Much has been made over the last 14 months of "pop-up” art galleries in Palm Beach, Florida, Aspen, Colorado, and the Hamptons, New York, with dealers and collectors gushing about the wealthy provinces’ sales, attendance, and exposure.
Yes, New York’s galleries have been open (and selling art!) since at least last fall, and yes, there’s evidence that the trend of rich New Yorkers "fleeing” the city has been exaggerated-and is already in reverse.
But there hasn’t been anything in the art world to actually bring people, particularly out-of-towners, back to the city. There’s been nothing to coalesce around-nothing, dealers say, to bring energy back to a place that remains the contemporary art capital of the world.
At least, not until Frieze New York opens this week.
Collectors are flying in from around the US. VIP slots are nearly filled up, and general admission tickets, which cost as much US$265 (RM1,092), have completely sold out.
"It was strange, ” says Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner in Michael Werner gallery, which has a booth at the art fair,"I started to talk to American collectors, big collectors, who all said they were coming to the city for Frieze.”
‘They feel safe’
Frieze, which will open to VIPs on May 5 and to everyone else on the afternoon of May 6 and run through May 9, will be the first major art fair in New York since the Armory show last March, when the dominant response to Covid was "liberal amounts of hand sanitiser” and "fist bumps” instead of air kisses.
Large gatherings are still a thing of the past. Frieze will take place in a slimmed-down form at the Shed in Hudson Yards, with just 64 galleries and four not-for-profits exhibiting, in contrast to its normal 200. Attendance to the fair is by appointment only. Even major collectors have to make reservations; many are discovering, to their chagrin, that the choicest VIP times are already booked.
"We’ve had (collectors) expressing disappointment they didn’t sign up early enough” to get choice spots on the first two days of the fair, says the New York dealer Sean Kelly, whose Frieze booth includes work by Antony Gormley and Idris Khan.
Organisers of Frieze say expected attendees include KKR & Co co-founder Henry Kravis, tennis star Serena Williams, and the Dallas-based collectors Howard and Cindy Rachofsky. Even a few weeks ago, dealers say, this kind of enthusiasm and attendance would have been unthinkable.
"We have clients from all over America coming, ” says Marc Payot, the co-president of Hauser & Wirth, which has a booth at Frieze and is opening shows of Tetsumi Kudo and Frank Bowling in its Chelsea location to coincide with the fair’s opening day.
"I know people from California, several from Atlanta, Chicago. And that means that they feel safe. The fact they want to do this, and finally come back to New York, is fantastic news and sends a fantastic message.”
But still not the time to party
In years past, art fairs were occasions for cocktail receptions, sit-down dinners, gallery openings, and visits to collectors’ houses, each of which was a component of the art world ecosystem that helps to differentiate art buying from mere shopping.
This year, most of that is gone. Kelly’s gallery is just a few blocks from the Shed, and he’s opening a show of the artist Jose Dávila to coincide with the fair. There was the temptation, he says, to do "hors-d'oeuvres, cocktails, a press brunch, etc., and we’ve looked at those, but the general consensus is that people aren’t quite there yet in terms of having passed food on trays.”
It’s an opinion shared by nearly every gallery in attendance.
"I don’t think anyone really feels comfortable doing a big event at this point in time, ” says Jessie Washburne-Harris, an executive director at Marian Goodman Gallery. "But I would say with that, it’s actually become a special thing where you can connect with people.”
Washburne-Harris plans to do a small dinner with about 10 people, as well as a series of one-on-one meetings. VeneKlasen also says he’s doing a 10-person dinner at his house ("I had to dig up the old chefs I hadn’t used in a year”). Similarly, Payot says "the team will have an individual dinner or two with clients, but we’re not doing anything large. We really felt like it’s not the time to do so.”
It is time, however, to stand in front of art and sell it. After nearly a year of sending around JPEGs and PDFs and links to art fairs’ virtual previews, dealers say they’re excited, perhaps even raring, for in-person sales. "I would never have thought I’d miss them as much as I do, ” says Washburne-Harris.
Payot says the calculus for what to show at the fair has changed after a year of selling art remotely.
"In the digital world, flat pieces-paintings, mostly-are the most successful, ” he says. Given that Hauser & Wirth has, he continues,"a lot of sculpture in its programme, ” the gallery’s booth at Frieze will be making up for lost time: There will be sculptures by Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, and Simone Leigh, along with more two-dimensional fare including paintings by George Condo and Ed Clark.
Washburne-Harris, in contrast, says that her booth-a solo presentation of Annette Messager, a French artist whose installations are often dramatic and theatrical-didn’t change after a year of online sales. The booth will contain two of Messager’s installations, along with a series of her drawings. "Our presentation is very specific, ” Washburne-Harris says. "We like to do something more experimental at the fair.”
This year’s Frieze, dealers say, will be as much an opportunity to reintroduce themselves to existing collectors as it will be an occasion to meet new ones. "I’m bringing serious things, ” says VeneKlasen. "We have to show who we are again.”
He anticipates a steady stream of excited collectors, but is happy to acknowledge that "this all could be a fantasy. It could be that 20 people show up and it’s a bust. But it seems that a lot of people are coming.”
If for nothing else,"it’s nice, ” he concludes,"to be in New York in May.” - Bloomberg