Familiar characters from the old boom-time economy are in New York in greater numbers than usual this week. There are the gazillionaire hedge funders, the Wall Street guys preaching the gospel of art as an asset class, the swish representatives of the auction houses, and, invariably, the Johnny-come-latelies, who always squeak in somehow before closing time. (It wouldn’t be a proper art bubble without them.) They’ve all come to town for two events: the seasonal May art auctions and the inaugural Frieze Art Fair.
To characterize the spring auctions, I will simply repeat Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s breezy remark that “the best art is the most expensive art because the market is so smart.” Enough said there (for our purposes, anyway). About art fairs in general, I can tell you that I know a lot—I used to run two, one in New York and another in Chicago—and also that they are a lame if increasingly necessary vehicle for just about every art activity, from curator networking to actual gallery sales. Artists hate them, and they should. Attending an art fair, according to one major figure, is like seeing your parents fuck. Still, most galleries do the majority of their yearly business at international art fairs. One thing is for certain: The present art ecology in Manhattan (and in London, Moscow, and Beijing) would simply not exist without them.
Of course, New York already has one major art fair, the Armory Show, as well as a slew of lamprey-like satellites—together, they vie for the art world’s attention every March. So what gives with the presence of Frieze less than two months later? The answer—as with so much in a global art world gone financially cannibal during a brutal recession—comes down to cutthroat competition over the world’s wealthiest high-net-worth individuals.
The crème de la crème of tony international art fairs—barring, perhaps, the venerable Swiss-born Art Basel—the London-based Frieze constitutes a new commercial consensus hatched by the world’s top art dealers. That it has come to New York to dethrone the flagging Armory Art Show is no secret to anyone. (Full disclosure: I was once employed by MMPI, the company that owns the Armory Show—a job I subsequently quit to return to lucrative art writing.) In London, Frieze organizes an exceedingly stylish and well-thought-out show that puts most other fairs to shame, New York’s included. Few would have imagined, then—as recently as three short weeks ago—that this art-world juggernaut would be dizzy enough to inaugurate its new Guinness Book of Records–size tent (it’s the biggest such free-standing structure in the world) while facing protests from both organized labor and the Occupy movement.
Running from May 4 through 7 on Randalls Island, Frieze New York boasts what is undoubtedly the strongest list of blue-chip gallery participants Gotham has seen in years. It also features an impressive temporary sculpture park on the East River waterfront adjacent to the fair. Yet in refusing to speak to unions and by scheduling its event so near May Day, this gathering of top art brass and global money is on course to becoming, however unintentionally, a magnet for those who view such events as a pure distillation of the global 1 percent. The result, if the protest organizers are to be believed, could turn into the kind of showdown only dreamed of by neo-Marxist theoreticians and anti–free market demonstrators across the country. Ninety-Nine Percenters of the World Unite!
For the organized workers—specifically the District Council of Carpenters (DCC), who routinely work such events at the West Side Piers and Jacob Javits Center—the issue is a matter of basic fairness. Frieze has opted to operate without union labor and elected to pursue no actual dialogue with their representatives. (The DCC complains about receiving zero answers to multiple communications.) According to union spokesperson Brian Brady, this is unacceptable. “They’re paying workers $12 to $13 an hour with no benefits, which undermines everything we’ve worked for,” he says. “You can’t raise a family in New York on that.” Asked what the union’s plans were for the fair dates, he said simply, “We’re going to picket every day, so that people know what’s going on.” As of this writing, the union has put up their trademark inflatable rats outside the fair’s entrance and also in front of the Wall Street offices of Deutsche Bank, the fair’s main sponsor.
The Occupy movement, for its part, has come up with an ingenious method of critiquing the lopsidedness of today’s art economy at the fair. Speaking through representatives of Occupy Museums, the self-described visual arts “affinity group of Occupy Wall Street,” the movement has called for a protest on Randalls Island to “un-Frieze culture” through something it calls “free art for fair exchange.” An action through which demonstrators (many of them artists themselves) trade their art for whatever the fair-going public wishes to barter in return—time, conversation, even tickets to the $40-entry event—the tactic opens up a museum exhibition’s worth of questions regarding the actual value of visual culture. Put differently: Artists will be out in public asking what art is good for beyond basic cash and carry. Jesus H. Koons, I thought this day would never come!
An increasingly savvy and plugged-in movement, Occupy Museums will hold its Frieze protest on the heels of the movement’s May Day demonstration. Whatever the numbers—organizers estimate they will be in the hundreds—these young folks deserve kudos for publicly querying the financialized uses and abuses of art today. (This is also why, one presumes, they’ve been invited to “occupy” the Berlin Biennial later this month.) No mere go-along-to-get-along rule book for “How to Make It in the Art World,” their evolving polemic stands as a work of art on par with Frieze’s garden sculptures and Marina Abramovic’s strip shows. Frieze hasn’t kicked off yet, but the Occupy kids have seemingly clinched it: Zuccotti Park on Randalls Island deserves Best in Show.