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The man who has changed the way we look at art

Twenty-five years ago two young graduates, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, together with graphic designer Tom Gidley, launched a new magazine about contemporary art. A quarter of a century later frieze, still published in London, is going strong, now part of a global brand that includes three of the world’s most influential and profitable art fairs. Not only have Slotover and Sharp played a significant role in London becoming one of the global centres of contemporary art – it has literally changed the way people look at art; visitors are able to get close to the work, attend talks by some of the world’s most interesting and important creators and commentators, eat great food by renowned chefs, see films and even take part in a performance. Frieze offers a level of involvement that is nothing like the usual experience of visiting a museum or fair.

Slotover’s early introduction to the art world came about almost by chance. “We were really young when we started the magazine. We were twenty-two. I didn’t know anything about business, art, art criticism or publishing,” says Slotover over lunch at the Rochelle Canteen in east London, in the same Victorian redbrick former school building where Frieze has its offices. “I left university with a degree in psychology. I had no interest in art at all. I had a friend at St Martins, and I started going to see art with her. Someone told me about this Damien Hirst-curated warehouse show. I went and was completely blown away. It was exciting – you could feel it. Anyone who was there could feel it.” The pilot issue of frieze, featuring an interview with the ambitious young Hirst himself, wasn’t remotely glossy: it had a more of a music magazine than an art magazine aesthetic. “We were really influenced by The Face and i-D and Blitz, we loved those magazines when we were teenagers. We wanted frieze to feel more like those magazines. We wanted it to be less jargony – we haven’t succeeded in making it totally jargon-free but compared to other art maga-zines at the time we definitely were.”  

Retrospectively their adventure seems inspired, but at the time London was still somewhat bleak after the chill of the Thatcher years; setting up a new art magazine didn’t suggest itself as an obvious path to fame and fortune. This was long before the opening of Tate Modern (now the most visited museum in the world), long before Tony Blair co-opted art and music to fuel his short-lived Cool Britannia image. “At the end of the 80s, the beginning of the 90s, there was zero interest in contemporary art in Britain. There were a tiny number of non-profit and commercial galler-ies. One young artist might get picked up by a gallery a year. Damien Hirst and his group saw what was going on abroad, and they said we can either accept what’s going on or we can change it. They saw that they needed to make art that was going to be interesting to a broader group of people, to the media, and to the general public. Damien often said, ‘I want to make art my mum would get something out of’. I do think there was a genuine attempt at a more popular – not populist – art from a small group of people who then got picked up.”

Slotover and Sharp were neophytes but they weren’t naïve, and they were good at spotting people who could help them with the magazine. “Everyone was very generous with their time. There were two main people, designer Tony Arefin and writer and editor Stuart Morgan, they were the absolute best in their fields. Without them it would all have been an absolute disaster.” From a publishing point of view their timing was impeccable: “1991, when we started, was probably the first year when you could do your own layout on a Mac – so our typesetting bill was probably a tenth of what it would have been a year earlier.”

Frieze’s influence on London’s turn of the century cultural ascendance was tangible. Slotover and Sharp, who ceased editorial involvement with the magazine in 2001, founded Frieze Art Fair in 2003 in London’s Regents Park. What has become known as Frieze Week is now a fixture on the capital’s calendar. Museums and galleries time major exhibitions to coincide with the fair (joined two years ago by Frieze Masters), though what Slotover calls “the crazy years”, when celebrities jostled for invitations to the VIP view and hundreds of journalists thronged press day, have calmed down. It is claimed that there are entire residential streets in central London where the houses are only in-habited for the one week of the year when their owners come to stock up their art collections at Frieze. 

At the same time, Frieze attracts visitors who are not, a priori, particularly interested in art. “There are definitely heat-seekers in London who aren’t that interested in art. But then some of them actually become interested,” says Slotover. These are the people who might begin their own modest collection with the purchase of, say, a print for a modest four-figure sum. Others come not to buy but to enjoy the frenzy and spectacle. Catering to these visitors is as integral to the Frieze ethos as those who come to purchase blockbuster art like the £30 million Rembrandt portrait that was offered for sale at Frieze Masters in 2014. 

I wonder whether London has its own momentum that can keep going in the face of Brexit. “The interest in art in London has gone very deep and very broad. There’s an argument that more people are interested in contemporary art in London than anywhere else – that’s what people say abroad. What makes Brexit so sad is that we feel totally identified with London – the changes over the last 25 years, we’ve been part of that project”. Might a retreat from Europe trigger a kind of cultural recession? Slotover thinks not. “Prosperity is one thing. Culture is something else; they’re not necessarily the same thing, though obviously they’re linked.  I think it’s to do with knowledge and educa-tion, and once people have that education, that culture, that knowledge, you can’t undo that.”

Slotover is disarmingly modest about his achievements. “We didn’t reinvent the model of the magazine or the fair. They were both existing models. But what we did do is tweak the model, so there were small innovations. The most striking thing is that the fairs are in tents rather than buildings. It’s not like we wouldn’t do things in buildings, it’s just that we haven’t found buildings that we like in the cities that we want. It would be a lot less of a headache. But there are some great things about doing things in tents. It means you can use great architects, choose the restaurants, have lovely parks around you. People feel a kind of ownership when they go, because they own the parks. The magazine has always had some cross-cultural involvement, music, design and architecture: we wanted to bring some of that stuff into the fairs.” 

More influential perhaps than the physical context of the fairs have been the activities of Frieze Foundation, set up in 2002. “We were the first people to commission artistic projects for an art fair. In fact, the very first person we hired was the curator Polly Staple.” The fair’s curatorial programme of talks, films, music and education, including London’s biggest open air sculpture park, was another significant innovation; when Frieze New York was launched in 2012, the curatorial and commissioning model was duplicated with similar success. In London, the Outset/Frieze Art Fair Fund, established in 2003, was the world's first acquisitions fund directly associated with an art fair. Money raised by the fund is given to Tate to buy important work at the fair by emerging artists for the national collection. 

Slotover shrugs at the notion that it might have been difficult to adjust from being the cheeky new kids on the block to becoming very much part of the establishment. “London’s been really neophiliac for the last twenty-five years, partly because of the media. But you can’t be new again. One of the things that was fresh and exciting and innovative was the simple fact that it was new: there had never been an international art fair in London before. But you can’t be new a second time. What really is new each year is the art. I’m always trying to put the pressure back on the art to be the thing. The press often ask, ‘What’s new this year?’ And I’m always tempted to say, ‘All the art is new this year! None of it was here last year! All of it’s different – isn’t that enough?’”

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