In 2003, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover erected a tent in London's Regent's Park and launched the Frieze Art Fair. They never imagined that a decade later it would become 'Frieze Week' on the cultural calendar – like Ascot without tailcoats and hats – or that they would be considered among the top players in the art industry.
"Our idea was simply to get really good galleries, put them together in a park in a nice bit of London and the art world would come," Sharp recalls. "That would be it and that was the most we could aim for."
But even on the first night in October 2003, it was obvious they had a hit. "We were amazed. It wasn't just the art world that came, it was creative London. It had this fantastic energy of the city and that made it a platform in a way we never expected."
Now, Sharp and Slotover are about to launch two new fairs. One is Frieze Masters, which will run concurrently with Frieze itself in 2012 and will show art dating back as far as cave-painting. The other is Frieze New York, which plans to take a bite out of the Big Apple's established but unloved Armory Show when it debuts on an island off the eastside of Manhattan during the modern and contemporary auction sales next year.
Of the two, Sharp and Slotover now consider London the city more comfortable with contemporary art. "What got quite tiring was all those people saying, 'Oh yeah, but that's not art is it? It's crap. They're just pulling the wool over your eyes'. That's stopped in the past five years. Art is something you can engage with on a Thursday afternoon when you've got a day off work."
Once fringe, contemporary art is now astonishingly accessible. A stiff card placed alongside the room-service menu in the New York hotel where we sit lists an 'in-room video art exhibition' for guests. If curating is now to art what the T-shirt is to fashion, art itself has come to resemble the music industry during the Eighties – a machine manufacturing 'curated' products that look like art but are, in fact, marketing. Peter York once said that Sharp and Slotover could have made Frieze into the Virgin of their generation. They didn't, believes the critic Michael Bracewell, "because they are both, at heart, Oxbridge intellectuals who love books and ideas more than anything".
Sharp and Slotover started Frieze Magazine in 1991 when contemporary art in Britain was still a cottage industry. London had not experienced the New York boom of the Eighties, nor did it have the institutional muscle of the German scene. Intimate, yes, but also parochial. "It was just 30 people in a pub and no one else was interested anyway," Slotover recalls.
Art criticism, they felt, was plagued by pretension. "We'd grown up reading Blitz and The Face and we felt the art mags were badly designed and badly written by comparison," Slotover says. "Art criticism was even more full of jargon than it is now. There was a lot of French philosopher name-dropping. It was a bad moment. I'd studied philosophy so I knew they were being misinterpreted."
Sharp and Slotover were concerned that the emerging Young British Artists (YBAs) might be overlooked by the existing art establishment. "[The art critic] Adrian Searle wrote a piece saying, let's hope they take these new guys seriously. Damien [Hirst] was fuming about that. What does he think? That it's just a big con?"
Twenty years later and the decision to launch Frieze Masters is an extension of their initial plan. "We hope that if we go back before the 21st century, we can attain the critical mass to draw even more people in," Sharp explains. "The media and public is focused on the new, and the historical art world is keen to get some of that attention, basically. We think there's a way of creating energy around historical art by presenting it in a contemporary way."
In addition, Slotover says, placing contemporary art in the context of art history may help eradicate a "lingering suspicion that contemporary art is all marketing hype and here today, gone tomorrow. We think it's part of a continuum that's been going on for at least the past 500 or 2,000 years."
The growth in popularity of contemporary art in Britain can be traced across four markers: Hirst's pickled shark at the Saatchi Gallery in 1992; Sensation! at the Royal Academy in 1997; the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 – and the Frieze Art Fair itself, in 2003.
"At each point we just thought, 'OK, this is it. It's not going to get any bigger'," says Sharp. "We never thought art was going to become so extraordinarily fashionable to such a broad constituency."
But what accounts for the growth of art as a leisure activity? "The only undeniable change over the past 20 years is the ubiquity of low-cost travel and the speed of communications," says Slotover. The popularity of art fairs and exhibitions, Sharp continues, is perhaps because "people crave a physical experience... a connection. We were thinking, why doesn't London have a decent art fair? We love going to art fairs and sitting up till four in the morning arguing about art with people."
So Frieze was born in a tent with the goodwill of the galleries who, in the tradition of the Boat Show or the Ideal Home Exhibition, were also advertisers in Frieze Magazine. It's a measure of Sharp and Slotover's commitment that – like financial market journalists forbidden from owning stocks and shares – neither started collecting art until after they handed over the magazine to new editors.
"Frieze gave us access to a world we didn't even know existed," Sharp says. "Through the fair we had to get involved with many more aspects of the art business, but it has never precluded us from having conversations with artists and I spend as much time with artists as ever, and most of my friendships are with artists."
But are fairs good places to see art? Probably not – this is, after all, essentially a trade show. Still, the arrangement of cubicles and hopeful dealer-representatives, the flocks of attractive 'art advisers' working on commission and kickbacks, promenading local and international social types, luxury advertisers and associated product-launches and parties, are now an integral part of the industry.
Collectors, especially the current Russian or Qatari big-spenders, are fêted like movie stars and like to move through the fair in Hollywood-style power-wedges. Galleries grumble that the fairs have got them over a barrel because where else can they meet new customers? And that the fairs distract from their purpose to cultivate and represent artists. Still they come. Artists come, too, but are wary of being seen too close to the hard-sell.
In one now infamous aside, New York figurative painter John Currin remarked that he feels like "a pig in a sausage factory" at art fairs. "I didn't think pigs were paid when they go to sausage factories," snorts Slotover, his voice rising slightly.
