Why art fairs are thriving

Submitted by Matthew on 6 November, 2013 - 1:31

“Frieze Art Fair” was held in Regent’s Park, London, from 17 to 20 October. Solidarity asked Lisa Le Feuvre, an art curator, about it. The interview started with Lisa putting a question to Solidarity.


Lisa Le Feuvre: My first response would be to ask Solidarity why you are choosing Frieze Art Fair as the impetus to talk about art, given that this is the most commercial side of art?

Are you not simply fuelling the market side of art by making this your choice of art to discuss? Indeed, why is it that you want to talk about the market and not the art?

Solidarity: We don’t have the resources to cover the visual arts regularly. We asked for comment on Frieze because the extent of publicity made us think readers would be interested.

So, in a way, the reply to the question is another question: why does the commercial art fair now get more publicity than exhibitions which are more accessible to most people?

L: I think in part it is the “festival” nature of an art fair that causes so much excitement — there are parties, perceived glamour, events and so on.

The ancillary events attract much attention because of the glitterati who attend them. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but it does distract from the art and the fact that art is an intellectual activity. You say “We don’t have the resources to cover the visual arts regularly”, but I think what you mean is that you do not prioritise the resources to cover the arts. I wonder why not?

S: We have tiny resources and we’re a political paper, so our coverage is focused on political and social things.

The wider world has changed in the last five years with the onset of the global economic crash and depression. Have those changes been reflected in changes in the Frieze art fairs?

L: Art is both social and political! Your question is about the art market, which is doing very well right now. The commercial side is not my area, but from all I can tell it is very robust.

Where art is suffering is in the non-commercial sectors, and we have an odd situation where sometimes commercial galleries make better exhibitions than public galleries because, very simply, they can afford to.

Most, although not all, public galleries rely on support from private dealers who commercially represent the artists. The spaces where the most challenging exhibitions can be found today are as likely to be in the commercial sector as the non-profit sector.

You asked what Frieze is; well, it is an art fair and all art fairs are commercial enterprises — just like any trade fair. Artworks are for sale in art fairs through commercial galleries, who take a stand within the Fair.

The galleries themselves represent artists within the art market. The buyers are private collectors and public collections.

The galleries pay a fee to have a booth and apply to be included. A changing selection panel of international experts makes the selection, and there are many more applications than acceptances.

Although sales are the driving force of the Fair, it is also a place where curators, artists, and those interested in art go because you see wonderful works of art that you otherwise would not see.

The art on show is between collections, or moving from the artist’s studio into a collection.

Without question Frieze Art Fair has had a major impact on the arts ecology of the UK. It has made London a site that international collectors, artists, curators and institutions travel to.

An art fair is not the best place to look at art. It is noisy, busy. Artwork is positioned to be sold, not to be intellectually engaged with.

But the fair does provide an opportunity to see artworks that would never otherwise be seen. In many way, an art fair is designed for specialists in art who look at the artworks and imagine them somewhere else.

S: Frieze Art Fair has taken place only since 2003. It has grown from 28,000 visitors to 70,000. Some other contemporary art fairs are older, for example Arco in Madrid dates back to 1982 and FIAC in Paris to 1974, but evidently the genre is recent and growing. What lies behind that?

L: Frieze London, and its sister fair Frieze Masters, are important because they do the job so very, very well. London is one of the international centres of art because across Britain we have the strongest galleries, the best art schools, one of the highest concentrations of artists and, because Britain is relatively small, it is easy to travel.

Because I am not in the commercial side, I do not travel that much to see art fairs, but Frieze is my home one and I find it a great pleasure to see art and exchange ideas with others.

Because of the fair’s intensity, museums and galleries across the country present strong exhibitions alongside it, and as a result for one week we can uncontestedly say that Britain is the most important place in the world for art.

This year I saw drawings by Malevich that I know I would never have seen otherwise, as well as sculptures by the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark, drawings by the Turkish feminist pioneer artist Nil Yalter, and other artworks that I would need to get on a plane to see otherwise.

Frieze is a place for art. Everything else is secondary.

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