Matthew Slotover and his partner Amanda Sharp are the founding directors of Frieze, which started as a magazine before branching out to include the annual Frieze art fair in London and since, a non-profit foundation. As the organisation prepares to extend its reach beyond the UK, Tank discussed future plans with Slotover.
Masoud Golsorkhi Frieze Art Fair has become almost like a cultural nuclear mushroom that goes off every year over London and colours the cultural life here. Did you ever have any idea it could become so big? Was there a plan?
Matthew Slotover Yes, it's a focus. We were aware from the beginning what art fairs can be if they're successful. The magazine had been going since 1991, the fair started in 2003. We'd been thinking about it for three or four years. We thought London deserved an art fair and had room for one. That seemed really obvious. We hadn't done a fair before, but we knew the galleries because they advertised in the magazine. The readers were the visitors of the fair so there was a logic that we were the link between these areas, even though the events side was new to us.
MG When did you start thinking, "what next?"
MS It was quite organic. We don't really have a five-year or ten-year plan. We probably should. Only now we are beginning to think in that way. We never really did before. The opportunity for the fair came along and then about five years ago, the galleries started saying, "We'd love to do an art fair in New York. If you were doing it, we would participate." So that encouraged us.
MG What do you think you will take to New York that the city doesn't have?
MS I think we have a model where it encompasses the city a bit more, works with the museums, the artist, the art world in the city. We're going to commission special projects, like we do here. It's a pop-up special venue at Ellis Island that people never usually go to, so it gives it an event feeling to it. You're going to have great restaurants there. It will be in May so hopefully the weather will be good and we can take ferries there. We don't want it to feel like a trade fair. We want it to feel like a festival. That's always been the ambition.
MG You are now a great brand. Are you considering other business extensions?
MS We have occasional days where we think, "Hey, let's do a hotel, an art school, a restaurant." Either things that we personally enjoy, or that other people have suggested.
MG It's interesting that you are doing a second Frieze in New York and not Shanghai, Rio or Beirut.
MS You know I'm really interested in what's going on in Latin America, Russia, Asia, the Middle East. I think what's happening in those places is the market is moving ahead of the art, almost.
The auction houses are all piling in and there is money mostly for brand-named artists. But if you look, there are a few interesting galleries in each of those places. Not that many. Probably more interesting artists than galleries. But the art market, really advertising in the fairs, it's for the galleries. That's the result.
MG For contemporary practice.
MS Yes. So you know, we need there to be a good 20, 30 cool galleries. And we've not found that to be the case in those areas. I think it will happen.
MG Did you go to Hong Kong Basel?
MS I've gone for the last two years. The western galleries are mainly selling brand-named artists and they're doing well. That's understandable because it's a new market. So the younger galleries are not doing so well for younger artists, which is our specialism. The local galleries are feeling a bit edged out by the international ones. And will be more and more so. The big question is, how soon will Asia become a sophisticated art market? But they're not just buying a name; they wouldn't take a risk if something is interesting or young.
MG The Masters! That came as a surprise. I have to say to me personally a very pleasant and positive surprise.
MS What excites us is not surprising other people but to surprise ourselves and help us learn. I see contemporary art as part of a 1000-year-old tradition. All artists were contemporary once. And when we started, no one was interested in contemporary art. It was all about traditions.
Everybody thought contemporary was rubbish. Now everybody thinks contemporary art is where it's at.
MG They've forgotten about…
MS Forgotten about the other stuff. And I think China is right. So, to put contemporary art in its historical context and vice versa, to show that, "You know what, this historical stuff, it's not boring." Some of it still looks amazingly radical. But to give it a contemporary angle, that's what we're trying to do with the art fair.
MS There is the suspect connoisseurship with Old Masters where you need to learn what's real, what's fake. Which school? That puts people off. It's easier with a temporary gallery for a living artist. We're going to show the whole range from ancient art to Old Masters, 20th century, even the '60s and '80s, to the '90s. MG: Your definition of masters is quite diverse.
MS It sounds like Old Masters but it's not. It's really about the dealer and the artist and to get stuff that looks fresh today. It's a challenge. But we've come across some incredibly exciting aspects. Fabrizio Moretti is on the committee. He's one of our Master dealers in London and Florence. We had a committee meeting and he pulled out on his iPhone and just showed us a painting that really looked like it was done yesterday. It was really incredible and it's 15th century.
MG How do you think the art market is going to look with the economic crisis getting deeper?
MS In 2008, we did an art fair that was three weeks after Lehman Brothers. Everyone was panicked. And it hit the fair that year for sure. Since then, I think we've been pleasantly surprised. It's not the crazy market it was in 2006 or 2007. But that was getting a bit uncomfortable for a lot of people. There was a lot of pressure, people fighting for artwork, people buying for investment. It seems pretty steady now. There are so many reasons for that. I mean people talk about art as an asset, an alternative investment. I think it's the size of the art world. If you look at the number of people now going to museums, making art, the number of museums there are, the number of galleries and the number of people collecting, it's increased enormously. It's become a global thing.
MG Globally, there has been a huge expansion of white walls, resulting in more places for art and greater consumption of it.
MS It's become a regular thing to visit art galleries, art museums. If you've got money to buy art, then it's almost odd not to be now… And that's a real cultural change. I don't think it's just about investments and booms and bust money. I think there's a cultural shift.
MG And you think it's not going to go away in a hurry?
MS I don't see it going away. People might downsize, they might buy less expensive art. But once you've got the habit of buying art, it does not go away, it moves around. Globalisation isn't something that has just happened to art, of course. It's happened to every business.
MG Two buildings are being built in Shanghai modelled on the Tate.
MS Yes. And publicly funded with the collections. So if they model it along the Tate, if it's free entry, and there's a big education programme, kids from schools go. Maybe you start to get into art when you're 20, you want to be an artist. Maybe at 40 you want to start collecting.
MG The circle is complete.
MS That's why I see museums as very important. And the media, of course. In China and parts of the Middle East with censorship issues, art is the opposite of that. Part of what art is about is doing things to annoy people. That's the whole point. So that's the challenge of such initiatives. You need public museums. But you also need the free space for expression. §