From a cultural management perspective, Frieze Art Fair is a model early twenty-first century entity. It straddles both high end trade and the infrastructure development beloved of cultural management practitioners. With the Frieze Foundation and the Outset/Frieze Art Fair Fund to benefit the Tate Collection, it ticks several not-for-profit boxes, keeping it cool and worthy despite the megabucks that change hands under its auspices. It’s amusing to imagine the Directors (if they weren’t as clever as they are) meeting an Arts Council officer eight years ago, and having it firmly suggested that really, the way of the future was income generation and less dependence on public funding, so perhaps they might consider a bit less critical engagement and rather more commercial activity? Perhaps along with an education programme which ACE might contribute to? It’s more likely that the exchange was two-way, an example of osmosis of the zeitgeist. Whichever it is, Frieze Art Fair is most definitely born out of the dwindling power of the public sector into the cult of entrepreneurialism. It is art primarily as big business, not as public service.
Well so what? Does it matter? These are the times we live in. 60,000 visitors flocked to the four days of the Fair, sales were “in the millions” for one gallery alone, all “evidence of renewed confidence” according to the end of show press release. Recession calmed the buying frenzy of previous years, but it was basically business as usual.
The famous Frieze tent is both a literal and metaphorical market place; a visual demonstration of the dominance of the market not just within art, but within our public discourse. We have reached a point where no alternative is taken as seriously. There was some seriously good art on show at Frieze, with dealers in the main showing largely accessible physical artefacts that fit the format and customers of the space. But it is inescapable that much of that work is valued primarily for its financial potential over its intrinsic worth; and that at the stratospheric end of the financial spectrum, the excessive rewards of certain artistic brand names is both ludicrous and disturbing.
Critically acclaimed artists with a proven body of work made over many years sell for decent prices: Andreas Gursky’s magnificent ‘Kathedrale’ at White Cube sold for 500,000 euros. Two emergent artists whose idiosyncracy, skill and vision stand out, sell for prices that are reasonable in comparison to others – a sumptuous Ged Quinn painting is sold for £55,000, and one of Natalie Djurburg’s Venice Biennale ‘claymation’ films is “still cheap” at £14,000 for one of an edition of four. Which, if the gallery takes 50%, leaves the artist with a taxable £7000 for a piece of work that undoubtedly took £7000 of labour, if not more, without even attempting to quantify her intellectual property. Times this by four and she will receive £28,000; here is one artist who is not being over-rewarded. (It’s interesting to note the strategy of artificial scarcity being applied to moving image works. I wonder if she would make more if her work was available for £19.99 in the Tate shop checkout, or asda for that matter?) The new Frame section, for galleries that are less than six years old is interesting, but works on an apprenticeship model that perpetuates the status quo rather than questions it.
It has become a truism that the price of art is frequently dissociated from critical judgement of its quality. The market over the last ten years has become speculative, effectively a reflection of what very rich collectors and/or investment funds want to buy for future gain. This affects not just our educated perception and judgement but those of the interested public too, and the huge amounts of cash involved gives the market disproportionate influence. There is some fear of a growing disconnect between what is happening in the country’s art schools, which are concerned with underpinning theory and critical engagement, and the art marketplace. In another private-public sector positioning, the Frieze Foundation attempts to address this in a small way with specific commissions from working artists. But these were fairly low-profile at this year’s fair, apart from Ryan Gander’s project “We are Constant” – and Gander really can’t still be termed low profile.
If the marketplace is to have such influence, then the role of our public sector museums and galleries becomes ever more important as arbiters of judgement and status – and needs the clout to be enabled to do this. Yes, curators come to Frieze to see particular work and discuss future exhibitions in the public institutions, and museum directors buy at Frieze, in something of an unholy alliance with dealers. But the ratcheting up of prices over the last ten years has priced the public collections out of the market for a lot of work, in the UK at least, notwithstanding the Outset/Frieze Art Fair Fund buying six works costing £120,000 in total – welcome of course, but pennies on the scale of collection wealth.
For all its tick boxing, agility, foot in both camps, new projects, importation of cool and even worthiness, Frieze holds a mirror up to the tail end of our post modernist era. It sits squarely at the intersection between sincerity and showbiz, art to feed both the soul and the bank balance; vocational practice and the supply chain. It has brought these elements together in an entity that has taken on the characteristics of not just being something, but of being everything. In this era, money does not just talk very loudly, it has all but overwhelmed the conversation.