The Living Magazine
Andrew Hale in Conversation with Frieze Media and Event Founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover
From printed page to Regent’s Park – even Hollywood. Great magazines create culture, not just report on it. Frieze catalyses conversation all year round.
The art world without Frieze would be unimaginable now. Founded out of passion and curiosity as a cult magazine in 1991 by Amanda Sharp, Matthew Slotover and Tom Gidley, they hoped to create an art publication that would appeal to a generation raised on i-D and The Face.As the saying goes, in order to be irreplaceable, one must be different – and that’s precisely what they’ve done, harnessing an outward-looking approach that’s become their sophisticated engine. Recognising that Tate Modern would change the London landscape, Sharp and Slotover chanced on Frieze London in 2003, now one of the world’s most influential contemporary art fairs, taking place each October in Regent’s Park. It has become such a draw, an entire ecology has built up around it, with a carnival of launches and events (both official and not so official).
In 2012, the duo launched Frieze New York taking place in May; and Frieze Masters, which coincides with Frieze London in October and is dedicated to art from ancient to modern – a particularly bold move, they concede themselves. Frieze Academy, a year-round programme of talks and courses debuted in 2016 and February 2019 saw the first ever Frieze Los Angeles, taking place at Paramount Pictures Studios. With everything going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d parked the magazine and its accompanying website frieze.com. But they remain, going from strength to strength.
Andrew Hale Looking back to the early days of Frieze magazine, was there a sense of youthful enthusiasm, a mix of naivety and intent? Or did you have a masterplan?
Matthew Slotover The magazine was very small to start with – the first issue was 32 pages and we printed 500 copies – and with that came the feeling there was an art scene that wasn’t really being talked about. Having grown up with The Face and i-D, the art magazines at the time weren’t brilliantly designed or written and were semi-academic and not exciting to our generation. It was our way of self-educating about art – and through that magazine, publishing and the business around it.
AH Why art particularly? Why not a literary magazine or something else?
MS Neither of us had studied art. I grew up loving design and architecture and didn’t really get art at all. After leaving college I began to look at shows, particularly Damien Hirst’s warehouse shows, and found them fascinating. Amanda Sharp: For me, I was interested in literature and film but seeing this new art and the way it was shown made me want to take all my friends to see it too. It was so exciting.
AH I remember getting the pilot copy of the magazine but I only met everyone involved a few years later.
MS It was a very small scene which people forget now.
AS We talk how everyone involved could fit into one pub. Did you come to our launch party in South Ken? I think we had so many logos, signifying lots of free alcohol.
MS It was a shock after the first issue of the magazine: ‘Oh now we have to do a second issue’.
AS I remember Tony Arefin, an amazing creative director who had kindly given us office space saying,‘Don’t worry, the second issue is always the hardest one and you don’t judge a magazine until issue four’. It’s a golden rule I’ve remembered since. You put everything into the first issue, the second is a catch-up nightmare, third is still punch-drunk and by four maybe you should know what you are doing.
AS It was interesting to me that the magazine was much less conservative than the sum of its parts. Not knowing what rules you were breaking, not knowing the cost of risk, meant that you were really liberated to do whatever you fancied doing, and therefore the magazine had an almost quasiiconoclastic feel to it which came out of ignorance.
AH Was there a point when the magazine became more established that you questioned what you were doing?
MS I think we became a bit reliant on established art writers early on but then James Roberts joined…
AS And Dan Fox. We established our own voices, bringing people through that were housed absolutely out of Frieze. And those not usually associated with art magazines but writers that we worshipped like Paul Morley and Jon Savage.
AH Do you think with technology and communication, things are done differently today in the way you approach publishing the magazine?
MS Possibly because of the ease of communication now – it’s easy to get six people in a room or on a conference call – it can slow down and make what you do more conservative in a way. When that wasn’t possible you had to make decisions with less information and you could be more adventurous.
AH Naivety which can push you forward as you discover solutions by doing, rather than preparing for every eventuality in advance.
MS That’s true.
AH Moving on to the development of the Frieze Art Fair, did you embark on it with the same blind optimism? I’m assuming it was different: it was a project that needed forethought and planning. How did that transpire?
AS Yes, that was very different. With the magazine there wasn’t a view more than a few months ahead. We weren’t thinking, ‘This is our lives’, it was just what we were doing at that moment. With the fair, it was probably 18 months of planning.
