What is the significance of Arnold Circus for you as a Londoner?
What you see here is the first social housing in Britain, I think. It was the ghetto, the worst slums.
Art yuppifies neighbourhoods, doesn’t it?
Artists find interesting neighbourhoods before anyone else, parts of the city that are not expensive but that have nice bones, parts that are not central.
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Speaking of skeletons, what infrastructure is conducive to a creative environment?
A reasonably personal scale. Big roads, tall buildings are not inspirational for artists. Nice architecture helps. What’s important to artists is the volume of space and good light. It’s expensive to get that in a non-run-down area, so they end up in areas that are more edgy. They create amazing spaces
out of what they have, and they are not snobby about who lives next door. What I love about here is this building itself. Three fantastic artists have studios downstairs, and there’s a fashion designer, an architect, curators,
a shoe designer. There’s a great kitchen, and with it a great caterer.
Is this Frieze’s original space?
No, we’ve moved many times. We started the magazine in 1991. Through the Nineties and 2000s we moved further east; it’s the story of London, really. As the rents went up, we moved to Clerkenwell, then to Islington, then to Shoreditch. Now we’re slightly east of Shoreditch. This is my favourite office since Soho. It’s the first time that I’ve felt you can go out in the street and bump into people you know are interesting. There’s interesting little cafés, interesting little shops. If you want a bit of inspiration, you can just take a walk. Immediately seeing what people are wearing on the street or who’s in the cafés or new things being built feels, for lack of a better word, creative.
What’s the backbone of any creative enterprise?
Clearly you need to have an idea, a way of doing things that isn’t necessarily what’s happened before. What it’s all about, really, is having the courage to do things slightly differently.
Slotover en route to a meeting at Rochelle Canteen, a favourite eatery among locals, housed in a converted bike shed in the grounds of the former Rochelle School. ‘The food is amazing,’ Slotover enthuses. Founded by Melanie Arnold and Margot Henderson (wife of chef Fergus Henderson), the lunch-only venue has become a watering hole for creative types in search of quirky English fare.
So when you transferred from a magazine to an art fair, what was so original about yours that has made such an intrinsic contribution to London’s cultural outline?
The basic model is the same as art fairs have been for fifty years or even longer maybe. Galleries are combining in one space to meet each other’s clients, attract people and create a sort of event. We did a few things that were different. Our ambition was to do less of a trade fair and more of a festival, the kind of thing where you walked in and felt uplifted rather than a bit down. The choice to do our fairs in tents in parks was key because people love parks; they feel ownership of them. You know there’s not another event there a week before and another one a week after; it immediately gives you a different experience. What that did was allow us to work with architects to design a fair different ways each year, to bring in restaurants that we liked rather than using the house restaurant of the venue. The main thing we did was we commissioned projects through different artists (we have a not-for-profit company) …
Our first cover was the first-ever published interview with a young artist called Damien Hirst; it was just when he and that group were beginning. But that was totally accidental
This choice of tents in parks in the heart of John Nash country, where the art sells, was that a case of necessity being the mother of invention?
Pretty much. There’s not many spaces in London that can hold something that big.
Was it difficult convincing the Council?
To start with they said, ‘No, we don’t do commercial events in the parks; the parks are for getting away from that kind of thing.’ Then about a month later they called back and said, ‘We’ve been thinking … We did have a flower fair here last year and we also have outdoor sculptures that often sell, so maybe it’s okay to sell art. Let’s talk about it.’ It was just at the point where they were beginning to want to raise money through events because their grants had been cut by the government.
How did you raise the money you needed?
We didn’t have to raise much money because the costs and the revenue come in around the same time. We took a small loan with a bank.
And here you are, having not only changed, almost single-handedly, the face of the London art scene but replicated it in New York. Were you just lucky with your timing?
1991 was the ideal time to start an art magazine in Britain. Our first cover was the first-ever published interview with a young artist called Damien Hirst; it was just when he and that group were beginning. But that was totally accidental. With the fair, London became much more international in terms of the people living here. Galleries like Gagosian were moving here, Tate Modern opened in 2000, so that was exactly the right time to do it. We didn’t know that 2003 to 2008 would have this huge boom in art, especially in London, but the signs were there. You get a gut feeling, don’t you? You can feel when something is happening. You can have good timing, but you make your own luck as well.
Slotover surveys freshly cut watermelon at Leila’s café and grocery in Arnold Circus. Actors Ralph Fiennes and Julie Christie are regular customers
Did you break even straightaway with the fair?
We lost money the first year, we broke even the second year, and then we started to make money. Deutsche Bank came in the second year saying that this might fit with what they were doing, so that was amazing. Also we expanded the fair from 120 to 160 galleries from year one to year two.
Did you already have good relations with most of the players in the art world through the magazine?
With the galleries and the curators we did. We didn’t know any collectors, not a single one, when we were doing the magazine. We didn’t know anything about the market, but we figured if we could get the best galleries and they brought the best art, then they would make that happen. That’s still our philosophy. We have a committee who selects the galleries; we have about three times the number of applications of the number that we can fit …
Couldn’t you just expand the space?
No, ’cause there are trees around the tents.
What would happen if Frieze said, ‘We’re packing up. No more London Frieze’?
Someone would go to the park and say, ‘Frieze isn’t happening. Please can I do it?’ It’s not such a complicated idea; it’s the city, really, that drives it.
Going back to your own antecedents, you’re a Londoner. Have you ever thought of emigrating?
I feel very unadventurous compared to friends I’ve got who have come here from other places or left here to go to other places. In the Nineties we thought New York would be a lot of fun, but then we had kids and it never happened. London has changed a lot in the last twenty years, so it’s been exciting to be here.
How would you encapsulate your appreciation of London?
It’s a very civilised place, that’s what I always feel when I come back here. It’s a great mixture. Where we live in Camden it’s very quiet; you can hear birds singing. In ten minutes you can be in town and you can have fantastic high-end food, great street food. There’s wealthy and there’s poor, but it’s not too extreme, the differences between them, and it’s still an amazing place for all of the art forms. We speak English; everyone in the world has English. In terms of time zone and transport it’s very easy. You can get to Europe easily, you can get to America easily, get to the Middle East, Far East easily. It’s pretty much in the centre. It’s a very good place for doing business internationally. It’s probably the most international city in the world now.
Main image at top: Matthew Slotover in his Frieze London office, an old schoolhouse that acts as the company’s base. Formerly the Rochelle School, the building dates from the 1880s; Frieze occupies the old playground on the top floor. Slotover stands next to a proof-spoof of Frieze’s reputation for selectivity, Danilo Correale’s 2013 National Anatema (We’re Sorry). The work serves as an apology for the world’s ills; its final line reads, ‘We’re sorry for making you believe we are truly sorry’.
London Burning: Portraits from a Creative City, Author & Editor Hossein Amirsadeghi, Executive Editor: Maryam Eisler, is published by Thames & Hudson on 19 October 2015, priced £58 (hardback). All images are copyright Transglobe Publishing.
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