you don’t need to dumb complicated ideas down – you just have to explain them clearly.
Beginning as two young graduates in the late eighties with a keen interest in contemporary art, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover struggled to find an art magazine that was able to characterise the subject in an intelligible manner, leading them to establish Frieze magazine. Today, Frieze is responsible for administering both an art magazine and an art fair, pressing on the nexus between art and commerce that has become so intrinsically interwoven.
If you live in London, you might have encountered the Frieze Art Fair, with its large white tent erected in Regent’s Park for a week in October. Whether you consider yourself part of the art scene or simply have a passing interest in contemporary creation, chances are you might even have attended the event, which is undeniably a mainstay of the UK art scene. Yet, it appears to be unsung knowledge (at least amongst those of us who were born in the late eighties and onwards) that Frieze, the eponymous magazine, predates the fair, having been published for a good ten years prior to the launch of the latter.
Despite the plethora of discussions and criticism surrounding both the commercial art world and the contemporary art market, Sharp and Slotover have nevertheless managed to successfully promote an interest in contemporary art to a much broader audience. As Frieze is celebrating its 25th anniversary since the inauguration of the magazine, it seemed rather timely to reflect back on this remarkable feat. Speaking with a low and gentle tone, Sharp tells us about the importance of clarity in writing when explaining complex ideas, how the fair and the magazine behave as entities separate from one another, and shares with us her experience of being a young publisher in the late eighties.
It’s been 25 years now since Frieze magazine was inaugurated. During its launch, there were very few art magazines that focused on contemporary art, especially on an international scale. I often find that when a ‘platform’ is established focusing on something that is underrepresented during the time, people are often hesitant to be critical. What were some of your and Matthew’s intentions when establishing the magazine?
What do you think you mean by ‘critical’?
I mean that in terms of the magazine’s writing, was it more journalistic? Or had you intended for it to be critical – questioning and analysing contemporary art?
I just wanted to be sure that our understanding of the term is the same.
I don’t know if you had a look around at the magazines of the late eighties and early nineties, but they were pretty jargon heavy. Quite cumbersome writing in a lot of places. There were these little wonderful lightning bolts of fantastic, independent, sort of short run, quasi-zines that bottled up. Some of them quite playful, very local – there were wonderful things coming out of London. If you grew up in London during the eighties reading magazines such as Style, which was well-written in itself, it was still very different from the more well-known art magazines which at the time, for us, were Art Monthly and Art Forum.
Yeah, and also Artscribe, which stopped printing in 1992.
There wasn’t really anywhere at the time where you would find fluid, coherent writing about contemporary art. We definitely felt that we wanted to go out and learn about art. It was really hard to find something that was intelligible, actually. It wasn’t about trying to look at art and be negative – in that interpretation of criticism – and it wasn’t that we wanted to delve into academia. We felt that with complicated ideas, you don’t need to dumb them down – you just have to explain them clearly. I think that’s what was interesting to us: good writing about contemporary art.
“It can be very off putting when art is didactic or opaque, and in many instances, it probably isn’t very good art.”
You studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Meeting individuals who, like you, didn’t come from an arts educational background, my general experience has been that they tend to dismiss contemporary art because they find it rather abstract.
I think it’s okay for art to be obtuse. It’s not that the simplest things in the world are the best things; you put a bit more in, you might get a bit more out.
It doesn’t mean that if something is beautiful, that somebody can’t enjoy it, they just enjoy it in different ways. It can be very off putting when art is didactic or opaque, and in many instances, it probably isn’t very good art if that’s the case.
I’m interested to hear about whether you think there has been a shift in the magazine’s direction since the launch of the fair in 2003. How do the two work side by side?
From an editorial perspective, I wouldn’t say there was. When we launched an art fair, it was very important to have a Chinese wall between them. They were actually separate companies. I had no idea whether the fair was gonna be successful or not, and that was the real concern. You don’t want it to be a financial liability. In fact, you don’t want it to be any form of liability on what we were already doing, with the magazine that we had been publishing for over ten years. That was our heart and soul. It was important to us that it would continue. It was quite a deliberate thing that we stepped back from editorial commissioning after we started working on the fair, just so its editorials weren’t being pushed or pulled by any demands of the fair.
Actually, if I was to look at it in a very hardnosed way, I’m not really sure the fair’s direction could have had an impact on the editorial voice of the magazine. The simple fact for that being: there is always an ongoing tension within any publication that is commercial where advertising is sold to fund the publication. That’s actually a much more overt potential problem to the magazine than the fair could have been.
We were bloody naive when we started the magazine and laid down absolute golden rules for that stuff. There was just no way a gallery could try and parlay advertising in an editorial. I don’t think we really understood the complexities of that; that the two [advertising and editorial] had to be separate from the beginning. We never actually had a problem with it in the history of the magazine, because it was set up from the get go that the two were separate from one another.
We never felt any conflict of interest from our side between the two, especially given how they’re structurally set up.
“A good lesson would be to be clear about what it is you want to put out, and why.”
