The night before the inaugural Frieze art fair in October 2003, co-founder Matthew Slotover had a nightmare. That auspicious morning, he dreamt he’d arrived at Regent’s Park only to encounter a completely different tent, something far more incongruous than the white minimalist construction we’ve come to know. “It was a big top circus tent; they’d ordered the wrong one!” The inside was empty with a grass floor and horses roaming in the dark.

Luckily, the first fair went without incident — at least nothing like Slotover’s anxiety dream. Having etched itself into the art-world calendar, Frieze went on to transform the London art world, and while there’s much to celebrate, the anniversary also comes at a time of uncertainty for the art market and London; much has changed since those early heady days.

Before Frieze, the big European fairs were Art Basel (still is) and Art Cologne, which sold blue-chip art from a glass monolith on the Rhine. Locked out of the main fair, younger gallerists in Cologne took it upon themselves to break away and started the aptly named Unfair, which took place in 1992 and 1993. Held in a disused commercial space, the Unfair was abuzz, not just with gallerists and collectors but artists such as Damien Hirst, who staged a performance with identical twins sitting beneath a pair of Spot paintings, and Skip Arnold, who delivered himself in a crate. For the first time, the Unfair brought together emerging gallerists such as Daniel Buchholz, Jay Jopling, Maureen Paley and David Zwirner, now mainstays of the art market, all under the same roof.

A crowd of people gather around a large arch with a sign saying ‘Frieze Art Fair’.
Visitors entering Frieze at Regent’s Park in 2009 © Linda Nylind

The earliest discussions around a London fair took place in the mid-Nineties at the Atlantic Bar & Grill, in the sumptuous Art Deco basement of the Regent Palace Hotel just off Piccadilly Circus, when New York gallerist Matthew Marks floated the idea of supporting an event at the hotel. Restaurateur Oliver Peyton had just revived the Atlantic, filling its walls with contemporary art.

Marks’s suggestion came off the back of a similar initiative taking place in New York, where a group of gallerists came together to take over the Gramercy Park Hotel, turning individual rooms into art-fair booths. (Tracey Emin lay in a bed covered with one of her embroidered quilts, smoking cigarettes, becoming one of the fair’s main attractions.) The Gramercy International Art Fair eventually gave rise to The Armory Show, a far more ambitious project held across two waterfront piers, which was recently acquired by Frieze along with Expo Chicago.

When they first launched, these indie fairs, with artists on hand to present their projects, offered a viable alternative to the otherwise staid approach taken by the established fairs, which felt sterile by comparison, like a car showroom.

When the Frieze Art Fair opened in 2003, Tate Modern was only three years old, its visitor figures having surpassed expectations by millions. The British public, once scathing of contemporary art, had become more accepting thanks in part to the media interest surrounding the Young British Artists and the Turner Prize. As gallerist Sadie Coles says, “The opening of the Frieze fair was yet another symbol of progressive internationalism, reflecting the energy of London in the new millennium — a city with unparalleled public spaces, art schools and a rapidly expanding commercial gallery sector.”

An indigo magazine cover with with ‘frieze’ in lower-case yellow letters at the top and a painting of a yellow and orange butterfly at the centre. Below it is a yellow circle with the text: ‘pilot issue summer 1991 £3’.
The first issue of Frieze magazine, from 1991 © Courtesy Frieze

The Frieze brand had been established earlier through its magazine, launched in 1991, which lent the fair an air of curatorial authenticity. As co-founder Amanda Sharp recalls, “Our background through the magazine was with the artists, gallerists, writers and curators. We didn’t come to the fair knowing the collecting world.”

Many recall the fair’s early experimental leanings, with a mix of young and established galleries, sometimes facing each other across the aisles. Artist spaces such as Townhouse in Cairo and Vitamin Creative Space in Guangzhou were included even though they weren’t considered obvious commercial galleries. In the first year, The Wrong Gallery (an art project involving artist Maurizio Cattelan) presented an empty booth where child actors approached people in an attempt to sell a “constructed situation” by Tino Sehgal, reciting the edition number and price of their performative art work.

A man playing a banjo sits next to a table covered in candle holders, candelabras and lit candles.
The booth of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise was transformed into a flea market in 2007 © Frieze/Linda Nylind

Over time, certain gallerists allowed artists to take over their booths. Rob Pruitt turned Gavin Brown’s Enterprise into a flea market; Hauser & Wirth invited classics professor Mary Beard to open a fake museum; Anthea Hamilton presented huge pumpkins at Thomas Dane Gallery. With the arrival of Frieze Masters in 2012 for art from before the year 2000, Helly Nahmad Gallery transformed its booth into a series of immersive sets, including a recreation of a 1960s collector’s home and a 1940s psychiatric hospital inspired by Jean Dubuffet.

The fair’s artistic programme — Frieze Projects and Talks and Frieze Music — helped distinguish it from its rivals. While not alone in presenting talks or art projects, Frieze’s commissioning strategy was much more invested, ultimately changing the dynamic between artists and art fairs. As Sarah McCrory, who used to commission these projects for Frieze, says, “There was a special kind of naive ambition that came through Frieze Projects, where curators were allowed to run riot with large-scale commissions.” Some of the earliest Frieze Projects included an artificial hillside made from real grass by Paola Pivi, which visitors were invited to “roll down at their leisure”. Frieze was different. As Sharp says, “We believed a fair could be more than a purely transactional market space, which is why the architecture, design, food, projects and the talks programme were so important to us.”

