Taking Off: The Frieze Story

How an art magazine morphed into an international event

Cover of the first issue of frieze magazine, 1991

Cover of the first issue of frieze magazine, 1991

I first walked into the Frieze offices in the summer of 2003, fresh from college. Jobs in the London art world were thin on the ground, and I’d seen an ad in frieze magazine — the only art magazine, back then, that I read cover to cover — seeking temporary staff for a new art fair. A few weeks later, a group of us were standing around a table at the Frieze office in Clerkenwell wearing white gloves, stuffing thick card invitations into envelopes addressed to the great and the good of the international contemporary art world. It felt like a door had cracked open.

In my young eyes, the company seemed like some kind of utopia. Every day, twenty people — all apparently smart, witty and welcoming — would gather around the table to eat lunch together, which they would take it in turns to prepare in the office kitchen. The conversation was both intimidatingly urbane and intimately familial; some staff members had known each other for years, when frieze magazine was still published from a cramped office on the fringe of London’s Soho.

Matthew Slotover, Amanda Sharp and Tom Gidley published the pilot issue of frieze in the summer of 1991, featuring a Damien Hirst butterfly on the cover. frieze was smart, but also jargon-free; it published features not just by esteemed critics but also novelists, experimental writers and artists themselves. Seeming to emerge fundamentally from its contributors’ enthusiasms, it was quickly acknowledged as the most dynamic, readable and well-designed of Britain’s art publications.

Key to its success was that, from the start, frieze expanded its horizon beyond the UK. In 1993, Gavin Brown served as the magazine’s US editor, before he left to found his own gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, which today represents 46 artists including Arthur Jafa and Laura Owens. Artist and writer Collier Schorr subsequently held the position for several years (Schorr has exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, as well as shooting Michelle Williams for the cover of Vanity Fair). By the end of the ’90s, Sharp too was based in New York.

In 2000, James Roberts became Editor, and Jennifer Higgie — today, frieze Editorial Director — Reviews Editor, freeing Slotover and Sharp to devote more time to exploring the possibility of mounting their own art fair. “It crystallized,” says Sharp, “the day when Tate Modern opened.” She recalls looking out from a high window in Tate’s Turbine Hall, over the entire international art world, which had convened in London in May 2000 for the occasion. “That was the moment when it became obvious that it was urgent to give it a go.” (Tate Modern drew more than 5 million visitors in its first year).

Despite scepticism in some quarters, that first edition of Frieze Art Fair in October 2003 was a success beyond most people’s wildest estimations. Sharp — who was by no means certain it would succeed — says “it took off like a comet.” Victoria Siddall, attending as a member of the public, recalls that “The atmosphere was electric, and it felt as though Frieze had really galvanized the city. Everyone was talking about it.” A few months later, Siddall joined Frieze staff. After helming the first Frieze Masters fair in London, in 2012, Siddall became, in 2014, director of all Frieze Fairs: Frieze London (the new name for the original, contemporary art fair); Frieze Masters (for art made before the year 2000); Frieze New York (which has run in Manhattan every May since 2012) and, now, Frieze Los Angeles.

In 2005, two years after my card-stuffing summer job, I applied for a traineeship at frieze magazine; to my astonishment, I got it. It felt like my life had turned a corner. I was encouraged by my colleagues to start contributing reviews, and began writing. I even met my wife in the Frieze office. (Another story.) In 2009, I took the plunge and went freelance as an art writer.

The next year, I moved to Los Angeles. Today, the company is around 90 people strong, with offices in New York and Berlin as well as London. In 2016, the Beverly Hills-based sport and entertainment conglomerate Endeavour became the first outside investor in the company. Sharp says that much of the impact of the partnership takes place “under the hood” — the infrastructural support and wide-ranging experience in events and media that such a large company can offer Frieze. It allows Frieze to take more risks, she says.

In most significant ways, however, she believes that the fairs and the magazine are “still very close to where we started.” The values, principles and structure of the magazine — which recently printed its 200th issue — have changed little over the years. Every Frieze fair aspires to create the best possible temporary environment for viewing art with curated projects, talks and music programmes all contributing to the fair’s appeal to a wide audience. “It’s more than simply a trade fair,” Sharp says. “It’s a place where art gets made as well as sold.” There are also outstanding guest restaurants at every edition: so Frieze upholds its historical committment to the importance of a good lunch.

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Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.

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