Many people who start magazines are often very naive about the ins and outs of running one. What were some of the biggest hurdles you and Matthew faced in launching Frieze?
Well, we were able to do it in a gentle way because we were so young. [Laughs] When you’re in your very early 20s, the pressures of running a commercial business are not there, because you can take out 25 quid a week and live at home with your mum and dad. I don’t think we necessarily had a very conventional magazine publishing past. We had a huge amount of time to learn, with a lot of freedom, and didn’t have to run Frieze as a business for many, many years as there weren’t employees. We could get by from hand to mouth, selling advertising to pay for the printing of the magazine, getting fantastic deals from friends for the office space and computers. In a sense, what we were protected from, I would say, was running a business in the beginning.
It was only quite a number of years in – when you start professionalising – that you start facing challenges. Maybe that’s the thing for everyone now, because technology lowers the hurdles to entry. It makes it possible for a lot of people to learn on the job.
I don’t really remember challenges from the early days. I just remember it being interesting and enjoyable. What I think helped us was our acknowledgement that we didn’t know what we were doing. If we found people who were really brilliant at what they did, we just wanted to listen to them, and learn from them.
We wanted to do something of very high quality, and that hopefully gave it some kind of integrity from the get go. We were prepared to put in the hours, look at things, learn, be agile, set up a sort of vision for it right from the beginning that has continued to maintain itself. A good lesson would be to be clear about what it is you want to put out, and why.
Were many of the contributors you had worked with friends or people you already knew?
Not so much. In the pilot, one friend wrote. The whole of the art world probably fitted into one pub in 1989 in London. Getting to meet people was easy, because you just went to see shows, private views, talked to people, read widely. Make your wish list of all the writers you’d like to write, ask them, pay them something even if you couldn’t pay them very much. Adrian Searle, Stuart Morgan, David Bachelor were not people we’d known before, but they were very brilliant writers, very present. Amazing writers were prepared to write for very little money, because they were excited about what we were trying to do, or what we had printed so far. Stuart Morgan was really an amazing mentor; because he had been an editor for Artscribe, he had very strong opinions, and he was incredibly generous with his time. He wrote fantastic things for us right from the beginning, in every issue.
This solid foundation of having one of the great critics at the time contributing to every issue of the magazine provided us with something to build off. We didn’t have any connections in the art world prior to this that we could pull off.
Overall, it was very much about meeting people, reading, learning, and not being shy about asking people who we admired to do things.
“The whole of the art world probably fitted into one pub in 1989 in London. Getting to meet people was easy, because you just went to see shows, private views, talked to people, read widely.”
That’s a bit more difficult in this day and age, don’t you think? Even though we have the Internet, art schools are growing and no one ever congregates at the same one pub or café.
I think that’s true. In a smaller world, it’s easier to have access to everyone, so it is very different now. But we’ll see young writers come through, do good work, and same with artists. People find their way and it may take a little longer, but everyone’s always interested in ‘the new’ in art. Absolutely fascinated by it. People with energy and who have something to say do make stories quite fast.
I was just wondering, what are yours and Matthew’s responsibilities with regards to Frieze at the moment?
When we started the fair, we officially stepped out of being editors of the magazine – we then became publishing directors, which I think is still technically our title. We are still a part of the day to day logistics of the magazine, where we are involved in making any of the strategic decisions about the future, and what’s going to happen as we evolve in a digital space. We do sit down with the editors, of course. Once the issue comes out, we will go through it with them. Matthew still regularly attends the design meetings. We try not to duplicate too much, so in every issue he’s involved in decisions about the cover, just to behave as a sounding board.
We’ve got a lot of experience [laughs], so sometimes it’s useful to have us around.
It’s quite hands off, but we still want to be sure that the magazine is heading in the right direction. We want to be confident that the new direction can work in a new world, so we are both quite involved in reformatting the new website and thinking strategically about the next iterations of that.
Having a say in the anniversary book we put out for the magazine, making sure we are involved and happy in what the strategy is and what the decision is about, maybe occasionally deciding which article by which writer gets chosen to be included in the magazine – that kind of thing. That is, I suppose, the level to which we are involved.
Having so much experience and watching it evolve, especially with what you had said earlier about things evolving into the digital realm, how do you see contemporary art having progressed from then to now? And what’s exciting about it today?
I’m very happy that more people get to enjoy contemporary art than when I started 25 years ago. That’s a very radical change. The fact that people go to the Tate or the Serpentine on a Saturday afternoon, whereas before you might have only gone to the movies or read books. That’s the thing that probably makes me happiest.
This is just a small thing that comes to mind, but I was in Berlin last week and attended the Biennale, because I wanted to follow up on the New Museum Triennale. Seeing the next show that explored artists who are more engaged in collapsing the world around us today, topics such as the point in which consumerism and art meet, and the way that the digital is fundamental to the art they make, that’s just another example of how things keep moving. It’s not necessarily the importance of an artist, but the timeliness of an exhibition that’s really pertinent.
It’s exciting to me, the different ways in which the world around us is reflected in the art world. That’s endlessly curious.
Words Alysha Lee Illustration Edèn Barrena