Frieze: London's finest art fair goes stateside

Despite protests from Occupy, accusations of selling out and a tricky island location, Frieze Art Fair has made a triumphant debut in New York, says Laura McLean-Ferris

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A damp, murky day in New York, and I'm on Randall's Island, fresh off the boat, after a lightly choppy crossing over the East River from 35th Street. Frieze Art Fair, London's frosty-yet-fun, moneyed-yet-curatorially-edgy contemporary art fair, which takes place every October in Regent's Park, is now making its New York debut. And, despite the weather, anticipation is high. On the eve of the fair's opening, at Sotheby's in New York a rare version of Edvard Munch's The Scream (1895) sold for just under $120 million, making it the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction (even in these straitened times, those headlines just keep on coming) indicating some froth at the art-buying end of the economy. On the same evening, at photographer Ryan McGinley's opening at Team Gallery on Wooster Street in Soho, Deerhunter played a rooftop gig on top of the gallery, something that I couldn't picture happening in London, while across town, at PS1 – MoMA's Long Island City outpost – Martha Wainwright played a concert in a Kraftwerk installation, which was followed by a DJ set by Mark Ronson, at MoMA's "welcome party" for Frieze.

Leaving glamorous sideshows on the periphery where they belong, there's been some speculation as to whether Frieze New York, based in a tricky location on an out-of-the-way island, will be a problem. Frieze gamely made a video in which they asked New Yorkers on the street where Randall's Island was, and whether they had ever been there, to which they received a series of puzzled, head-shaking "nos". The video then provided some simple-sounding directions. Often it takes outsiders to show you parts of your own city.

And so, here we all are: 180 galleries have set up their booths, and among them are many of the big bluechip names – Gagosian, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, as well as those smaller, edgier names that have become staples at the London fair – Glasgow's The Modern Institute, Istanbul's Rodeo, Athens's The Breeder. Like the London edition, there's a sculpture park and a series of projects – here curated by Cecilia Alemani – most of them outdoors by the waterside. Continuing with the circus theme, some of these have a pleasingly creepy "sideshow" take on their position to the "big top" next door: Joel Kyack has made a fairground game trailer based on the human body, entitled, Most games are lost, not won – the distorting mirrors on its side include images of internal organs, whilst Ulla von Brandenburg has created an outdoor shadow theatre near the pier.

One of the most depressing things about most art fairs – now a staple part of the artworld for curators and writers as much as gallerists and collectors – is the exhibition centres that they're held in. There's the crushing sense that next week there will be a holiday roadshow, the week after maybe a cheese fair. Frieze's founders, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, have got around this atmosphere by commissioning an architecturally designed tent for each fair. They have continued this approach in New York, with a long, snaking structure designed by architects SO-IL. Despite its tricky location, the design of the tent is slightly more pleasant than the London edition, because it always gives you a decent sense of where you are in its long curving geometry, rather than the disorientating series of interconnecting rooms in London.

As for the galleries, most of them have nice booths of intelligent, if polite work, though there's little that would stop you in your tracks. And sales are certainly happening – it's notoriously hard to get galleries to say much on record, but many of those I speak to who have strong work appear to have sold about half of their booth by the early afternoon on the first day. It's young New York gallery Canal 47's first fair, and their set of seductive photographic digital collages by Michele Abeles is all but sold out. The more established Miguel Abreu tell me they have sold several of their gorgeously pale, luminous printed canvases by Scott Lyall, and London's Seventeen have sold all of their works by Oliver Laric.

Clouding the event is the fact that the fair takes place only a couple of days after the May Day protests, which saw the Occupy movement staging marches across the city, providing a sharp contrast to the privileged collectors who populate the fair and purchase artwork. Occupy Museums, a subgroup of the movement, are protesting against Frieze, believing that it represents a system of art for the 1%, and are standing outside the tent. They are accompanied by representatives of the unions, angered that the organisers did not use union workers for the fair's setup. Their inflatable rats and honking horns accompanied the fair's setup, but were later drowned out by the noise inside.

It throws into relief the fact that Frieze, first set up as a mould-breaking magazine in 1991, has become a particular part of the establishment. Though its first fair was only in 2003, London has quickly become used to Frieze Art Fair, and the circus of money, celebrity and sensation that accompanies the art on show. Museums, galleries and institutions, capitalising on the fact that the world's wealthiest patrons and most powerful individuals visit during this week, fell quickly into line, programming their biggest, flashiest shows for October, and scheduling openings and parties around the fair. So much so that it is now referred to as "Frieze Week". It looks as though something similar will happen here.

The rampant commercialism and speculation, and the glittery, bauble-like art that can serve such enterprises is problematic, though it's also fair to say that this is a structural problem. Many galleries, facing high rent prices for small spaces in their home cities rely on the art-fair economy to sell their artists' work and thus support the artists themselves. Start-up galleries often operate out of offices, homes and very small spaces, and sell much of their work at fairs.

The impact that Frieze had on London as an art capital cannot be denied – it wouldn't be what it is without it. New York didn't need a Frieze, really – it already has several art fairs, a strong art scene and market, and some of the world's best institutions, but according to the fair's organisers, New York galleries wanted Frieze to come. And there's certainly a portion of the city that seems to have got right behind it. If a new era is on the horizon, heralded by artists, Occupy, or anyone else, then it's not here yet.