"And I wonder what it's like to go to your own opening at Gagosian," counters Sharp, referring to Larry Gagosian, the globe-trotting mega-dealer who represents Currin to a court of competitive billionaire collector-clients.
Their sensitivity on the issue is proof they have not mislaid their idealism. "But I don't believe in artists starving in garrets," says Sharp. The fair also speaks to some anxiety that the art world is currently in the thrall of ultra-wealth, that artists themselves are inadvertent promoters of fashion and luxury branding. If it was once cool to be a cool artist, it's now cool to be an artist luxuriating in a luxury lifestyle.
Last summer, Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich infuriated Venetians and visitors to the Venice Biennale by docking his mega-yacht quayside on the Grand Canal. "It was one of the most talked about things at Venice this year," says the Frieze Projects curator Sarah McCrory, who commissioned the artist Christian Jankowski to install a motor-yacht similar to the launches Australian designer Marc Newson sells through Gagosian. Visitors will be able to purchase the yacht as a Jankowski-certified artwork, or as a luxury – the difference being a commentary on wealth and luxury.
If the predominant dialogue in art is now about money, we may have already seen its purest evocation in the notorious 'two-minute hold' of the mid-2000s boom. Then, buyers had two minutes to make a decision on a purchase. After the 2008 crash, the two-minute hold disappeared only to come back – as a two-hour hold – this summer at the Basel fair.
"There's definitely more urgency," says Sharp. "But I wouldn't think it's possible for the two-minute hold to come back. It wasn't fun, it wasn't comfortable for the galleries, and I don't think it was a good way to earn a living or enjoy art."
Still, it's not clear that any significant art movement has emerged since the dance with fashion and wealth was engaged. In any case, says Slotover, it's impossible for distinct movements to emerge because of the speed of communications. Individuals, yes, but not movements.
But if the public has stopped asking, "Is it art?", then perhaps it's because artists have stopped pushing the boundaries of art. Too busy meeting demand created by the construction boom in private museums, perhaps? From Carlos Slim to Bernard Arnault, Victor Pinchuk to Abramovich, it's becoming hard to think of a multi-billionaire without a museum or the plans for one.
"I went to Rome last year and I was amazed that there were so many ornate churches built in the space of 10 or 20 years," says Sharp. "I thought, how many churches did they need? They were built to show-off, of course. What's the equivalent now? It's to build your own private museum. It's what everyone is doing. There are eight in London, a few in Berlin and so on. It's totally the same thing. Five hundred years later, those churches have left an amazing legacy for us."
Next year, Sharp and Slotover plan an ambitious expansion to New York. In terms of public awareness and acceptance of art, America now lags behind Britain, they reason. You don't find artists on the front pages of newspapers, but there are signs – the 660,000 people who visited the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Metropolitan, for instance – of untapped demand.
New York has retained its place as the commercial centre of the art world in terms of galleries and auction sales, but has strangely lacked a vibrant fair and that is what Sharp and Slotover intend to change.
"There hasn't been a really good art fair there in a very long time," says Sharp. "It's been a long time since galleries from abroad have wanted to bring real depth to the market and we're coming in at the top level. We know we're going to have a really good fair."
For now, though, it's too soon to think about the rest of the world. The luxury-brand industries may be fixated on Brazil and China but emerging markets still represent no more than 10 per cent of art sales. Buying a handbag, after all, is a lot easier to understand than buying art. Slotover believes it may take a generation for emerging market economies to become serious players, because their museum systems are not yet in place. "I have a theory that people are comfortable buying art when there are museums around, because museums legitimise art. They can say to their friends, 'See that artist that's showing at the Tate? Well, I got one of those'. It helps a lot."
The Frieze Art Fair starts on Thursday; friezeartfair.com
Why Frieze still matters
By Alice Jones
Does Frieze still matter? Now in its ninth year, the London art fair has seen the art bubble grow to blinging proportions then deflate, if not ever quite burst, over the past few years. When it started out in 2003 – in a David Adjaye marquee crammed with Sol LeWitt cubes and Takashi Murakami superflats, with free bags designed by Jeremy Deller and a secret gig from Jarvis Cocker's now-defunct side project, Relaxed Muscle – it attracted 27,700 visitors and made around £20 million in sales.
Its glamorous apex came a few years later, in 2007 – the year that Richard Prince exhibited his Dodge car complete with skimpily-clad pit-stop girl, the Chapman Brothers defaced banknotes in the name of art and Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss and Larry Gagosian were among the millionaires swanning around.
These days, visitor numbers hover around 65,000. As for total sales figures, the fair stopped releasing them in 2005. While they're unlikely to reach the dizzy heights of 2007/8 again, it's fair to assume they aren't too shabby. At last year's edition, White Cube sold Damien Hirst's cabinet of dead fish, The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths, for £3.5 million and Lisson offloaded a shiny, black Anish Kapoor for £800,000. But while the critics like to mock it as a giant, pop-up art supermarket, the real importance of Frieze lies in the fact that it has put London on the art world map, indelibly. For one week in October, it's the only place to be if you buy, sell or care about contemporary art. Next year, Frieze Masters, selling art that dates from antiquity up to 2000, will run alongside the original in Regent's Park. And in May, it will set up camp in New York for the first time. If it can make it there, it'll make it anywhere.
Alice Jones is deputy arts editor of The Independent