‘The first years were wild’: artists, gallerists and auction house specialists reflect on Frieze


Polly Staple, first director, Frieze Projects, 2002-06; now director, collections, Tate

“The first years were wild. We all felt largely optimistic that London would become truly international and that anything was possible. I can’t imagine Gelitin’s nude acrobatics in the auditorium happening now, nor Martha Rosler setting up an office in the fair staffroom and giving backstage tours to visitors. There were amazing moments—including the opening of the inaugural Frieze Projects programme in 2003 and rolling down Paola Pivi’s grass slope—and trickier moments, including when we set up an elaborate staging for Henrik Håkansson’s Birdconcert—and the star performer, a Eurasian goldfinch, refused to sing.”

Gerd Harry Lybke, owner, Galerie EIGEN+ART

“The best moment of the fair is always the five minutes before it opens. There are the classic challenges, like when collectors come to the booth and you get their names mixed up at that moment, but fundamentally Frieze is more than a marketplace and has shaped the view of art for many generations. It has succeeded because it has always been oriented to the needs of the galleries, artists and collectors, and it’s managed by people who have made the fair their heart’s work.”

Tessa Lord, acting interim head, post-war and contemporary art, Christie’s, London

“For me, the best moment was“ the opening of Frieze Masters in 2012. It’s wonderful to explore exceptional examples of art across the centuries—those artists and movements that have shaped the way contemporary artists see the world. And the real beauty is that you can consider what you’ve seen as you walk through the park on your way to Frieze London.”

Freddie Powell, founder and director, Ginny on Frederick

“I’ve always been impressed by the solo presentations in Focus, even on my first visits
to the fair as a young student. The Sunday Painter’s ambitious early presentation of Samara Scott (2015) and Union Pacific’s wild booth with Urara Tsuchiya (2019) live completely rent free in my head. The continued presence of Rita’s Dining also means we are always well fed; I’m very excited for this year’s tostada bar!”

Rakeb Sile, co-founder and chief executive officer, Addis Fine Art

“Frieze has always been an amazing fair for us, and we feel this is due in large part to its consistent innovation, particularly with its presentations at Cork Street and boldness in the support of emerging artists and galleries. The Frieze VIP programming is really unsurpassed, and the fair has managed to leverage its enormous following so successfully.”

Vanessa Raw, artist, Carl Freedman Gallery

“Of course, it’s a massive honour to be chosen by Tracey Emin to be part of Frieze’s 20 years celebration. It’s genuinely exciting, too, as I will be showing a new body of paintings, which I have not exhibited before. With Frieze London having such a diverse audience, I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of response the work generates.”

Eva Langret, director, Frieze London

“The opening of Frieze Sculpture is always heart-warming and feels like such a celebratory moment for London as a city. It precedes the opening of Frieze London by a few weeks, and this is when everyone starts getting so excited. There is always so much energy on the opening day of the fair; it’s hard to beat this feeling. Some of the quiet moments can also feel really special—like walking around the fair after it has closed to the public, and being quasi-alone with so much extraordinary art. The pandemic years were tough on the events sector; we had to continually adapt to evolving restrictions with little advance warning. It was challenging, but we emerged with a renewed appreciation for the arts community—and a more robust digital offering!

Tanya Baxter, art advisor, Tanya Baxter Contemporary

“I think Frieze has succeeded because it is self-avowedly different, breathing a welcome gust of fresh air into the contemporary art world. Where most art fairs present themselves as exhibiting either emerging or established and world-famous artists, Frieze is proudly iconoclastic in its embracing of all contemporary art, enabling artists fresh out of art school to rub shoulders and canvases with household names. The brilliance of Frieze is that it serves as a constant reminder that no one starts off as a household name, and many artists who do are not alive long enough to see it happen.”

Georgina Adam, contributor, the Financial Times, and editor-at-large, The Art Newspaper

“Frieze at its very start was rather different from what it has become. It was rather scrappy and irreverent. I remember the simplicity of Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp climbing onto a platform and explaining why they were launching the fair. I found the earlier projects quite amazing; they were things that probably they couldn’t do today for various reasons—the Mike Nelson installation, for instance. Over the past 20 years, Frieze has matured and become more like other fairs in the world. While much has been improved, I rather miss those early days!”

Lucien Y. Tso, founder and director, Gallery Vacancy

“We participated in Frieze London for the first time in 2022, showing artist Michael Ho. During the first couple of hours, I was surprised and curious to see so many collectors flooding to the Focus section and I grabbed one of the visitors at our booth to ask what made people come to this section first, when the fair had just opened. The collector told me how the section had gained its reputation for discovering new talents ahead of other fairs. I felt proud of being surrounded by an audience who shares the same excitement about the next generation of artists. It helps that most of the Frieze team have experience in the gallery world, so they know what galleries care about and expect from an international art fair. You see every detail covered: things like specialists monitoring the temperature in the tent during the fair hours.”

