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TEFAF or Frieze Faff? That is the Question

Updated: Jun 13, 2019

Looking down on the main hall at TEFAF New York Spring

Having just got back and decompressed after six New York art fairs in four days, I have begun to wonder whether all the hassle of trapesing around the city on crutches was really worth it. And moreover, if I was there for pleasure rather than to seek out new and exciting acquisitions for clients, which fairs would I have cut from my list? Here are my thoughts on Frieze New York vs. TEFAF New York Spring and my favourites of the other art fairs I managed on my visit to the Big Apple.

For those who aren’t au fait with these fairs, I will briefly summarise: Frieze New York and TEFAF New York Spring run concurrently in New York City over the first weekend in May. While Frieze shows off the best of contemporary art, with the majority of pieces dated post-2000, TEFAF New York Spring focuses on modern and contemporary art and design. As an aside, there are two other fairs run by TEFAF: TEFAF Maastricht which covers 7,000 years of art history, and TEFAF New York Fall which covers fine and decorative art from antiquity to 1920. Frieze also operates in London and Los Angeles in much the same way as New York. The two fairs are different, but in many respects similar, and are arguably two of the three biggest names in the art fair calendar (Art Basel being the third). They are looking to attract the same big collectors, and many of the dealers and galleries that exhibit have pieces that will fit both fairs. So, is Frieze worth the money for a gallery? And as a collector – or in my case a consultant – which, if either, should you prioritise?

A selection of Yves Klein paintings on the Levy Gorvy stand at TEFAF New York Spring

Before Frieze New York, there was much talk in the press about some of the larger galleries switching allegiances - with Pace, Skarstedt, Almine Rech and Kamel Mennour choosing to exhibit at TEFAF instead of Frieze for the first time. The last two years have not been kind to Frieze New York, with flooding in 2017 and air-con issues during last year’s heat-wave. No wonder galleries and visitors alike are reticent to spend that long in a tent. Moreover, it is such a faff to get to! TEFAF is held at Park Avenue Armoury in central Manhattan, in a beautiful historic building. Frieze is on Randall’s Island, miles from the centre, in a tent. Now Frieze does put on a ferry service, but at $20 return for a ticket, those not lucky enough to receive the very highest order of VIP passes for the event will be set back around $75 per person for the privilege of attending. I think you may be starting to get the picture now.

For me it wasn’t (just) the promise of freshly shucked oysters and free flowing Champagne that took me to the preview day of TEFAF over Frieze. The simple fact was that I felt the quality of TEFAF was going to be higher, and the size far more manageable. With over 200 galleries exhibiting, multiple specially curated sections, and the usual ‘Spotlight’ area, each quarter of Frieze felt like a day trip in itself. TEFAF, on the other hand, with only 90 galleries, was much more manageable, despite the hundreds of Birkin bags and Louboutin heels swinging and clacking on preview day.

Martha Jungwirth and Barry X Ball at Fergus McCaffrey, TEFAF New York Spring

All this aside, which fair to prioritise as a collector must come down to what you are looking for. In the past, TEFAF has been the go-to for the highest quality, but somewhat ‘safe’ works. You can always rely on Richard Green to bring a high-end Chagall, or a beautifully delicate Pissarro, and there is something very reassuring about that. This year, though, I felt that galleries were taking a bit more of a risk, with many having solo or duo-shows. Levy Gorvy had a stunning minimalist Yves Klein wall; Fergus McCaffrey chose to show Martha Jungwirth alongside Barry X Ball’s busts, making an extremely striking stand; and Kamel Mennour brought Bertrand Lavier to the American market. All-in-all, some stunning works in a beautiful setting.

Frieze was its usual crazy self. Lots of Instagram-worthy stands including Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Narcissus Garden’ (lots of stainless steel balls) at Victoria Miro, Jeppe Hein’s ‘Mirror Ballons’ at 303 Gallery and Luis Flores’ ‘If you sit in shit for too long you start to get used to the smell’ in the Dialogues section. And nobody could forget Red Grooms’ ‘The Bus’ from Marlborough gallery. But there were also some great finds by emerging and mid-career artists that I will certainly be taking home to clients. Pierogi showed Elliott Green; Grimm brought British artist Alex Dordoy, and my personal favourite was Koenig & Clinton’s solo show of Anoka Faruqee and David Driscoll. Watch this space for a blog post on these guys in the coming months. Much like Frieze London, I felt that there were too many overly conceptual works that, in a museum on their own with the space and mental capacity to think would, I’m sure, be fantastic. But in a busy tent, with half of Manhattan there, were just a bit much. But maybe that’s just contemporary art.

The best of Frieze New York 2019

Like Frieze Week in London, numerous other fairs were on at the same time. I decided to miss out on 1-54, Moniker and The Other Art Fair this year in favour of editions we do not have in London. However, Art Miami New York felt more like the Affordable Art Fair to me – nowhere near the calibre of Art Miami proper. And NADA House – on its opening weekend – was closed on Sunday afternoon without warning, which resulted in a cold, rainy hobble out to Governor’s Island, only to have to ferry almost immediately back. Frieze Sculpture consisted of a lovely ramble around the Rockefeller Centre, but nothing like the experience of the Regents Park sculpture garden at Frieze London. The real find of the week for me was Superfine! art fair. Small, relaxed, artist-led – a lovely way to spend an evening, sipping wine and chatting to enthusiastic emerging artists. And there were some extremely high quality works hidden in there too.

A selection of pieces from Superfine! art fair

So back to my question: is Frieze worth the faff? From a financial standpoint only the galleries can say, but from a visitor viewpoint, I am still just about verging on the side of ‘yes’. With a number of galleries switching, or doubling up and showing at both Frieze and TEFAF this year, I wonder if in five (or even two) years’ time Frieze will still run in Spring. But while it does, it is worth the hike over there only if you can make a day of it (and preferably not at the weekend where the hoards are just too much). Don’t try to rush around in three hours: get there early, have a wood-fired pizza in the sun, stop for a glass of fizz or two, and really take in the whole experience. But definitely leave time for TEFAF, Frieze’s richer, more exclusive big brother.

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