Island Madness: Frieze New York Can't Last in Its Present Configuration

Island Madness: Frieze New York Can't Last in Its Present Configuration
The entrance to Frieze New York
(Photo © Ben Davis)

Having just visited the inaugural iteration of Frieze New York, one thing is abundantly clear — this fair isn’t going to last here, at least not in its present location, organization, and form.

Randall’s Island is too troublesome to get to, and once you are all the way there the amenities are so rudimentary — wonky wood plank floors with mesh grills that catch high heels, misprinted signs, and demountable bathrooms — and the quality of the art on view so average that it is hardly worth the effort.

I'm not saying there isn’t good art here, but there is no doubt that the quality of the exhibitors is markedly lower than the Frieze art fair in London. Many big American galleries have opted out of participating. Meanwhile it is too expensive for a lot of European galleries to come back to New York after participating in the Armory Show in March. With all this in mind, I don’t see how this fair can succeed. New York is too competitive.

I also think the much ballyhooed location was a mistake. Beyond the difficulty of getting there, the place — how do I say this nicely — smells. A strange odor of rotting meat or something of the sort pervaded the aisles towards the back of the tent venue. It could have been the river, because Randall's Island is an out-of-the-way, semi-deserted location where the Harlem River and Long Island Sound meet to form the tidal, East River estuary. 

Then there is the storied tent venue itself. It is certainly an interesting and ambitious architectural structure, but it does not create an environment in which you feel that you want to look at or buy art — at least not one that New Yorkers will warm to, with the permanent art fair of Chelsea on their doorstep and the well-heeled galleries in midtown offering easy access to collectors. Looking at art in a tent here feels a little like eating food from a bucket.

It seems to me that a decision to locate the inaugural Frieze New York on Randall’s Island only really makes sense as a bold publicity stunt — to build the Frieze art fair brand in the U.S. media. It is clearly not in the interests of the dealers, the collectors, or the visitors. It is a location that serves the interests of the fair at the expense of everyone else.