Art for the Ultra-Rich Pays Off for Everyone at Frieze London

At London’s Frieze Art Fair, galleries attempting to win over the wealthy make it fun for the rest of us


London’s Frieze Art Fair is, by definition, for the very rich. Dealers often pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to instal millions of dollars of art for five days so an international coterie of collectors can walk through the tents in Regent’s Park to buy paintings, sculptures and installations.

But Frieze, which ran last week from Oct 4 to Oct 8, was a fair that’s also attended by hundreds of thousands of non-superrich visitors totalled 113,000 in 2016. Those visitors pay the significant sum of £55 (RM308.50) for the privilege to wander both the Frieze London tent, which showcases contemporary art, and Frieze Masters, a 10-minute walk away with more of a mix of modern, contemporary and occasionally ancient artworks.

For many years, those people were treated to a hodgepodge of art, with one booth blending into another, a phenomenon familiar even to the dealers whose art was on display. “By the end, you’re in visual pain,” says Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Gallery, which had booths at both Frieze London and Frieze Masters. “If it’s just thousands and thousands of things for sale latched onto the wall, it’s visually nauseating.”

Extravagant Presentations

As the art market has convulsed, though, and galleries’ financial prospects have begun to seem uncertain, a fair such as Frieze has taken on outsize importance.

In response, many galleries this year have installed extravagant presentations that are reminiscent of fully conceived exhibitions.

At one, the Berlin-based gallerist Esther Schipper used her booth to include a canopied pavilion with three-coloured, metallic curtains by the artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané. (Total price: €75,000, or roughly US$88,500, for all three curtains, including the canopy and the painted floor.) “It’s a bit like an haute couture run, where you’re showing what you’re capable of,” she says.

Neil Wenman, a director at Hauser & Wirth’s London Gallery, staged his booth in an attempt to mimic the interior of an actual museum. Under the title “Bronze Age c. 3,500 BC-AD 2017,” it included an audio tour, commissioned by the author and classicist Mary Beard, plus a range of bronze works, some for sale and some on loan from regional museums. “I think what I wanted to do was entertain, I suppose,” Wenman says. “It’s fun, hopefully it’s humorous, and it also gives us the opportunity to show lots of different artists and price levels.”

London’s Frieze Art Fair

The interior of Hauser & Wirth’s ‘Bronze age’ booth at Frieze London (Pic Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth)

The cheapest work was a pencil from the booth gift shop, which cost a pound. The most expensive was a bronze work by Louise Bourgeois, which cost “in the millions of dollars,” he says. Of Mary Beard’s participation, Wenman says, “She was totally up for it.”

At the booth of gallery Luxembourg & Dayan, dealer Daniella Luxembourg partnered with an Italian gallery, Gió Marconi, to present

a solo booth inspired by the house of the deceased, postwar, neo-avant-garde Italian artist, Enrico Baj. “When you just shovel the stuff into a booth, you look at the art, and you don’t like it anymore,” she says. “When it gets generic for dealers, you can’t hide it.”

Works at her booth were priced from €80,000 to €180,000, and many sold within the first hour. Of the furniture in the booth, which Luxembourg borrowed from Baj’s widow, she laughs. “It’s the worst furniture in the world, a pastiche of nothing,” she says. “If you’re not amusing yourself, what’s the point of it?”

Entertainment Value

Not every booth was theme park-like immersion, but even more staid examples, such as Luhring Augustine’s solo show of the deceased British artist Jeremy Moon’s paintings, sculptures and drawings, had a distinctly exhibition-like feel. “A lot of British collectors are here and recognise the work from the 1960s and 1970s,” says Donald Johnson Montenegro, a director at the gallery. Within the first few hours of the fair, one of Moon’s paintings, which were priced between US$125,000 and US$150,000, had sold, as had a sculpture, priced at US$50,000, while multiple other works had been placed on reserve.

This wasn’t Hauser & Wirth’s first time showing an immersive booth, nor was it for others. Careful, exhibition-like showcases have been popping up every once in a while. New York-based collector Robert Littman remembers a “magnificent, exhibition-like show at the Biennale des Antiquaires” that dealer Axel Vervoordt installed about 10 years ago, he says while walking through the fair last Wednesday. “It was just startling, [because when you walk through these fairs, when something is isolated, you tend to see it, and stop, and encompass it more than you would than if there were a gazillion things to look at.”

Schipper says her elaborate booth was partially a response to so-called fair fatigue, but there was a financial imperative, too. “There’s less and less people coming into the gallery to buy art,” she says. “This is one of the only platforms that remains supercommercial. We’re living from sales, we’re not living from anything else.”

Glimcher, the Pace director, had organised a solo booth at Frieze Masters showcasing work by deceased artist Saul Steinberg, which was somewhere between a “themed” booth and a straight presentation. More than 50 works by the artist (ranging from US$3,500 to around US$70,000) were peppered with ephemera from the artist’s studio and home, and included a massive, mixed-media installation Steinberg had made for Glimcher’s father, which he says was not for sale.

These elaborate booths are good news for jaded collectors, but it’s even better for the art-loving public, which pays for the privilege to see what a select few can buy. “The art world is a pyramid,” Glimcher says. “There’s a little tiny group of people on top who buy art, and tens of millions of people who love it underneath. And that tiny group on top doesn’t exist without those millions of art lovers. And now, galleries are finally figuring out that we need to tend to those tens of millions of people, too.”

Instead of mere window shopping, this year, the multiple, spectacle-heavy booths at Frieze meant that the masses will finally got what they pay for. — Bloomberg