Brrrr… can Frieze get any cooler?

Ten years ago, an art fair pitched a tent in London's Regent's Park. Now film stars and oligarchs queue to get in to the HQ of the see-and-be-seen art scene. Charlotte Philby examines its cultural significance

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The Independent Culture

On 17 October, 2003, Frieze Art Fair launched in London. According to the press release, this long weekend would see "124 of the leading galleries in the world, from 16 different countries, showing new work from over 1,000 artists [in an] 11,000-square metre space in a prime location in Regent's Park, in an installation designed by the leading architect David Adjaye". It didn't disappoint. Unsuspecting passers-by who found themselves ambling through the gardens that morning might have wondered if they'd taken a turn into a surreal parallel universe. By the time the official photographer, Dafydd Jones, turned up an hour before opening, the queue outside the vast temporary gallery was around the block; at the front stood Grayson Perry in frilly splendour, alongside some of the world's richest collectors. It was, Jones recalls, "a success from the moment the doors opened" - and a people-watcher's paradise.

Inside the world's most glamorous tent, oligarch Boris Berezovsky perused the displays flanked by a towering bodyguard; a few feet away, Hugh Grant and his art advisor 'um-ed' and 'ah-ed' over potential acquisitions. Perhaps he had his eye on Paola Pivi's Slope, the inaugural Frieze Project (the annual on-site commission, made by a different artist eachf year), which saw visitors rolling down a grass hill erected inside the tent; or Tino Sehgal's This is Right, which involved a bunch of kids chatting about what they didn't get about art. "These were the boom years," Jones recalls. "There were all these people - many of them dressed quite scruffily - falling over each other to buy pieces." Ryan Gander, now 37, was one of the artists whose work was on sale that first year: "I was young and very naïve about what the art world was like... the opening night felt to me a bit like going on a school trip or a Butlins holiday, where everyone knows each other."

It was, says Tate director and former Turner Prize chairman Nicholas Serota, what London had been waiting for: "There had been a burgeoning interest in a new generation of British artists for more than a decade," he explains, "but until now there had been no fair to create a forum for all we had to offer." The response to what the fair's founders, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, had just created (the pair previously launched Frieze magazine together back in 1991) was confirmation of that. Over the course of the first Frieze weekend, some 28,000 visitors piled through the doors; there were plastic bags designed by Jeremy Deller, a secret gig by Jarvis Cocker's then-band Relaxed Muscle, and food from Mark Hix (at the time he was chef-director at The Ivy and Caprice Holdings) - altogether creating just the right glittery atmosphere, which helped drum up some £20m in sales.

"For the first few years, whenever I arrived for the VIP reception, no matter what time it was, I always thought I was late because the rooms would be jam-packed," Dafydd Jones recalls. "A friend of mine arrived at the fair one year," adds co-founder Matthew Slotover, "and saw Roman Abramovich, Alexander McQueen and Charles Saatchi behind each other in the queue: where else in the world would you get those people together?" Where else, for that matter, might you stumble across Gwen Stefani air-kissing Larry Gagosian in one room while a handful of middle-aged eccentrics stroke their chins in front of a pair of semi-naked pole-dancers in the other? The art world had never been shy and retiring, but Frieze Art Fair was making its mark as its bold young face, which despite extreme highs and relative lows in the art market over the past 10 years, has managed to retain a self-contented grin.

Fast-forward to autumn 2012 and the original fair has now morphed into three-galleries-in-one - with the main gallery, Focus and Frame, battling it out in the central tent (with stall-space for the accepted few costing up to £352 per square metre). Then there are the talks (by anyone from Yoko Ono to the late French philosopher Jean Baudrillard) and the annual Frieze Project, funded by profits made from the fair. "Things like that are the offshoot of the money being made by Frieze the Business," says Ryan Gander, who sat on the fair's committee last year. Not to mention big-money sponsorship from the likes of Deutsche Bank and Cartier, all creating a very nice environment indeed for two huge new ventures this year. Following on from Frieze New York back in May, the much talked-about Frieze Masters - cashing in on a recent thirst in the art-world for older work - sees pieces of ancient art (and anything made up to the year 2000) in another tent 15 minutes' walk across Regent's Park. And yet, quite exhaustingly, Frieze Art Fair itself is now only a fraction of the cultural phenomenon it has created.

While helping put Britain firmly on the commercial map, Slotover and Sharp have spawned something much bigger than their own event. The second week in October is now one of the hottest dates in the social calendar. "It is the unofficial start of the season," says Serota. This is when anyone who is anyone in the art-world - and anyone who would like to be - launches their own gallery or pop-up, or whatever, to coincide with what is now informally established as Frieze Week, a time when the international movers and shakers pour into the capital for a seven-day bonanza. In the words of co-founder Slotover, "We created a monster... Sometimes I think 'Oh my God, what have we done?'. The whole thing has run away from us... now there is this whole fringe of events which is nothing to do with us and which we can't control. People come up to us all the time and say, 'We want your blessing' and I'm like, 'I don't want to be involved, I've got enough on my plate, why are you even asking me this?'." The upside, he adds, is that it gets more people coming to London, and that means, among other things, big bucks... Since 2006, Frieze has refused to release its sales figures on the basis that they are "misleading" and "inaccurate", because they don't f include post-fair sales. What we do know is that in 2004, the fair's income from galleries in rent alone was £1.5 million (a rise from £990,000 the previous year); the same year, £26 million was raised in sales while 42,000 people poured in, paying £12 a ticket. Since then, it has just kept growing, until it had to be stopped. For this, its 10th fair, which starts on 11 October, 63,000 people are expected to turn out in glad-rags and bin-bags (anything goes) at the fair, a drop in numbers from a peak of 68,000 in 2007, the point at which, Slotover says, things started to get out of control. "It was too much, we needed to keep it special." One-day tickets now cost between £27 and £35, but this year they are only issuing a limited number, and in order to keep the big-spenders sweet, there is a strict pecking order for entry on opening day: "It's tricky but it's necessary," says Slotover.

