What were you doing in 2003? If you were ultra-wealthy, you might have booked a seat on the final flight of the supersonic Concorde. If you were tech-savvy, you might have posted a profile on the freshly launched social-media website Myspace. If you were a film aficionado, you might have attended an opening-night screening of Pixar’s Finding Nemo. And if you were in the art trade, you might have toured the first ever Frieze Art Fair in London.
Despite its long-held status as a global art capital, London did not have a major contemporary art fair until Frieze launched in 2003. This shows how dramatically the trade expanded in just one generation. By 2018, the number of international art fairs totalled almost 300, according to Art Basel and UBS’s Art Market report, but back in 2005 it was only 68. Even fewer were staged when Frieze debuted in Regent’s Park two years earlier.
The fair grew out of frieze magazine, established in 1991 by longtime friends Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover. The duo hoped the publication could widen the appeal of serious contemporary art with the type of approachable writing, lush imagery and smart design found in popular magazines about music, style and other cultural touchstones. Once Sharp and Slotover saw the international art crowd swarm London for the opening of Tate Modern nine years after frieze’s first issue, founding a fair with the same spirit became an obvious way to continue the mission.
The unusual venue set London’s upstart event apart from the beginning. “An art fair in a tent in a park was a bit like a fairytale,” says Millicent Wilner, a senior director at Gagosian since 2001. At the same time, the inaugural Frieze felt “serious, dynamic and super relevant, much like the contemporary art scene in London at the time”. No wonder it was one of only three fairs in which Gagosian exhibited in 2003, when the gallery operated just four spaces worldwide (compared with 19 in seven countries today).
Although the setting was an act of imagination, it was also a matter of necessity. Sharp says the buildings available in London in October 2003 were not suitable for a serious contemporary art fair. A tent erected atop a large green space seemed like the only solution. “I don’t think we understood what a folly it was. You’re doing more than half your work before a gallery even walks in the door,” she says with the benefit of hindsight.
The purpose-built tent, now synonymous with Frieze London, was ambitious from the start. The first structure made liberal use of glazing and incorporated a translucent ceiling, which welcomed natural light into the fair throughout the day and emitted a warm glow of its own come nightfall. Its designer, fresh from working with Chris Ofili on the British Pavilion at 2003’s Venice Biennale, was described by this publication at the time as a “hot young architect” called David Adjaye.
For all the tent’s design virtues, however, many of Frieze’s first exhibitors recall some room for improvement in its practical elements. “In 2003, if you took up your carpet to create a less corporate look to your stand, creepy crawlies would come in from the ground below, and you prayed it would not rain. Otherwise it was time to wear your thermals,” says London dealer Alison Jacques. “Now, it’s slick and insect-proof.”
The grand ambitions of the original Frieze fair belie the humble resources available to actualise it. Asked about the staff assembled to produce the 2003 event, Sharp says: “It was a skeleton team.” She remembers the dedicated, full-time fair staff consisting of no more than five people. Aside from Polly Staple, the first curator of Frieze’s artist projects programme, the group included a site manager, a head of press and PR, a VIP relations manager and a finance specialist (whose duties were split between the magazine and the fair).
The rest of the workforce was made up of on-site temps and an array of sub-contractors, some of whom were as new to staging art fairs as Sharp and Slotover. The company hired to build Frieze’s walls, Sharp says, made much of its revenue working on theme parks.
This motley crew nonetheless managed to create an event that drew 27,700 visitors, according to a Frieze spokesperson, with general admission costing £12 (around £21 today, after adjusting for inflation). For comparison, a general admission ticket to the 2023 edition of Frieze London is priced at £46 (though early-bird and student tickets are cheaper), and in recent years the combined attendance at Frieze and Frieze Masters—the tandem fair launched in 2012 for objects made from antiquity until the 20th century—has totalled around 60,000 visitors.
No one was more surprised by the first fair’s popularity than Sharp. “Nowadays, if we build a new fair in Korea or LA we can work out pretty accurately how many people will come out on day one. Then, we had no idea,” she says. “There was no algorithm for it.”
Print outs and fine dining
The technological limits of Frieze’s 2003 debut now sound almost primeval. “Everything was analogue, from the application process, to the invitation of the VIP guests, to the presentation of the art,” says Gisela Capitain, the founder of the namesake Cologne gallery. There was no public wifi, and possibly no private wireless network either. (The Frieze spokesperson says the records are inconclusive on this last point.) Anyway, smartphones and tablets were niche products at the time; Apple did not launch the iPhone until 2007 or the iPad until 2010.
Marianne Boesky, the New York dealer, unknowingly speaks for Frieze’s entire first cohort of exhibitors when she says she “spent significant time and effort” ahead of the event assembling physical binders on each of the gallery’s artists containing print-outs of current press and works available offsite. Unholy amounts of artist monographs were also delivered to the tent to hand out to clients during the run of the show. Frieze even printed a “yearbook” featuring capsule profiles of two to three artists selected by each participating dealer.
More rudimentary communications tech translated into radically different strategies to entice buyers, too. “We didn’t send previews like you see now. We reached out to people for sure, but at the fair on the opening day it was more of a surprise for the visitors,” says Thaddaeus Ropac.
One defining trait of Frieze was present from the start, however. Sharp and Slotover bucked convention by working with Mark Hix, then the chef of beloved London restaurants Le Caprice and The Ivy, to ensure that there would be high-calibre dining to match the high-calibre art in the tent. Frieze brought in other elevated food-and-drink vendors as well, including Gail’s Bakery. Sharp says it was part of a plan not only to “keep people enjoying themselves” so they would stick around but also to instil a local identity by “bringing the city into the fair”. The move made an impression on exhibitors used to stomaching less inspiring options at rival expos.
“This was really the top end of London food at an art fair,” says the London-headquartered dealer Timothy Taylor. “I think it was unique. You go to the Basel fair and you get raclette, if you’re lucky, or a sausage. In Miami you get a Cuban sandwich.”
Frieze’s approach to food reinforces that the company has risen to the apex of the art-fair sector, partly thanks to 20 years’ worth of savvy choices about which of its elements it should maintain and which it must evolve as the global art market has grown and professionalised around it. Now owned by the US entertainment conglomerate Endeavor, the company operates Frieze-branded fairs in Los Angeles in February, New York in May and Seoul in September in addition to London in October. It also recently struck deals to acquire US regional art fairs The Armory Show and Expo Chicago, with more changes sure to arrive.
Yet what motivated Sharp and Slotover to risk producing their first fair may be the simplest explanation for Frieze’s two subsequent decades of success. “Our theory was that if you had good galleries, then collectors would come,” she says. “It was pretty unsophisticated, actually. But it was proven true by the fair.”