features 148 galleries, with 25 in the younger Frame section.
You never think about doubling the size and just upping the number to 300 galleries?
We can't, simply because there are trees in the way of the tent. We've found that to be a very good discipline for us, 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. We're actually quite fortunate because we may not be the biggest fair, but we might be the most competitive.
There are a lot of Asian and South American galleries in the current list. Were you deliberately focusing on those areas?
It's hard to pick out any particular focus, as every gallery is selected on merit. However, over the years we've certainly seen more galleries coming from emerging territories, and this will continue as their art scenes and economies expand.
What about the collectors from those areas, do they come to Frieze?
They do. The best thing about London is that it's super-international - it's home to people from the Middle East, Russia, Hong Kong, Australia and so on. We have a small core of collectors here, but it's an incredible melting pot for people from the outside, even more so than New York, in my opinion.
How has Frame, the younger section of the fair, performed?
It did so well last year that the only concern was how best to follow it. Selection takes place purely on a project basis, not by gallery. It's a matter of how good the proposals are, and so only five galleries from 2009 are returning this year - we have a huge turnover. The idea is to keep it completely fresh and disrupt the main body of the fair. There should be lots of stuff even the hardened art critics, collectors, and curators don't know about.
Do you still see Frieze as being a young fair?
I don't actually; I see it as being quite broad. We have most of the big galleries that show contemporary art and a huge number of the mid-range ones, such as Modern Institute, which was a young gallery when we started the fair. So it doesn't take that long to grow up. I would say that our focus, our pivot, revolves around that generation of galleries who've been around maybe 10 or 20 years. There was a big group who started in the recession during the 1990s and I imagine there's another one coming up right now, but we're very proud to support a generation of galleries who also show younger artists and have kept themselves vibrant.
Do you, conversely, now feel like part of the establishment?
That was one of the reasons we brought in Frame, because we felt there was a whole generation of galleries doing exciting work that we didn't have room for at the fair. That's why we brought in advisors (this year's are Daniel Baumann from Basel and Cecilia Alemani, who's based in New York) to tell us about the best galleries from Berlin or from Los Angeles - you have to bring in expertise in order to learn about those areas yourself.
The new Frieze Projects curator is a Londoner, Sarah McCrory. How did you discover her?
Well, we actually worked with her the year before, when she was one of the Frame advisers with Daniel Baumann, and we got on really well. In fact, she worked at the very first Frieze Art Fair, minding our auditorium, when she was on the Royal College of Art's curating course, although over the last couple of years she's established herself in London with Studio Voltaire and Hauser & Wirth's Swallow Street space. We interviewed several people, but felt that Sarah brought fresh ideas and a grass-roots approach - she's very in touch with what younger artists are doing. The curators that we believe in are the ones who put the artists first and see their job as selecting them and then enabling them to do great work, rather than curators who have an overarching philosophy of an exhibition and treat artists' works as illustrations of that.
So Frieze Projects is not seen as a group show in any way, but rather as a series of individual pieces that have to work within the interstices or gaps in the fair?
Exactly. It's a very interesting, constrained task and must have the most visual competition of any job a curator could do. The artists must understand that context too, and be willing to work with it or even against it, if it's done deliberately. There is, however, a performative theme linking the Projects this year: almost all of them involve an active role for the artists or for the viewers as participants. Matthew Darbyshire's proposal is more of an architectural proposition for our box office tent, which is outside the fair. He's taking the language of the corporate high street, specifically of the T-Mobile store, and using the same hot pink color for the desk and the uniforms. It's a genuine challenge to the whole enterprise, not just to the visiting experience, but to the whole production of the fair.
Spartacus Chetwynd's intervention, "A Tax Haven Run By Women (In the Style of a Luna Park Game Show)," will be the largest project ever undertaken, area-wise, at the fair - is that correct?
She's taking over most of the big café at the end of the fair, where the Frame galleries are. There's going to be a large sculptural element based on a Japanese anime character, the Catbus, from Studio Ghibli's film My Neighbour Totoro, and for an hour a day that will be activated by a performance. She's also making beanbags, so people will also be able to sit on the remnants of it and eat their sandwiches.
There's a whole raft of new fairs debuting this year, including Multiplied, a print fair, and Sunday, previously in Berlin. Can London support more than one big fair?
The smaller ones are welcome, because we are limited in our space. Also, we don't have editions galleries in the fair - this was not a policy decision, because we always prioritize galleries working as primary representatives of artists. I'm more excited about Sunday, as I think that Zoo was a good addition, although I know they had a tough time last year. I see Sunday almost as a replacement for Zoo, and they have a pretty good chance because the space they have is close to Frieze and it's very international in focus.
v Are you optimistic about this fair and the financial climate?
It's been an odd year. The confidence in art and the amount people sell closely follows what the stock market does, yet it also fluctuates depending on the different reasons behind that collecting. You have doctors and lawyers who spend £30,000-40,000 a year on contemporary art and they don't want to stop, because they have excess wealth and they love it. Then you have people who are heavily invested in the stock market, and when they're making money they feel rich and go out and buy things, but if they're losing money they'll stop for a bit. Predictions for this year are so difficult - certainly something I've been hearing is that people believe that art is something physical they can buy and live with, especially while the property or stock markets are so unpredictable.
How about the new UK government's proposed cuts to arts funding? Will that have any impact on the fair at all?
The museums are a huge draw here, and I'm fairly confident that our government knows that this sector is a jewel in the crown. They're not going to hit the people doing really good work in their spending cuts. We're all in the boat together and we'll do whatever we can to support the museums in London. If it means that they're going to need to raise more money from the private sector, we can help with that. We bring a lot of collectors in that week who are also patrons of museums, and we'll do anything we can do to help them access those people.
Do you think the art world is changing, or is it just slowly getting back to business as usual?
What I hear from the galleries is that they're hiring again. Very little art was sold between late 2008 and early 2009, so everyone panicked. However, very few galleries closed - it hasn't been the bloodbath that was expected. My impression is that things are not back to where they were in 2006-07, when everything was massively overheated, but most people can continue reasonably happily. The basic model of artists needing commercial galleries to help them sell art has been around for over 100 years, and I don't think it's going to change. Fairs have taken on more prominence in the last 10 years or so and I don't see that changing either, because the art world has globalized to such an extent that you can't be everywhere and see everything. Also, as things get more virtual, people need more physical experiences as well, and so meeting or bumping into people gets more and more important too.
Frieze Art Fair
14–17 October 2010
Regent’s Park, London