The British Are Coming! (Maybe…) Anatomy of an Art World Rumor

bywalter newton debut art The British Are Coming! (Maybe...) Anatomy of an Art World Rumor“I don’t know if it’s the worst kept secret in the art world,” said Jessie Washburne-Harris, the director of Harris Lieberman in Chelsea, from a couch in her gallery last Saturday morning. She was referring to the well-documented rumors circulating among dealers and collectors in New York that Frieze Art Fair, the influential showcase of contemporary art in London’s Regent’s Park every October, would be expanding to the city in the near future. “New York,” Ms. Washburne-Harris continued, “needs a fantastic contemporary art fair.”

Harris Lieberman, like the rest of Chelsea that morning, was sparsely populated. The swell of people in front of the Pace Gallery on 25th Street turned out to be a line of teenagers waiting to audition for the NBC series The Sing Off (even in Chelsea, the sight of three adolescent girls doing a choreographed dance routine while singing “Born This Way” a cappella is highly suspect). At Harris Lieberman, a lone couple quietly walked through the space, examining with stern expressions some of the work included in “A Painting Show,” which opened on Friday as part of the second annual New York Gallery Week. The sound of their shoes clicking against the floor reverberated deafeningly, as if through the entire gallery district.

“It’s nice to have an excuse to come to New York,” said Michael Lieberman, Ms. Washburne-Harris’ business partner and husband. “But I don’t think it needs to be an art fair.” He threw out a hand and motioned to the street outside: “I’d like to see this Gallery Week grow and become something special.”

“But I can’t see them not doing it,” Ms. Washburne-Harris shot back. “Even if it’s five years from now. If there’s a need to be filled why not do it?”

“I recognize there’s a need to be filled, but it doesn’t have to be another fair.” “I don’t think,” Ms. Washburne-Harris said evenly, “rumors are based on fiction all the time.” That was the end of that conversation.

The art world never could keep a secret. Rumors are the beating heart of the tumultuous scene here, a kind of perennial self-fulfilling prophecy: Like Dorothy clicking together her red slippers and thinking of home, when some desired outcome is thought about hard and by enough people at the same time, it is willed into existence. No one knows where these rumors begin because, by the time they exist, they are already so ubiquitous they seem to have always been there. In the same week Frieze Art Fair announced the details of its ninth annual takeover of Regent’s Park, no rumor has been more omnipresent than the so-called “worst kept secret in the art world”: the fair’s presumed arrival in New York.

“It’s a two, maybe three-year-old rumor and it doesn’t seem to die,” Paul Morris, one of the founders of New York’s homegrown contemporary art fair, the Armory Show, said through a deep exhalation. “Yet when anyone is pressed about details, no one has any.”

Some people say the rumor started at last December’s Art Basel Miami Beach. Others say it was during Armory Week in 2010. Frieze New York will be in March and take on the Armory Show first hand. No, it’s in May to coincide with New York Gallery Week. They’ll hold it in a massive tent in Central Park. Or maybe it’s on Governor’s Island, Randall’s Island or–in a nearly literal representation of the misheard jargon produced by a game of telephone–Roosevelt Island, that sprawling event space in the East River. Rikers Island, thankfully, has not come up as a viable location. On Sunday morning The Observer heard–via text message–that the Javits Center, the site of the second Armory Show in 2000, was the new frontrunner. Even if the details are still shrouded in misinformation and gossip, one thing is certain: the art world, even Mr. Morris –or so he claims–wants Frieze in New York City.

“I did Frieze last year and it was one of the most positive art fair experiences I’ve had,” said James Fuentes, echoing the belief of a number of dealers. “From the moment I arrived, they were extremely,” he paused, “present. Simple things like saying, ‘Let us know if you need anything.’ That goes such a long way when you’re traveling overseas. I felt that they had my back, which is hugely encouraging as a kind of upstart gallery trying to expand our market. I think the quality is exceptional. The quality of galleries is very good. I think just the time of year is amazing. Walking through the park,” he said dreamily and trailed off.

Mr. Fuentes’s gushing enthusiasm for Frieze is hardly an anomaly, even among the most ambivalent dealers The Observer spoke to. (“If it happens I’ll get an invite, I’ll get an application form, and I’ll think about it,” Tanya Bonakdar said briskly, adding “I love Amanda, I love Matthew, I love Frieze” before hanging up on us.)  When Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, the founders and publishers of Frieze magazine, organized the first fair in 2003, it quickly became one of the preeminent events in contemporary art. At the time, London did not have a major fair. In the inaugural year, Gelatin, a performance group from Vienna, formed a human birthday cake composed of three naked men with candles jutting out of their rear ends, which culminated in one performer urinating into his own mouth. Elsewhere under the Frieze tent, then-unknown performance artist Tino Sehgal had a pair of young children posing as art dealers in a piece on offer for $6,000.

F

rom the outset, Frieze was an invigorating mix of serious connoisseurship and scrappy insurrection, a kind of meeting point between the highly serious professionalism of Art Basel and the Armory Show in the 90s, when it was the Gramercy Hotel International Art Fair, and placed new art alongside peeling wallpaper and yellowed bed sheets. New York has plenty of art fairs during its so-called Armory Week in March–and, like Frieze in London, they are a driver of cultural tourism–but dealers have complained that recently the Armory Show, the week’s linchpin, has failed to bring in a strong presence of international curators and collectors. At least not like the crowd at Frieze, which is flooded with representatives from most of Europe, Asia and, of course, New York.

