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London Special 3: Interview with FRIEZE co-founder Amanda Sharp


Armanda Sharp (FRIEZE) - photo: courtesy vernissage.tv

AfN: Dear Amanda, you and Matthew Slotover are labeled to be the founders of the FRIEZE magazine, when was that and out of what experience did you decide to do it?

Amanda Sharp: We've founded FRIEZE magazine in 1991 and it was quite an exciting time to be in London at that point. We just left university, we weren't in the art world but we where in the city. And just spending time with friends who where artists and one day Matthew, my business partner, took me to see an exhibition that he had curated called "modern medicine". And I walked in and there was Angus Fairhurst and Gary Hume. I looked at his work and I just thought: it is fantastic. I really understand it and I am really exited about it. And Yeah, why don't we do an art magazine, because this is really exciting. But right from the very beginning it was clear it was not a British art magazine, because we understood, that contemporary art is really a completely international medium. And it did not make any sense to do a provincial magazine.

AfN: So, professionalism was a subject in the beginning also?

Amanda Sharp: Oh, yes. Even if we had no money and we where very young and we where borrowing the computers to design the magazine on. It was a very high quality print, because we thought it is important that the pictures of the artists which where reproduced look as good as they could look. We wanted the art to look as the art could be. And we wanted the writing to be as clear and accessible as our criticism could be, because it was about access and information and education and that was a starting point for us.

AfN: And the quality in writing, how did you ... I mean in terms of printing this is technical I understand, but how was it with writing?

Amanda Sharp: With the writing we draw a wish list with our favourite writers in the world and then we went to see them and asked them to write for us. And a lot of those people where very generous, very open. We thought right from the beginning we had to pay people even if we didn't have money, that it was a professional situation and we weren't asking for favours. I didn't pay them very much but we've paid them as much as we could. And we tried to use the best of the critics we could find and found very bright, interesting young people as well. Who could learn how to write well for the magazine, too.

AfN: In 2002 you opened the FRIEZE Art Fair in London. Why did you do this then?

Amanda Sharp: It is funny. For many many years we've just been wondering why no one had done a contemporary art fair in London - an international contemporary art fair - because every other major city has an contemporary art fair.

AfN: That's true, yes.

Amanda Sharp: So, why didn't London have an art fair? And people said: "Well, there are no collectors here" or "the tax situation is difficult". We just thought over the last fifteen years the situation in London evolved radically. It's seen it go from maybe three, four, five very interesting commercial galleries to maybe fourteen really interesting or fifteen very interesting commercial galleries. And it's just this one city. You are seeing the development of interest in contemporary art in a much broader mainstream. You are seeing people going to museums to see shows, you are seeing some international collectors beginning to have a pied terre in London or move to London as the economic centre becoming more and more vital. And it just felt that was crazy no one is doing this.

AfN: So, in your opinion, there existed an obvious gap?

Amanda Sharp: To us it felt that way. Although interestingly, when we spoke to a lot of the British galleries initially they where very reticent about it, they weren't keen but then I spoke to galleries in the rest of the world and they said: Oh, great I'll do it. And we thought: Well, we sell that vision to people and they either do it or won't do it. They know us because they have been involved with the magazine for many years. And they might like what we do and they know what they dislike about what we do. But at least we could talk to them about it. And the people they came in. And the most important thing for us because we never meet an art collector six years ago. We had no idea what that meant but we did know was good art. And we thought, if we put the best artists represented by the best galleries under a beautiful roof in the center of an amazing city everyone will come.

AfN: ... and it happened.

Amanda Sharp: It happened.

AfN: Right from the beginning, didn't it?

Amanda Sharp: Right from the beginning.

AfN: As far as I know you are the only publisher running a fair. And you pushed the FRIEZE art fair within a few years into the top list of art shows. In our interviews, the FRIEZE is always co-mentioned with Basel. In our own research FRIEZE also goes aside with the other old and big events like ARCO, FIAC and even TEFAF in Maastricht. Tell us, what is the secret of your success? ... Besides the gap!

Amanda Sharp: I think it is very simple. There is actually a history of magazines being involved with fairs. It just never happened in art. In the computer world you do a computer magazine and a computer fair. It is a normal thing to do, because your readers are the people who will come. You advertise the people who take stands. It is a very well tested model. Now, I think what we brought was a sensibility of art critics doing a fair. We wanted the details, the aesthetics to be right. We wanted it to be in a beautiful space. A space where people could be. But I think ultimately there is one reason why the fair is successful because our priority has always been the art and only the art.

AfN: Yes.

Amanda Sharp: And everything follows the art.

AfN: Since its first edition the FRIEZE art fair launched additional projects, like performance, site specific installations, talks, etc. You added also awards and educational programs. This comes to me as a social embodiment or a social function of the arts within society. With this effort your are heading far beyond the subject of running a trade fair. Why is it important for you to do these things even if they require such an extra effort?

