Frieze: The Best of Our Culture Commodified

Frieze Art Fair, 5th – 8th October 2017, London.

By Francesca White

Frieze Week marks a pinnacle in the British art calendar, even Claridge’s is purported to have described it as the busiest week of their year. The 2017 fair, despite the political uncertainties this year has brought, seemed no different. Regent’s Park was invaded by an army of exquisitely clad curators, artists, collectors, gallerists and critics, as well as the general public, all eagerly anticipating this year’s offerings at Frieze London and Frieze Masters. Separated by a short walk through Regent’s Park, Frieze London featured over 160 of the world’s leading galleries, primarily focusing on works created post-2000, while Frieze Masters, the brainchild of the current director Victoria Siddall, contained 130 galleries exhibiting works ranging from Roman statues dating from the 1st century A.D. to the end of the twentieth century. As well as this, this year’s Frieze London also contained a section led by independent curators entitled Sex Work: Feminist Art & Radical Politics and Focus, featuring performance-based work and ambitious presentations by emerging galleries.

Frieze London 2017, photo by Francesca White

Frieze London 2017, photo by Francesca White

Unsurprisingly, Frieze London and Frieze Masters feel very different. Frieze London drew a much larger, and on the whole younger and more fashionably appareled set, than its counterpart, which was distinctly calmer in tone. Despite this, both succeeded in enticing the most prestigious galleries, with White Cube, Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth and Acquavella Galleries, to unjustly name so few, all out in force. Frieze’s competitive gallery selection process, and no doubt extortionate price tag, was evident in the calibre of art on show. Rembrandt, Rodin, Cézanne, Picasso, Basquiat, Warhol, Freud, Léger, Klee, Matisse, Jeff Koons and Tracy Emin’s work, to do no justice to the spectacular array of treasures at the fair, were all available for purchase - at a price.

Jeff Koons,  Gazing Ball (Giotto The Kiss of Judas) , 2015-2016, oil on canvas, glass, and aluminum, 166.4 x 165.1 x 37.5 cm, David Zwirner Gallery Frieze London 2017. Sold for $2.75m within the first few hours of the fair.

Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Giotto The Kiss of Judas), 2015-2016, oil on canvas, glass, and aluminum, 166.4 x 165.1 x 37.5 cm, David Zwirner Gallery Frieze London 2017. Sold for $2.75m within the first few hours of the fair.

Frieze 2017 offered a purchasing opportunity of which we, as art history students, no doubt frequently find ourselves dreaming. In light of this, it would be less than truthful to deny the pangs of envy felt as collectors were given well-rehearsed sales pitches by commission-hungry galleries. There is, however, good news for those not able to afford these works. Among the great and the good Frieze attracts (Tracey Emin could be seen strolling through Frieze Masters on the second day of the fair), fairs such as these are increasingly attracting the presence of art museums. Institutional sales have comprised over 50% of Frieze’s turnover in the past four years, with Frieze being visited by more than 70 museum groups this year, including by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, The Louvre, and the National Gallery of Ireland. Similarly, it has already been confirmed that Tate has purchased four important pieces from Frieze this year, thus preserving some of these works for public enjoyment too. However, speculating on the wider sales success of this year’s Frieze is difficult. Frieze makes a point of not publishing its sales figures and much of Frieze’s appeal is based on the contacts made that result in later sales, rather than simply transactions that take place during the three-day event. Anecdotally, The Art Newspaper suggests that there was a much welcomed presence of US collectors this year, after a lull last year, but that the number of Asian buyers was lower than in previous years.

However, walking past the well-heeled throng sipping champagne, the BMW courtesy cars and the Deutsche Bank Wealth Management Lounge, it was hard to resist the conclusion that Frieze and other fairs like it have a positive message for those wishing to pursue a career in this field. Manifestly there are still a great many high quality works being sold, and a strong cohort evidently spending vast sums to buy them. The art market, from where I’m standing, seems healthy for now.


Frieze Fairs, “Visitor Information”. Accessed on 19th Oct.

Gerlis, Melanie. “Catnip for collectors”. FT, 6th October 2017. Accessed on 19th Oct.

Hanson, Sarah. “Strong early sales pierce the Brexit gloom”. The Art Newspaper, 6th October 2017.

Harris, Gareth. “Why are museums taking patrons to Frieze? FT, 5th October 2017. Accessed on 19th Oct.

Jones, Jonathan. “Frieze Masters review – for the billionaire who has everything, what about a Magritte?” The Guardian, 5th October 2016. Accessed on 19th Oct.

Law, Katie. “Frieze Art Fair director Victoria Siddall: It's Brexit-proof.” Evening Standard, 1st September 2016. Accessed on 19th Oct.