“I haven’t found any value in participating in the fairs in New York for me as a gallery,” said Casey Kaplan, one of the organizers of New York Gallery Week, who hasn’t done a New York fair in about four years. “From a business standpoint, I don’t like that I have to sell almost $100,000 in art to break even in my own city.”

Or, as Heather Hubbs, the director of NADA, the organization that runs its own prominent art fair during Art Basel Miami Beach, put it more bluntly, “It’s possible that Frieze will reclaim the role the Armory had in its heyday.”

Indeed, it is impossible to talk about the prospect of Frieze coming to New York without mentioning the 200,000-square-foot elephant in the room. Since 2007, when the Armory Show was purchased by the ominously titled Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. (MMPI), certain dealers have complained about a decline in quality over at the West Side’s Piers 92 and 94: too many booths with too much bad art, a crowd of less serious collectors, an overwhelming space packed with people shuffling about like cattle, everything being maintained by third-party unions. Last year, several prominent galleries defected from the Armory in favor of the much smaller Independent, in the former Dia building in Chelsea or the Art Dealers Association of America’s long-running boutique-style uptown fair, the Art Show.

“I always thought of myself as a union guy, but Jesus,” said Jack Hanley of Jack Hanley Gallery. He has participated in Frieze and opted out of the Armory Show in 2011 in favor of Independent. “I almost got beat up by the electrical guy at the Armory for adjusting the light in my booth! You start noticing: I didn’t make any money, I didn’t have any fun, so why am I doing this?”

If art fairs are nothing more than highbrow trade shows (as one dealer claimed), this one was starting to feel more like a gun expo. Mr. Morris, however, noted to The Observer that MMPI’s purchase of the Armory Show happened to occur on the eve of “the biggest recession since the Great Depression.” The fair has been criticized for sacrificing quality in favor of quantity of exhibitors, but Morris deflects criticism that the event has gotten too big, even after the addition of the much-derided Modern section, housed in Pier 92.

“I know it’s really easy to characterize a big corporation as something really evil, but MMPI helped us secure a venue that we never had on a year-to-year basis and we signed a 99-year lease,” said Mr. Morris, who is now the vice president of art shows and events at the Chicago-based company, which is owned by New York-based Vornado Realty Trust, which reportedly bought it from the Kennedy family–yes, that Kennedy family–in 1998 for $630 million. “I don’t think I’ll be seeing the 120th anniversary of the Armory Show, but at least we’ll have a venue.”

Which is more than you could say of Frieze in New York. Frieze declined to comment for this article, but the when and where of the rumor are currently among the art world’s favorite speculations. (Another is the possibility that Frieze will be adding postwar art to the contemporary offerings at its London fair in October, perhaps in response to the success of a four-year-old concurrent event, the Pavilion of Arts and Design, where galleries display this material.) Several sources said Berlin Gallery Weekend would be moved from May so as not to compete with the hypothetical Frieze New York. More and more, Governor’s Island has become the city’s go-to cultural events venue (Storm King, a sculpture park in upstate New York, recently announced it would be holding an exhibition there at the end of the month), but the space doesn’t make sense on any logistical level, not unless Frieze truncated the crowds that turn up in Regent’s Park (about 60,000 people, roughly the size of the Armory). Imagine for a moment a few thousand art-world types in Armani suits and short black dresses–the same crowd that every March unites in a chorus of depraved voices to exclaim, “I have to go all the way to the West Side?”–crossing water together in a confined space; it sounds like the premise of a disaster movie. Anyway, the Governor’s Island Trust had no idea what The Observer was talking about when we called and asked for information.

“Like F-R-E-E-Z-E?” said the press director. “What’s that?” “No, F-R-I-E-Z-E,” spelled The Observer. “It’s an art fair.” “Oh. Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

For many, Randall’s Island, sandwiched somewhere between the gloomy Manhattan Psychiatric Center and the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, is the most likely option, which says a lot about how difficult it is to find a home for a large event in this city. Everyone agrees, however, that Central Park, as near an analog to Regent’s Park as New York has, would be more charming.

“I imagine that would be very costly,” said NADA’s Ms. Hubbs. “I feel like there’s enough of a need for another show that the location might not matter in the beginning. Anything seems more desirable than those piers. They’re hard to get to. And hard to get out of.”

The art world talks with such confidence about the prospect of Frieze coming across the pond that its arrival feels predestined. The biggest question of all, then, is not will they come, but what will they do when they get here? So much of Frieze’s character comes from the physical space in which it is held–the park, the autumn leaves, the obligatory day of cold rain that people use as an excuse to have a few extra glasses of champagne, how will that translate to New York?

“A fair is only as interesting as the people who attend it,” said Gordon Veneklasen, director of the Upper East Side gallery Michael Werner. “Everything always looks bad, the art always looks worse than it does in a gallery. Even in Frieze, you’re dealing with dampness, you’re dealing with insect blooms in the evening. I mean, you’re in a park!” He chuckled slightly and, in the steadiest of voices, continued, “The joy of being at a fair is absolutely nonexistent. The suffering that goes on in terms of putting a fair together is endless. But fairs are the way that most people discover things. I would say they’re a necessary evil.”

“What about Frieze coming to New York?” The Observer asked. “I try my best to ignore rumors,” he said.

editorial@observer.com