Kenny Schachter is a prominent collector and dealer. He’s also an irrepressible commenter on the art world. Here he vents on the founders of Frieze a few moments before their fair is set to open in New York. (Though it is surprisingly quiet around NYC these days. What art noise one hears is being generated by the auctions, not the upcoming fair.)
I saw the three of them eating lunch at the Wolseley and there was a palpable sense of tension: two proprietors of an art fair seemed to be facing off against an elder gallery owner like a police station interrogation. Almost an anomaly today, the dealer is a transparent, honorable, steady-as-a-rock character, decades on the scene, who had shown his support for the fair by continually participating in the early years when the event suffered hiccups from within and due to wider economic concerns. What I was later to discover was that they attempted to coerce him to shift to a new section of the fair that did not suit his program, and would have precluded participation of half the gallery stable. Oh, the capricious rules and players in the art world. What did the dealer do? What any self-respecting human would in the face of such groundless intransigence—walk.
And then there was the young gallerist who had accomplished a rarity at the last iteration of the fair, namely curating a site specific installation in the booth that turned upside down and blurred the sense of inside and outside, public and private. It was a wonderful, hardly commercial gesture, surely more costly than any return that could have been anticipated (or hoped for). And, above all, it was great art for the sake of art; sadly, this is a foreign sentiment in many quarters of the commercial (and institutional) art world. It’s money, money, money, art stars, art stars, and art stars, same shit different fair. Even the critics aren’t immune from being seduced by the darlings of art and commerce. Was there any reward from such an adventurous undertaking by the young dealer? Yes, he was summarily dismissed from the coming year, as the last booth wasn’t considered up to snuff.
During the brief but dark days of the art recession, when many galleries were teetering on going out of business, yet thinking of committing to fairs, low and behold Frieze offers up Frame to encourage less established galleries with more “challenging” art to participate. What was simply a factor of cold hard economic necessity was, for matters of PR, cloaked in words of altruistic do-goodism. There is such a stifling extent of homogeneity within the fair that it entails a huge effort geared towards making it stay that way. On one occasion the fair management went to great lengths to attempt to ensure that an architect’s sculptural seating elements were kept out of the event lest they dilute the purity of what the organizers (alone) narrowly define as art.
This isn’t the only time I have disparaged the powerful pair and fair. After the first few articles we met and discussed admission criteria, which they admittedly said they shouldn’t be doing. They then went on to state that due to the fact that I exhibit Zaha Hadid one month, Vito Acconci the next and that the program was just too unpredictable (shouldn’t it be?) that I could never expect to be admitted; and, that they’d rather see more of the same names again and again, names that consistently and constantly appear on the biennial and fair circuit. How tedious.
There was a benefit at a friend’s studio and Frieze presented, practically inaudibly and in a monotone. When patrons asked the owner to speak up, he replied that if the audience was quieter, perhaps they could hear. Such an arrogant lack of empathy is baffling; this is a service industry and Frieze is not an institution. I humbly tried to explain my position to his wife on an admittedly drunken night at a Swarovsky dinner and said something to the effect: “I have news for you, art fairs are trade shows, not museums or hospitals, created to communicate to the widest possible audience.” She may have stormed off the table, and I may have sent an apology letter. That lovely episode was followed by an Institute of Contemporary Art fundraising luncheon at which I was sat elbow to elbow with Frieze and we did not speak a single word from start to finish.
But let’s face it, the notion of the general public is anathema to a VIP crazed art market, from 3-tier openings depending on who you are (or perceived to be) to the entire New York Soho gallery community that picked up sticks and moved to Chelsea to run from the hoi polloi. More effort goes into deciding who not to invite to the openings than to who gets the golden tickets. God knows there are too many fairs but the carnivorous fashion in which Frieze went hunting for the jugulars of both London’s Pavilion of Art & Design (by opening Frieze Masters) and New York’s Armory was a zero sum game of mercilessness.
The cover of Fantastic Man Magazine, Spring and Summer 2012, features a Hollywood head shot (one among many posed portraits) of Mr. Frieze, and generously spread throughout the gushing palaver are some real gems. One such nugget was that thanks to Frieze, even cabbies could now appreciate contemporary art and see the roads as painted canvas. And best of all: “Coming from the critical perspective, I thought collectors were Idiots with money who fund the whole thing.” Coming from my perspective, some of the fairs are (the new) idiots with money.
To reassure, this is not a mere unhealthy grudge, no more or less than any other I harbor from time to time. I very much acknowledge and respect the enormous commercial success the Frieze brand has become in a relatively short period of time, defining the epitome of the high-end boutique fair going experience. I am fully aware this is a commercial enterprise from the get go, my only beef being that the proprietors paint it as much more, when in reality it’s more about avarice and mean spiritedness then setting about changing perceptions of art. Last year the two Frieze principals were bestowed with OBE’s, namely Officers of the Order of the British Empire, which brings to mind another possibility for the acronym: Officers smelling of the Odor of the Boring Establishment.