Neil Wenman, global creative director and partner, Hauser & Wirth

“Frieze has succeeded where others failed because it is artist-centred, a place to think, to rebel. It’s crazy to think that there was no international contemporary fair here before; London has played such a pivotal role in the visual arts. Frieze soon became not only a fair but a week, and that week is now almost a month. It’s been a huge draw. Thinking back to 2003, the time was ripe to rewrite the rules of an art fair. Frieze had this insider/outsider feel. Matthew and Amanda created a fair that appealed to artists, and the public. Elements like the live music and the artist commissions made sure it was far edgier than established fairs.”

Isabella Kairis Icoz, partner, Lehmann Maupin

“We’ve been showing at the fair for almost 20 years, before we had a physical gallery in the UK so, for us, it’s always held a special place in our heart. In the early years there was a real feeling of discovery and experimentation, which has naturally shifted a bit as the fair has become more established, but the opportunities are still there. This year, for example, we are bringing Rogelio Báez Vega for the first time.”

Sadie Coles, founder and director, Sadie Coles HQ

“Over two decades Frieze has seen different scales and expanded tents but the first edition in 2003 was so chic; there was new thinking, new architecture, social spaces, artists projects and a profoundly specific generational shift. London was instantly international. From the very beginning, Frieze was miles ahead of other fairs as it truly celebrated the depth of contemporary art in London, whether this was in terms of innovative design, communication, the creation of social spaces or even the great parties. Looking to this year’s fair, there is so much more on offer for our audience now, but Frieze has managed to retain its focus on discovery by showcasing the constant green shoots of new galleries across the city.”

Almine Rech, founder and director, Almine Rech

“I have great memories of Frieze Masters, notably two solo shows that were sold out: De Wain Valentine in 2015 and Vivian Springford in 2022. The new fair, Frieze Seoul, has become a very important date on the gallery’s calendar. We love the energy and dynamism that we have seen there.”

Paul Neale, director, Graphic Thought Facility and creator of inaugural Frieze identity

“In Autumn 2002 Matthew and Amanda asked us to create the graphic identity for their new art fair project. Before we set about creating the campaign we had to first create an identity for the fair. Graphically speaking, the typologies of the art world identities were well defined and rather conservative—especially at that time. But Matthew and Amanda’s venture provided a highly emotive starting point for a visual identity. The uniqueness and dynamism of the project needed to be expressed, but it also needed to be reassuring as it was not yet known how the galleries would respond to an invitation to show expensive art in a tent during a rainy London autumn. The creation of the fair logo was actually very quick, working intuitively towards the proposed solution that adopted a robust tea-chest style of lettering to convey notions of transience and protection. Matthew and Amanda always seemed confident that the fair’s identity should be distinct from the graphic language of the magazine.”

Frieze London’s logo has a “robust tea-chest style of lettering”, say its designers

Photo: Linda Nylind

Rose Uniacke, designer and founder, Rose Uniacke

“I have been coming to Frieze since its inception. It’s always been an unmissable moment in the autumn calendar. It’s a moment of discovery for my clients, an opportunity to further develop their collections.”

Conrad Shawcross, artist

“By hook or by crook, my work has been shown at Frieze since its first edition and it has been a real factor in my career. I remember the first year, when I was still working part time as a film extra, a work of mine sold on the last day. It went for £3,000 and was life changing for me. Another year, Alexander McQueen walked in and bought one of my Slow Arc Inside a Cube pieces; I was blown away.”

Nicholas Cullinan, director, National Portrait Gallery

“I remember [Frieze] launching while I was still a student and feeling like something truly exciting was happening. The fair has always been great at working with organisations across London to ensure it goes beyond a single event. I’ve been working on the Frieze Masters talks programme for a few years now and while there have been challenges, including the pandemic and needing to shift everything to virtual platforms, the programme has always attracted extraordinary artists and speakers.”

Lisa Stevenson, co-head, contemporary day sales, Sotheby’s London

“Probably one of my favourite moments was in 2014 when Helly Nahmad London really changed the format of the anticipated art fair booth with their ‘The Collector’ installation—a stage set of a Paris apartment of a fictional character from 1968. The apartment immediately evoked nostalgia, with, for example, a Fontana painting above a fake desk complete with used ashtrays! There were even socialist posters on the walls and an old black-and-white television. The fact that that was possible feels quite unique to Frieze.”


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