An audience gathers around a large artificial grass slope while a person rolls down it.
‘Untitled (slope)’ (2003) by Paola Pivi at Frieze Projects © Courtesy Frieze

Over the years, the fair has also helped both the London art market and the city more broadly, with galleries reporting strong sales and new clients. Sensing the number of collectors passing through town, the auction houses moved their midseason sales into “Frieze Week”; across Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips, last October’s evening sales totalled nearly £160mn. London hotels continue to welcome guests in the lull after the summer, while top-end galleries book out entire restaurants. Then there are the countless people employed by the fair, from logistics companies to an army of ground staff.

Moreover, galleries and museums across the country benefit from special acquisition funds to spend at Frieze, such as the Frieze Tate Fund and the Contemporary Art Society’s Collections Fund, giving cash-strapped institutions the chance to buy transformative works.

It’s also refreshing to see a collegiate approach to Frieze Week, with galleries and institutions coming together to pull out all the stops. As the fair’s success radiates outwards, visitors are encouraged to explore West End and East End galleries, with the offer of an exemplary London-wide programme, which this year includes El Anatsui’s Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and Nicole Eisenman at the Whitechapel Gallery.

An oil painting depicting a surreal scene of different-coloured figures gathered around an orange car. The moon, some trees and a house looms ominously in the background.
‘The Triumph of Poverty’ (2009) by Nicole Eisenman © Leo Koenig Inc

So where are we now? Twenty years on and it is hard to escape a Covid- and austerity-bashed economy — arts organisations reel from budget cuts — and Brexit, which has left the UK struggling to compete and far less welcoming. Art Basel’s new Paris+ fair and the number of commercial galleries opening branches there represent a serious challenge to London. Moreover, during a cost of living crisis, can the public even afford Frieze tickets? It’s £245 for a “combined first preview” for both fairs; a single ticket at £75 is reduced to £46 at the weekend. Before Covid, the number of visitors across both fairs proved consistently high, with a peak of 110,000 in 2019. Last year’s 90,000 visitors, up from the previous year, suggests a return to form, but will London’s art world automatically do the same?

There’s a sense that the glitz and glamour of fairs such as Frieze detracts from regular gallery visits across the year and more intimate engagements with art. Where commercial galleries are concerned, big or small, fairs have become all-consuming one-stop extravaganzas, leaving them little choice other than to participate. But as galleries become more dependent on fairs, often appearing in several a year, they become exposed to sharply increased transport costs and rising overheads. Might this explain the trend for galleries to de-risk by focusing on more commercially viable practices such as figurative painting, as opposed to complex installations or time-based media?

A large multi-coloured abstract sculpture covered in patterns displayed on the grass of a leafy park.
Work by Yinka Shonibare in Frieze Sculpture in Regent’s Park © Linda Nylind

Frieze now sits alongside 300 art fairs worldwide that relentlessly contribute to the commercialisation of art — pressuring artists to come up with the goods, jettisoning fragile careers in favour of what the market desires. There’s also a tendency for fairs to become fashionable in the pursuit of bringing hot artists to an aspirant collector class. Seeing A-listers in the aisles makes Frieze seem sexier than most fairs, placing added pressure on galleries to live up to the advertisements and sponsorship provided by high-end fashion brands and luxury goods.

As fairs become more polished and more generic, should Frieze’s format change? Change may be in the air anyway, given concerns around the art world’s carbon footprint and the vast number of flights and long-haul shipments required to service international fairs.

A talking point at this year’s Art Basel was the Basel Social Club, an informal gathering of artists in a disused factory where artworks, including performances, appeared alongside ad hoc bars, sound stages, and food stations. A non-selling exhibition centred on artist interactions, collectors nevertheless descended in droves, with former Art Basel director Marc Spiegler serving cocktails. Is there life beyond the booth? When Frieze first opened it did things differently (just like new “non-fair” Minor Attractions will do this Frieze Week). Should it do so again?

As a sign of London’s resilience, the return of galleries to Cork Street and St James’s is welcome news. Eva Langret, director of Frieze London, says, “The UK remains the largest art market in Europe, and the second largest globally. It’s energising to see existing galleries such as Pilar Corrias, Stephen Friedman, Alison Jacques and Tiwani Contemporary taking up major new spaces.” With the opening of younger galleries such as Alice Amati, Guts Gallery and Harlesden High Street, London still offers the promise of discoveries, along with new art centres such as Margate and Manchester.

Meanwhile, the energy behind Frieze has far from dissipated. With its extended network of fairs including New York, Los Angeles and Seoul and recent full acquisition by entertainment giant Endeavor, Frieze is not hanging around. Victoria Siddall, former global director of Frieze’s fairs, points to the bigger picture: “Frieze has been constantly growing and adapting since it began, and it’s no surprise that it continues to do so today.” With its legacy of internationalism, the fair reminds us how 20 years ago the world came to London, just as Frieze now goes out to the world.

October 11-15,

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