MS The backstory was that, around 1997, we heard someone was going to do a contemporary art fair in London and our feeling was, ‘This is great, this needs to happen’. And it didn’t happen.So then we thought about the Tate opening in 2000 which would bring people to the city and how that would be a perfect time to introduce a fair to London. We found a venue on St John Street and started making plans. About nine months before it was due to happen the owner sold the building, so that was that. Then Tate Modern opened and I remember Amanda and I standing on the top floor watching the whole of the international art world suddenly appear.
AS And that crystallised for us that feeling of ‘build it and they will come’. Or ten minutes before the first fair opened, maybe they won’t!
AH I know this has been said a lot but one forgets how small the London contemporary world was before this.
MS Totally. Tate Modern opening was the first day in effect that brought the international art world to London. We had a lot of dealers originally say to us a fair won’t work, London is a backwater, people won’t come.
AS I think to be honest from the perspective of how strategic, how considered, how much knowledge you have to have, we were running a very modest-sized organisation. We thought we were big cheeses admittedly and we were proud of the magazine but when we started doing the fair it wasn’t conceived as a massive thing. Even as it was about to be physically built on-site, a level of naivety about it was still in my head: we had been drawing it out on a sheet of A3.
AH Well you understood the physical reality but not necessarily the reach it would go on to have.
AS We thought about what it means to show art in a good environment, working with an architect, thinking about good design, making it a place where people want to stay and have a good experience – those are building blocks that you work through – but that didn’t translate to the scale or impact that came out of that.
AH The new ideas that you brought into the hosting of the fair, such as the projects – did that come about through your relationship to artists?
AS I think it was more about the history of the magazine. We liked going to talks, we were thinking about it not just as a trade fair as somewhere where interesting things could happen.
MS Yes, we wanted interesting content. We were concerned that a space with art for sale was not enough and didn’t reflect what the wider art world was about; that if people came and just saw static art on walls that it was doing the art world a bit of a disservice.
AH I thought expanding the fair to introduce Frieze Masters was a brave move.
MS You are right, we had a lot of soul-searching because we were a contemporary brand and we felt this is not our world, it’s a different approach. It’s not modern and new, we are not experts in it. So the advice was not to do it. The business advice was stick to what you understand.
AS We took a valued friend and confidante out for lunch and asked: “Are we a contemporary art brand?” And the response was: “No. You provide a contemporary perspective.” Then we thought, “OK, we can provide a contemporary view of historical art.”
AH Yes, and look at what every museum is doing with historical collections, recontextualising them in the reflection of contemporary work.
AS I remember one night hearing John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, Cecily Brown, Chris Ofili and Peter Doig having an endless conversation about a varnish on an 18th century painting, and thinking that is really interesting. What are artists thinking about in their studios as they are making art today? That makes sense to me for us to be interested in that.
AH So the rest is history and Frieze becomes a huge success; a whole ecology develops around it in London in October, and you expand first to New York, then as of this year to Los Angeles Let’s jump to where Frieze is now – and staying with this framing of an idealistic view at the centre of a move into new areas – how has the partnership with WME changed things?
AS It gave us the LA fair.
MS LA is a good example. LA is a big risk. It’s a long way away – we already do a fair in North America, is there room for another one? It will be expensive. How do we manage staff? We have no separate office there. But Endeavour can provide fantastic support to handle those issues. It comes down to: Frieze is a fantastic brand, what more can we do? Let’s take some risks. We were quite risk-averse when we were 100 per cent owners, and the risk was losing everything with the next gamble. Ideas are ten a penny, and once you decide to do something the execution is a lot of work.
AH So it comes back to our original question, which is how do you allow curiosity and naivety guide you when you have a big organisation? With responsibility to a large and expanding team there could be lots of reasons for those emotional decisions not to be made.
AS The partnership with Endeavour is a massive help with that in terms of opening up an appetite for risk – you can roll the dice and you have someone else to help you.
MS The American attitude of try it and fail is good. The art world is different in its focus on absolute quality. In the tech world there is the move forward and break things mentality which you can’t do in the art world.
AS While artists do it, they use the studio to develop ideas and fail and learn. Something we have achieved in growing the business has been learning from an adjacent business. You can’t ignore these things and at some point they inform your actions.
AH With October coming around again, how do you think the atmosphere in London is perceived right now?
MS Taking the temperature of a city is a bit of a fool’s mission… every gallery, artist, collector and curator has their own situation and they are rarely all aligned. What I am excited about is the incredible museum shows that will be on during Frieze – I have rarely seen such a stellar list in any city and these are always a big attraction for people to come to London in October. This year they include Kara Walker; Mark Leckey; Albert Oehlen; Anna Maria Maiolino; Rembrandt; Elizabeth Peyton; Antony Gormley; Danh Vo; Tony Cokes; Christodoulos Panayiotou and Gauguin.