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Amid Lockdown, Frieze New York Makes the Case for Digital Art Fairs

Love, hate, or feel ambivalent about them, art fairs have come to dominate the conversation in the art world, proliferating from about 60 fairs a year in 2000 to almost 300 today. While they've provided dealers with a considerable chunk of their annual revenue and offered an efficient means for collectors to take in work by hundreds of artists at a shot, they're also bemoaned for pricey exhibitor fees and the environmental and economic impact of shipping pieces from fair to fair. Of course, COVID-19 has hit the art world, as with so many industries, like a tidal wave. Art galleries, fairs, and auction houses are suddenly forced to massively pivot online; some were ahead of the game, while some have been caught flat-footed. Art fair organizers have either canceled outright or pushed events back to later in the year, where they threaten to meet in an enormous bottleneck.

Frieze New York, one of the city's premiere art fairs, was to take place this week and host some 200 international galleries in a bespoke tent on Randall's Island in the East River. The Frieze empire, which spans contemporary art and antiquities and also has editions in London and Los Angeles, was the first fair to benefit from having time to prepare to host a virtual fair during quarantine, aside from those whose presentations were scheduled to run as lockdown hit. It observed as one of the titans in this sphere, Art Basel, refunded exhibitors 75 percent of their participation fee and pivoted to an online presentation of its M arch Hong Kong edition, which bowed to mixed reviews: Belgian collector and art fair hound Alain Servais tweeted, "OMG [scream emoji] How basic Art Basel Viewing Rooms' navigation is."

Anni Albers, Fox I, 1972.

© The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and David Zwirner.

After cancelling its New York fair—and refunding exhibitors their entire participation fee—Frieze took advantage of the intervening weeks to create a clean, streamlined experience that it's offering to its galleries free of charge. VIPs started browsing the virtual aisles Wednesday morning; the general public gets to check in today.

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"So many people have been isolated at home," says Frieze N ew York director Loring Randolph. "Now we have something that hopefully rallies the community, that allows people to re-engage, that lets them get back to acquiring work from the artists they love." It's a given that an online presentation can hardly compete with an in-the-flesh experience, and many of us will miss chance meetings with friends and colleagues in the aisles and in the dealers' booths. Frieze is also known for the quality of its food service, and instant ramen at home isn't quite the same.

Dan Flavin, untitled (in memory of Josef Albers) 1, 1977.

© 2020 Stephen Flavin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy David Zwirner.

But there are upsides. The fair's search functions have bonuses over wandering a massive presentation, such as the capacity to search by artist name, gallery, or price. Seasoned collectors can search for works priced upward of $1 million, like a $5.5 million Jean-Michel Basquiat canvas at Acquavella Galleries; for the young collectors, there are some 1,500 artworks tagged at under $10,000. And those who want to search by medium can search by collage, painting, or even works created from software. Want to shop by geography? Search for galleries in Africa and check out Goodman Gallery, or visit the 16 participating galleries with locations in Asia. There's even an option to search by gender identity, which pulls up the nonbinary and transgender artists on offer. (There are just three, but still.) Blank white walls with unlabeled artworks can be off-putting; here, each gallery's offerings are presented with captions and prices. "For the sake of transparency, that's huge," Randolph points out.

Frieze has shown a talent for giving a commercial event cultural legitimacy, partly through staging lectures and panel discussions and by inviting curators or even other fairs to give their own presentations; last year in New York, artist Javier Téllez curated a show of artworks from deale rs who show at the beloved Outsider Art Fair. This time around, Frieze invited the Collective Design fair, founded by architect Steven Learner in 2013, to mount an exhibition.

Joon Yong Kim, Yellow Cloud, 2017.

Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon.

Learner had the notion to do a presentation on the theme of color, partly inspired by Scottish artist and writer David Batchelor's book Chromophobia. "As an architect," Learner joked when reached by phone, "I'm a victim of this condition." He invited London historian, curator, and writer Libby Sellers to organize the exhibition "Color and Production: From the Atom to the Void," with objects by designers like Ettore Sottsass and Nathalie Du Pasquier juxtaposed with a rtworks by the likes of Sheila Hicks and Anni Albers. Works in the Collective Design presentation are on offer for as little as $3,800, the price for an untitled 2020 piece by London-based glassblower Jochen Holz.

Michael Eden, Imari IV, 2015.

Sylvain Deleu. Image courtesy of Adrian Sassoon.

With the caveat that there's nothing good about a pandemic, Learner, like Randolph, acknowledges that there are some additional upsides to the online presentation. "Certainly we will reach a far larger and more international audience, a broader cross section of art and design collectors," he says. And while it's widely known that Frieze's location on an island off Upper Manhattan makes it a fair you typically visit once and only once, he expressed confidence that people would log in repeatedly this year. Moreover, he points out, admission is free, whereas last year, "full package" tickets, including an East River ferry ride, set fairgoers back some $85. Many art lover s would shell out any price to start attending these events again, one suspects, even though their overabundance pre-pandemic was leading to discussions of "fair-tigue."

"I'm an extrovert, and I crave that face-to-face interaction," says Randolph. "Maybe we got kind of cynical about how lucky we are to be with our community of talents and intellectuals and big business people in the same place. Maybe this will help people appreciate the good fortune of getting to do this."

Frieze Viewing Room is available to browse for free through May 15.

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest

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