Frieze Art Fair in America: Armory fights British invasion

imageFrieze Week stands a good chance of replacing the Armory Show as America’s biggest art fair when it arrives in New York. Colin Gleadell reports.

Which is the greatest contemporary art fair in America? Is it the Armory Show, the biggest home-grown fair in New York? Is it Art Basel/Miami Beach, the American off-shoot of Europe’s mighty Art Basel, which launched in Florida in 2002? Or will it be Frieze, the London fair, now 10 years old and another foreign brand? Frieze’s announcement that it will launch its first New York edition in May has been sending shivers down the backbones of its competitors.

The question arises because next week is Armory Arts Week in New York – a week, like Frieze Week in London, jam-packed with art fairs, auctions and exhibitions. According to its own literature, the Armory Show “is America’s leading fine art fair devoted to the fine art of the 20th and 21st centuries”. But in reality it is struggling.

The Armory Show began life in the bedrooms of New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel in 1994, run by four art dealers. Its hip, innovative style caught on, and so, in 1999, it moved to the large, historic 69th Regiment Armory building where, in 1913, America had its first modern art show. Outgrowing even that, it moved to two piers on the Hudson River on New York’s West Side, big enough last year to host over 270 galleries.

Much of the fair’s growth has been under the direction of the commercial property management firm Merchandise Mart Properties (MMP), which specialises in showroom buildings and trade show facilities and which bought the Armory Show in 2007. But has bigger meant better?

In 2009, it expanded to include not just contemporary art, but a large section for modern 20th century art. This was symptomatic of a rivalry that had developed between the Armory and the Art Dealers’ Association of America, as both fairs tried to cover the same territory. Not only that, the art dealer’s fair also moved its dates to go head-to-head with the Armory Show in the same week.

More importantly, though, the Armory Show’s reputation was hit by criticisms that, in its drive for profit, it had neglected the needs of exhibitors and overlooked the quality of the viewing experience. Critics said too many galleries were packed into small booths with not enough space for visitors to walk around and relax.

Although it had the support of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Museum of Modern Art, some collectors stopped visiting the Hudson River location, and several high-profile exhibitors dropped out. In fact, the turnover in exhibiting galleries became extreme. In 2010, 54 dropped out, and 92 came in who hadn’t exhibited the year before.

Such instability made the Armory Show ripe for replacement as a leading fair, and, nine months ago, Frieze announced that it was going to spread its wings and land in New York. Its directors, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, had been thinking about a New York fair since 2008. Since they opened the London fair, virtually obliterating the long-standing Art Cologne in the process, they have earned a reputation as merciless opportunists, “always looking for a gap in the market (and to crush the competition)”, according to Art Review magazine. But, says Slotover, “the initial idea came from our exhibitors”, who had reservations about the overly commercial directions that the fairs in New York and Miami were going in.

Following the Frieze announcement and the likelihood that more galleries would desert the Armory, MMP re-invested in the fair, and changed the management structure, bringing in as managing director Noah Horowitz, a graduate of the Courtauld Institute and director of the first VIP online art fair last year.

The results look promising. A number of high-end dealers are back, including David Zwirner (New York), Spruth Magers (London and Berlin), and Hyundai (Seoul). Stands in the overcrowded contemporary sector have been reduced by 25 per cent to allow galleries to present their art better. Wider aisles have been designed, and lounges and cafes have been improved. Most importantly, the emphasis on the art experience has returned. America’s latest cultural star, Chicago artist Theaster Gates, who makes symbolically charged sculptures from recycled materials, has been commissioned to make work for the fair, and galleries have been encouraged to present thematic displays rather than just an array of stock.

So, the competition has proved beneficial. The only question that remains is whether New York needs a major contemporary art fair, either on the Hudson or the East River, when the largest concentration of galleries in the world already form what is effectively a permanent art fair.

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