Frieze Art Fair mixes culture with capitalism

London's premier private art fair is taking place in Regent's Park this week, with millions of pounds worth of new work bought and sold. Artworks remain the world's most desirable status symbols.

This week has been a rather unusual one for Regent's Park. Surprises being shown there today include a hermit crab who has made his home in the bronze head of a sculpture, a goat in the pose of Rodin's thinking man, and a video of 400 Chinese men showing their bottoms to the camera.

It's all part of the Frieze Art Fair – a highlight of the British cultural calendar, which sees gallery owners, collectors, artists and critics descend on London for a week of viewing, discussing, and investing.

The fair has come a long way since it was set up by Amanda Sharp and Andrew Slotover nine years ago. Their magazine, Frieze, had been charting the rise of contemporary art throughout the 90s, as the Young British Artists took the world by storm. It was the perfect launchpad for an event that would put London firmly on the map of the art world.

This year, 173 galleries from all over the world will showcase $350 million worth of art. Dealers and collectors will buy their favourite pieces to be displayed in homes, loaned to public galleries, or sold on – often for astronomical prices.

In a time of recession, it might be difficult to believe that anyone would spend tens of thousands of pounds on a painting. But sellers at Frieze say trade is brisk. Anthony Gormley's 'Spy' sculpture has sold for £300,000, and an American collector bagged a Neo Rauch painting for a whopping $1.35 million. Whatever the economic forecast, pundits say, buying art will remain an attractive, sophisticated way for the wealthy to spend their riches.

The multimillion-dollar industry of art, though, is a matter of discomfort for some, and the fair quivers with tension between creativity and commerce. In one installation, punters destroy their credit cards in exchange for a drawing. And in a specially commissioned piece, artist Christian Jankowski has installed a luxury yacht on the site. It's yours to sail for £60 million – but it costs £70 million if you buy it as a piece of art.

Art for sale

Many people view art as separate from money and markets – a unique exploration of humanity and society, not a product to be bought and sold. Turning it into a multimillion-pound industry producing status symbols for the wealthy, they say, destroys the artistic integrity that should lie behind acts of creation.

Even artists need to eat though, and if anything is to be created it needs to make money. Through all its trade and publicity, Frieze Art Fair has vastly increased the profile of art – and heightened the exploration, innovation and conversation that surrounds it all over the world.

You Decide

  1. Does commerce have a place in art?
  2. What's the difference between buying a luxury yacht and buying one at an art fair? Why would anyone pay £10 million extra just because an artist says the yacht is art?


  1. Design a concept for a new art fair. Are you selling contemporary art, work from the ancient masters, or a particular genre or style of painting? Design a poster to persuade people to come to the fair.
  2. Hold your own art fair in class. Elect to be sellers or buyers, pick sculptures or paintings to sell, and set your budgets.

Some People Say...

“Great art costs millions but it's worth every penny.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Is Frieze unique, or are there similar events?
Art fairs take place all over the world, though all are different. The setting of Frieze and its stylish reputation is a big selling point, though the less wealthy art buyer might want to opt for the Affordable Art Fair, which also takes place in London this week.
What kind of people buy art at these fairs?
Many are private buyers – wealthy individuals who buy art for their own homes or collections. Others will represent big art galleries with their own collections, or make a living as art dealers, buying and selling art to private collectors and galleries.
Do members of the public also visit Frieze?
Absolutely. According to some statistics, 80% of people visiting the fair aren't interested in buying, and just attend to see the art first-hand. Anyone can buy tickets – for students, entry is around £20.

Word Watch

Rodin's 'Thinker'
A bronze sculpture, by French artist Auguste Rodin, of man deep in thought. With his chin gently resting on his hand, the man's appearance has become iconic, and is seen as representing philosophy.
Young British Artists
A group of British artists who rose to prominence in the 90s, the YBAs were known for unusually confrontational art and behaviour. Key works include Tracey Emin's 'My Bed', and Damien Hirst's 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living' – a dead shark, suspended in formaldehyde.
Anthony Gormley
British sculptor, born in 1950, and most famous for 'Angel of the North' and sculpted figures which stand as public art in many cities.
Neo Rauch
German painter, born in 1960, who creates surreal and often dark paintings which depict the struggles of normal, working class people in art.

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