Frieze New York 2021: The Good, the Fine, and the Risky

James Ardis
Published on
Mask wearing was strongly enforced at Frieze New York 2021. Image by The New York Times’ Krista Schlueter.
Mask wearing was strongly enforced at Frieze New York 2021. Image by The New York Times’ Krista Schlueter.

Frieze New York 2021 wrapped up earlier this month. Beyond a few smaller events, such as the Outsider Art Fair earlier this year, Frieze was the first major art fair in New York City since the start of the pandemic. As those in the art world and beyond imagine what a new normal might look like post-pandemic, Frieze New York 2021 sets a strong precedent, albeit with a few contradictions. 

Protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were in full effect at Frieze. Each ticket had a timed entry, allowing the event’s organizers to control how many people were in the venue at all times. Attendees had to show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to be allowed entry. Masks were also required at all times and security at the event enforced this rule.

Most of the coverage surrounding Frieze New York 2021 mentions how even former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to get in. Artsy notes that Bloomberg invested USD 75 million to fund Frieze New York’s venue, The Shed, a sign of how no one was exempt from COVID-19 safety protocols.

In some cases, unofficial side events were crowded with lax mask-wearing policies. Image by The New York Times’ Nina Westervelt.
In some cases, unofficial side events were crowded with lax mask-wearing policies. Image by The New York Times’ Nina Westervelt.

However, fewer outlets have mentioned the parties held before, during, and after Frieze New York and their more lax approach to the pandemic. The New York Times reported that the chief executive of CultureWorks, Josh Wyatt, held a 75-person dinner in the lead up to the fair. Each guest had their temperature checked before enjoying their meal and socializing, mostly without a mask.  “Our publicists, our H.R. people were like ‘Don’t do this,’” said Wyatt.

With the benefit of some hindsight, CultureWorks’ human resources team may sleep a little easier. Less than a week after Frieze’s conclusion, the CDC announced that vaccinated people could go as they please without masks or social distancing, with a few exceptions, such as on planes. However, not all guests of Frieze New York 2021 were fully vaccinated. And these unofficial side events had fewer entry requirements. Knowing that after-parties are almost inevitable, can art fairs resume during the pandemic in good faith? This is one of the more uncomfortable questions the art world will have to ask itself in the months ahead.

Sigh by Dana Schutz. Image from David Zwirner.
Sigh by Dana Schutz. Image from David Zwirner.

In terms of sales, most galleries were very satisfied with the results. Solo booths did particularly well, including a sold-out booth dedicated to the artwork of Dana Schutz, on offer from David Zwirner. Stephen Friedman Gallery sold out of paintings by Sarah Ball in its solo booth by the end of the first day.

Many of the fair’s biggest acquisitions happened in the online viewing rooms, not on the floor. “We came with not that much to sell in the booth, but I see that sales are popping off in the viewing room,” Nicelle Beauchene told Artnet. “I think it’s a FOMO thing—not everyone could get into the fair on the first day.”

During the pandemic, many art world experts have wondered if collectors actually trust online viewing rooms. In this in-between phase, it’s hard to say whether the viewing rooms have earned that trust or if collectors still see them as an imperfect substitute.

Picture of Professor Sarah Lewis. Image by Stu Rosner.
Picture of Professor Sarah Lewis. Image by Stu Rosner.

Of course, the pandemic wasn’t the only major development since the last edition of Frieze New York. In 2020, America’s attention returned to systemic racism. Policies both past and present that disproportionately impact Black communities returned to the public consciousness. That includes New York City’s Stop-and-Frisk policy under former mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. In the art community, many have spent the lockdown working to better represent art world diversity

One of the most noteworthy projects at Frieze New York 2021 addressing racial equality was a look at the Vision & Justice Project. This initiative focuses on how stereotypical depictions of the Black community in paintings and photography shape racism. It also examines how the art world can move towards “representational justice,” as the project’s leader, Professor Sarah Lewis, explains it.

When Frieze leadership reached out to Professor Lewis about a possible collaboration last year, she was initially skeptical. Eventually, though, she saw it as an opportunity to “re[mind] people that, through this framework of Vision & Justice, what we do in a fair, what we do in the art world, increasingly doesn’t stay seen as disconnected from justice and in particular racial justice.”

Many in the community championing art world diversity worry that organizations will not adopt long-term change and instead embrace tokenism. And in an edition of Frieze New York that had both Professor Lewis and Michael Bloomberg in attendance, the complicated and unfinished conversations were evident.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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