A Day in the Life of a Tour Guide

What does it take to be a Frieze New York tour guide?

Paul Teasdale  What led you to give tours at the fair?

Christine Minas  I studied art in London – at University College London for my undergraduate and then the Courtauld Institute for my Masters – and after that I came back to New York and worked at the Frick Collection. I then moved to Canada to work at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, only to return in 2010 when I began working for a gallery that shows here in the fair: James Cohan in Chelsea. We actually participated in the first Frieze New York, so I’ve seen multiple sides of the fair.

Between then and now I started my own art consulting company so I often find myself at fairs – including this one – with my own clients. I was actually enquiring about obtaining tickets for a client of mine when a friend asked me: ‘Have you ever thought about giving tours, not just to your own clients?’

PT  Do people get the option about how they want the tour to be structured?

CM  Groups or individuals book tours online at frieze.com and request what kind of tour they’re interested in. The three main tours that are offered are highlights of the fair, contemporary masters, which focuses on the blue chip galleries, and a tour focusing on emerging artists.

All photographs: Mark Blower; courtesy: Mark Blower/Frieze

All photographs: Mark Blower; courtesy: Mark Blower/Frieze

All photographs: Mark Blower; courtesy: Mark Blower/Frieze

PT  What’s the level of art expertise amongst the people who book tours?

CM  It really varies, but generally speaking I find that people who choose the highlights tour may have never been to Frieze New York before. First and foremost, they want to understand what a fair is all about. Generally, the people who choose the contemporary masters tour have some idea about the art market; they know some names of the major artists and galleries. 

PT  Is it tricky to know which level you should pitch at when discussing works?

CM  I get an idea right at the beginning of the tour, when we meet to gather headphones (which are great, by the way. They allow me to speak at a regular pitch and volume, and the tour party can hear me while moving around.) I ask them if they’ve been to a fair before, who their favourite artists are, and so on.

You have to actually see the work, how it all fits together, what speaks to what. It makes a big difference.

I then try and give an overview of the structure: information on the gallery world, the process of getting into Frieze, the curators involved, the fact that museum curators come through with a view to add to their own permanent collections, the way galleries network, etc. I also talk about things that are very visceral: works that are beautiful or exciting or offensive or interesting. I touch on the market but I don’t put a big emphasis on it; that’s the aspect that gets the played out the most in the mainstream press.

PT  How do you decide which works to highlight?

CM  We are given a bit of framework in terms of sections we should focus on. For example, we pay attention to Frame and Focus during the emerging artists tour, but beyond that the choice of which works we single out is ours. All of the tour guides come from different backgrounds – some are artists, others are from a curatorial background – so that informs the tours and makes each of them different. It’s a very live, organic process.

PT  How long does it take to gather all of the relevant background information?

CM  The longer you work in this business the more general knowledge you acquire with regards to which galleries show which artists, what those artists are doing, and so on, but until you see the works in real life you can’t plan anything. You have to actually see the work, how it all fits together, what speaks to what. It makes a big difference.

PT  Given the scale of the fair, and the number of exhibitors, do people find the tours at all taxing?

CM  The tent is as long as four football fields and one length usually lasts about one hour, so you have to make selections carefully, almost like a math equation. I often hear people saying they’re extremely tired and overwhelmed by the end of their visit, so it’s something I address at the beginning. I tell them: ‘You’re going to get overwhelmed, but that’s ok’. I remember the first art fair I went to and the feeling that there was so much visual information to take in, it was hard to see the wood for the trees. 

What makes art unique and what brings people to the fair is the enjoyment of art itself, and that quite often tends to been forgotten.

PT  What are your highlights from this year’s fair?

CM  What’s very special about Frieze New York is the Spotlight section, curated by Clara Kim who works for Tate in London. It’s like a little museum show in its own right, and I think that’s what makes the whole fair distinct: it has a curatorial rigour throughout. Spotlight highlights incredible period artists who would ordinarily appear in the Frieze Masters fair in London. Many of the other contemporary art fairs in the US don’t have that special component. It’s very distinctive.

PT  What kind of questions do you get asked during your tours?

CM  A common one is: ‘What’s the most expensive piece in the fair?’ And on every tour someone will ask what percentage of people here are buyers.

PT  What’s the most surprising question you’ve had?

CM  There’s one that I’m asked constantly, and it’s very simple: ‘Is it ok to just buy art that you like?’ I think that’s the biggest indicator of where the art world is right now. In the press there’s always such an emphasis placed on high end art works and auction prices – the business side of things – and that leads young or new collectors to think that they should primarily be concerned with those things as well and that if they can’t be part of it at that level they shouldn’t participate at all. It always surprises me. I always say, you know what, just buy what you like.                                  

PT  So the answer is yes?

CM  Yes! Especially at pricepoints that are not breaking the bank. Earlier this week I heard the artist Eric Fischl give a talk, and he asked: ‘Why does art have to be like the rest of business? Why can’t it be pleasure, why can’t it be enlightenment, why can’t it be annoyance? Why does it always have to be a business deal?’ Of course, people have to make money, and artists need to make a living, but that’s not what we’re talking about. What makes art unique and what brings people to the fair is the enjoyment of art itself, and that quite often tends to been forgotten.

Christine Minas is an art advisor based in New York. This is her first year giving tours for Frieze New York.

Paul Teasdale is editor of frieze.com and based in London.

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