Amanda Sharp: It is absolutely critical. For me there is no particular interest in doing a trade fair. I was interested in setting up a model which could facilitate good things. So I am happy that it works well as a trade fair - it should. It should be great art that people come and buy and live with - fantastic. But why not find a model that you can also make even more generative. There you can provide a real agenda setting talks programs. That you can allow this whole fair to become a site for production for artists. I mean for some degree this fair this year was built around Mike Nelson Project Commission from Bruce Projects because it's a very big installation. It is an installation of scale. The gallery stands literally had to be customised to be allowed it to be built. And I think that was quite exciting. It didn't in any way affect the galleries elementary. It worked very well for them. But what we have known is a place where curators, writers, artists want to come. Where they feel they can see films that are incredible interesting or rare for them to see. They can attend talks, that they could never see anywhere else in the world. And an artists can actually take a site - there is 200,000 square feet - and really choose what they want to do in it. And do something they would not be able to do in a museum or to do on a stand in an art fair. That is very exciting to me. And I want the trade fair element to work very well. But I want the other elements to be as exciting too.

AfN: Is this part of the whole platform?

Amanda Sharp: Yes, and I think that it actually creates a different atmosphere for the trade fair as well. And it allows for the people to do more ambitious curatorial presentations for their artists too. And we saw here, how it can effect an artist in a very positive way. One evening the first year the wrong gallery did a presentation with a young artist called Tino Sehgal. An artist people did not know at this point. Two years later, I think he was representing Germany in the Venice Biennial. I am not sure that would have ever happened if he hadn't the piece at FRIEZE. And that is exciting to me.

AfN: A question about the future, about expectations and life-cycles. As a frequent fair and show visitor I tend to put artist names, curator names and fair names into a kind of mental shelf. We all know FRIEZE is located in a tent, it is white, there's an enormous hype, we will see a typical booth environment but then for example there's this empty space in the booth from Eigen & Art. Something that was for me personally totally unexpected. That's the vitamin, that keeps us going, isn't it?

Amanda Sharp: Oh, yes.

AfN: Is that a question for you? Are you reinventing yourself every year or are you rather widening the audience and space to attract new eyes?

Amanda Sharp: I think what we can do from year to year is try to improve what we do. So, we make it a nicer environment. We bring in the best galleries that we can and therefore the best collectors come. And that in itself will expand audience. And I think by creating an environment which is attended by so many artists, critics and curators, galleries will choose very carefully to do very ambitious projects with single artists or two artists that work well for them to get those artists attention within a more curatorial discourse. And I like that.

AfN: In a way, you put them under pressure, didn't you? To do their best!

Amanda Sharp: I hope so. That would be a great thought that if people feel they have to really step up and improve that would definitely help the fair for everyone.

AfN: So, you don't think that this expectation thing will ever be a problem for you?

Amanda Sharp: As long as everyone keeps improving than it is a great thing.

AfN: Catchword: neighbourhood. Just one year after the first FRIEZE, the Zoo fair evolved, than Scope and now Year_06. Why has that happened, isn't the FRIEZE a whole universe in itself? Or is it more about geographical constraints in other words not enough show space? Is it just the hope to catch some leftovers or are these extra fairs a welcome addition to the extraordinary London contemporary art autumn?

Amanda Sharp: I think that there's always room for more good work. And this fair is a finite site ...

AfN: Is what?

Amanda Sharp: Is a specific size, it's not infinite. We think we get the galleries we want to come to the fair. That doesn't mean there aren't still other galleries doing good work but we can't accommodate everything. I don't know what other issues there might be, I think because a critical mass of good activity is good for everyone. If you got fairs which are floating around like satellites which are uninteresting, it's value neutral for us. It doesn't affect us in any way.

AfN: You don't look at this. It just happens?

Amanda Sharp: Yes.

AfN: Visiting the FRIEZE always seems like going to a public event, like theatre, opera or cinema. Lot's of people lining up. Is there, in your opinion a natural limit what a city can bear? I've heard rumours about 12 side fairs joining the Basel Miami show. What do you think of that?

Amanda Sharp: I think I won't be seeing twelve fairs when I am going to Miami. I will try to visit what I think may potentially be interesting. There's a lot of good art in the world and there's a lot of bad art in the world. Just because someone puts it under one roof doesn't make it interesting.

AfN: I always have this picture that nowadays fairs work or function like a meta-gallery where the galleries are the artists of the fair and they will specialize in a technique or subject?

Amanda Sharp: I can't see that happening, because taste goes across mediums and I would be very surprised if there was a gallery in the world I thought was doing really interesting work that only showed one medium. I think that would be unusual. I can't see it happening because art is not about the medium it is about the message. So, it is all about the idea that is communicated not merely the mechanism through which that idea is displayed. I'll be surprised if that happens. I can't see it.

AfN: You can't see it?

Amanda Sharp: No.

AfN: You don't see a problem in this growing. There's maybe an over, over ...

Amanda Sharp: You mean the market is so hot and everything is exploding?

AfN: Yes, that there are so many events that you get confused. You know what I mean?

Amanda Sharp: Yes, I think that has to find its natural level over a period of time, because things that are uninteresting ultimately die because there's no oxygen for them. Because they are not interesting. It's just simple. No one goes. Or someone goes and they tell their friends: "Don't bother seeing that". So, it can't sustain. It is the good work that sustains over time.

AfN: So, we look forward to the next FRIEZE.

Amanda Sharp: I hope.

AfN: Amanda, thank you for this interview.

Amanda Sharp: Thank you.


Interview: Artfacts.Net, Berlin and Vernissage TV, Basel


The interview can also be viewed as a video on Vernissage TV: Part 1 and Part 2

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