"At 11am, the doors open. That time is for serious collectors who want first choice and want to see the work in an uncrowded environment... After all, that's what runs the fair and it's important that those people are happy," Slotover explains. The 2pm slot is for the next tier of collectors; by 6pm it is party time. "The evening is for the artists and people who are socially connected to the galleries. By that point the sales aspect has subsided, it's more about people bumping into each other, letting their hair down and having a drink," and just being seen - be it in a sort of semi-turban number (Daphne Guinness), a clown suit and plastic eyebrows (Bethan Laura Wood), or with your face plastered in plastic flowers (Anne Pigalle, you know who you are). "It's like fashion week or design week," says artist Ryan Gander, "everyone you know from all over the world are all in one place at one time. It's like a school reunion or a friend's wedding." Though some may hate to admit it.

"A lot of artists say, 'Oh I don't like going to fairs, all those people buying art, it's disgusting, as if art is equitable to money," Gander notes, "but all the artists who say those things still go to the bloody opening." Martin Parr, who was the photographer at Frieze one year, told his friend Dafydd Jones, "You can measure people's importance in the art world by the time they are let in." Slotover admits, it is a diplomatic nightmare. For galleries, getting a pitch is a serious matter, and with up to 1,000 applications for fewer than 200 stalls, the competition is stiff: "There have been years when some galleries have just expected they'll be let in, and haven't... that is very embarrassing," Jones says.

With a downturn in the market since its peak in the mid-Noughties, there is further reason for humility, he suggests. "For a while, people were going crazy about buying art, the amount of money swirling around was remarkable. Then in 2008, it all changed... there was a nervous feeling." At this point, Jones concludes, a number of gallery owners did an about-turn: "They were suddenly being incredibly accommodating and charming, whereas in previous years they'd been very snooty, telling people who were trying to buy work, 'No, we want to sell to a major gallery'."

But some galleries actively avoid Frieze because, as Gander - whose wife co-founded 'Sunday', a pop-up fair which for the past three years has been opposite Frieze, showing the work of younger galleries for a fraction of the cost - notes, it is incredibly expensive. "A lot of those who have been invited to Frieze decide it is not the platform for them; as a commerce it does very well but for a tenth of the price you can show at somewhere like Sunday and the same collectors will come... although maybe it is more of an exhibition and less of a buying frenzy." The Frieze Effect was evident from the get-go: "Up until that point there had never been an art fair in this country that commanded international attention."

Almost overnight, he says, this became "one of the most important fairs in the world". That first year, Tate bought four works, including one by Olafur Eliasson, and Anri Sala's Dammi i Colori, a video made in an Albanian town in which the mayor had commissioned a number of rundown properties to be painted in primary colours. There had been no shortage of pieces to choose from, with 303 Gallery in New York, White Cube and kurimanzutto in Mexico City among those vying for attention. Which helps, of course, but the weird and wonderful world of Frieze - like the art world itself - is about so much more than just the work on show.

Gallerist Maureen Paley, who has been at the fair since day one and sits on the committee that helps select which galleries can show, had her definitive Frieze moment a few years ago. "I happened to mention to Mark Hix that I had been too busy to make it to his restaurant and five minutes later he arrived at my stall with a whole lobster on a china plate with a napkin," she recalls. "The benefit of holding the event in a temporary structure is that you have greater flexibility. You can redesign every year and bring in whatever restaurant you want, and we wanted the best of everything..." Paley adds. This year, they have had the pick of the bunch: "Why not?" Slotover says. "This is a brilliant clientele for them. This year we've had endless restaurant PRs calling us up and saying, 'We want to cater this event, these are exactly the people we want in our restaurant'."

While Hix continues to hold fort at the main restaurant, Rochelle Canteen's Margot Henderson will be feeding guests in the VIP room, with Giorgio Locatelli serving up traditional Italian fare at Frieze Masters. It is all part of Sharp and Slotover's recipe for "a fair that feels like a festival... a meeting point for the whole art world", which above all else creates the right atmosphere for serious spending. "People are always going to be sceptical," Gander concludes. "The standard line from artists is that they're doing it for the greater good... This is a fair, it isn't an exhibition, but that's all right; all these other exhibitions exist around Frieze because Frieze exists. It has changed the face of London."

Frieze: the greatest hits

Paul McCarthy, Henry Moore Bound to Fail (Bronze), 2004

A six-metre maquette by the Californian artist greeted visitors in Regent's Park's sculpture park

Mike Nelson, Frieze Project, 2006

Nelson went on to represent Britain in the Venice Biennale following the success of his red-tinted dark room

Richard Prince, Untitled, 2007

This eye-catching, on-site commission saw a scantily-clad model posing next to a handmade yellow Dodge car

Wilfredo Prieto, Untitled (footprint), 2008

The Cuban artist won the Cartier Award for his performance, which involved walking in back-to-front flip-flops

David Shrigley's tattoo parlour, 2010

A makeshift tattoo parlour where the artist doodled on people in temporary ink was a major draw

Christian Jankowski, The Finest Art on Water, 2011

The German artist made waves last year when his super-yacht, priced at £60m, failed to sell