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Frieze's Return To (Almost) Normal

Header Image: Solo of Dana Schutz at David Zwirner, Frieze New York 2021, Photo by Casey Kelbaugh. Courtesy of Casey Kelbaugh/Frieze.

For the first time since March 2020, New York City finally has an art fair again. As the country’s art capital, New York City is the host for several art fairs. As we all know, they’ve all closed their doors (hopefully) temporarily because of the pandemic. On May 8-9, 2021, Frieze opened its art fair door for a very streamlined version of its yearly art fairs. It’s the first the city has seen in 14 months.

A roof top terrace party. Photo by Nina Westervelt. Courtesy of Nina Westervelt and The New York Times

Looking at documentation photos from The New York Times, it feels like the photos were taken years ago when crowds didn’t seem so terrifying and masks were not a potentially life-saving mandate. Things looked almost, for lack of a better word, normal. Kick-off parties were held, where artists, collectors, publicists, journalists, gallerists, the who’s who of the art world gather in celebration of the upcoming days. There were VIP visits on the night before the fair was opened to the public where certain select collectors get to choose which art they want to add to their collections. Several booths were sold out on opening days, some even sold out before the fair officially opened its doors. All the normal things that usually happen in every art fair in the world before the pandemic hit. Except this happened on a weekend in May 2021.

Hernan Bas, "The Suspect", 2021. Six-panel folding screen, acrylic on linen mounted in a birch-wood frame with fabric backing. 182.9 × 274.3 cm.
Sold in the range of $350,000 - $400,000

But of course, things were also very different. The Frieze FAQ page has roughly half its page dedicated to COVID-19 protocols. Visitors were required to book a time to visit, which must be followed or risk not being able to enjoy the fair at all. Once inside, visitors are only allowed to stay for a maximum of 2 hours. 24 hours before the visitation time up to right before entering the fair venue, visitors must provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. Everyone must be temperature checked and no bag or coat checking of any kind is allowed. Masks, of course, are everywhere and mandatory. These protocols and the fact that the fair is confined into just one building are a result of the COVID era.

Dana Schutz, "The Ventriloquist", 2021. Oil on canvas. 223.5 × 190.5 cm.
Paintings by Dana Schutz were sold out, with prices ranging between $700,000-$900,000

Though it’s a bit eerie to see things going on as normal when some parts of the world can’t afford to, there’s no helping the sense of hope one gets when seeing an art fair running again. As any art enthusiasts will tell you, it’s something that we all miss. There’s no real replacement yet for going to a fair, seeing all the different art around you, chatting with the artists and other art lovers, and discovering that one breath-taking work that you might not have seen if it wasn’t for the fair.

Financially, things seem to be looking pretty good, too. Though art sales, in general, didn’t take too much of a dip, seeing the enthusiastic response to the Frieze Art Fair is very heartening. Art was selling left and right to collectors all over the world. Though the international sales are partially because of the concurrent online viewing rooms, there was still a decent chunk of collectors who flew in just for Frieze. Yes, even despite the travel restrictions and quarantine mandates of at least 7 days, some collectors still made the effort to see art in person. 

Dawoud Bey, "A Girl with School Medals", 1988. Archival pigment print. 102.2 × 125.1 × 5.1 cm. Edition of 4 + 2AP.
Dawoud Bey's print was sold for $15,000

Before the pandemic, there were murmurs amongst gallerists and fair coordinators if it was even worth it anymore to hold these art fairs when online sales and smaller pop-ups seem like a better bang for your buck. Clearly, and especially after it’s forcibly taken away from us, we still crave the art fair experience.


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