Frieze New York opens to VIPs with a splash of Hollywood gold-dust

Fair's deal with entertainment mega-agent could secure its future—but some still need convincing

What do Ben Affleck and Miss Universe have in common with the Frieze art fair? Quite a lot, it seems, given that all three now have ties to the entertainment and sports branding group WME IMG. In the run-up to Frieze New York’s fifth edition, which opens to VIPs today (4 May), the fair and the mega-agent announced a “new strategic partnership” last month.

Few details are available, although parties close to the deal dismiss the view that it is an immediate, long-sought sale of the fair on the part of Frieze’s founders, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover. Speculation about what the partnership really means for the fair franchise ranges from the likelihood of a new event on the West Coast to a possible new venue for Frieze in London.

Not so long ago, the combination of a glitzy global marketing agency and an upstart London art fair would have seemed incongruous. “Frieze was started by a group of people who had never organised an art fair before and had a naïve optimism about it. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did,” says Andrew Renton, the director of Marlborough Contemporary gallery. The partnership with WME IMG—itself a joint venture, created when two of the biggest talent agencies in the US merged in 2009—“potentially takes it to another level”, Renton says.

“It’s all about entertainment these days,” says Anthony Wilkinson, the founder of Wilkinson Gallery (C14). As the international art market has ballooned, artists themselves have become stars. Last year, United Talent Agency, which represents Harrison Ford and Gwyneth Paltrow, launched a fine arts division to fund artists’ projects, including a new documentary about Maurizio Cattelan that debuted in New York last week.

This new reality is evident in the Frieze tent. Theatrical projects include a live donkey (courtesy of Cattelan) and a generous pickpocket (masterminded by David Horvitz). Individual stands also provide diversions: a rotating cast of actors is due to perform Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculpture, a 60-second shot of performance art, at Lehmann Maupin (C13) on 4 and 5 May. On Art:Concept’s stand (B56), visitors can play a recreated 1963 board game by Jean-Michel Sanejouand and share the results on social media.

It is no coincidence that this is happening as entertainment moguls make their presence felt in the market and beyond. Hollywood power players including Ari Emanuel, who co-heads WME IMG, buy art at the highest prices. Last month, the producer David Geffen, who reportedly sold two works by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning for a total of $500m this year, announced a $100m donation to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Although most accept this new reality, in which art meets entertainment, some exhibitors are concerned about what the WME IMG deal could mean practically and philosophically, given that investors generally seek to maximise profits. “The fair isn’t cheap, so it could get problematic for younger dealers if prices go up. I hope Frieze keeps its identity,” says Chris Hammond, the founder of MOT International (A11).

Such concerns come at a time when art fairs, although generally still profitable for galleries, are not bringing in as much as in previous years. “We know it’s a very competitive world, especially for younger, smaller galleries,” Sharp says. “[WME IMG’s] expertise in events and media opens up even more ways in which we can support the work that galleries do,” Slotover says. Those in the events industry suspect that increasing the level of outside sponsorship will be a priority for WME IMG. “It’s the kind of thing they can do without blinking,” says Tim Etchells, the managing director of SME London, which runs fairs including Art16. Slotover says that the economies of scale “will help with relationships like suppliers and sponsors”.

“Strategically, this is a good deal for Frieze and, longer-term, for WME IMG,” Etchells says. “They’ve just got to make sure they don’t screw it up.”