Is Frieze’s Hollywood Honeymoon Over, or Is This Just the Beginning?
New details are emerging about the WME-IMG partnership.
While Frieze co-founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover are considered true rock stars in the art world, they are not even known as session players to the Hollywood elite. Few there would likely recognize them, or their team of carefully culled curators who put on two major fairs this week in London.
But that began to change last April when it was announced that WME-IMG, the top Hollywood agency and events company, had taken a major stake in Frieze—not just the fairs, but the “media and events company,” as its founders are careful to call it. The deal has since been trumpeted as a “partnership,” though all parties have kept mum about the details and the dollars involved. The firm owns, operates, or represents more than 800 events around the world, according to a WME-IMG spokesperson.
With the stroke of a pen on what one imagines was a very fat check, Frieze became the Hollywood firm’s portal into the art world.
Six months in, it’s not readily apparent from the outside what the impact has been. Certainly, WME-IMG co-head Ari Emanuel was in London this week, and he acquired an acrylic on canvas entitled Blue Rational Irrationalism (1969) from New York’s Garth Greenan Gallery by the late abstract artist Al Loving.
Thankfully, there were no red carpets at the invitation-only preview on Wednesday; by contrast, collectors lining up to enter the fair smack at 11:00 a.m. were greeted with a “performative sculpture” organized by Mexican artist Martin Soto Climent that included a web-like installation of pantyhose across a dirt floor in the courtyard and two performers in an acrobatic yoga-esque dance. Hard to imagine TMZ covering this one.
But if there’s a commonality between the worlds of art and Hollywood, it’s an appreciation for the letters “V,” “I” and “P.” Of course, in Hollywood those initials can mean anything from a never-quite-been-living-in-reality TV “star” to a genuine power broker with the capital to determine what projects get financed and distributed.
To get some insight into the now-consummated courtship between Frieze and WME-IMG, I spoke to Victoria Siddall, who oversees the fairs side of Frieze, and to founders Sharp and Slotover in New York.
Soon after graduating Oxford University Sharp and Slotover created the magazine frieze (studiedly all lower case), which is being celebrated here in London for its 25th anniversary in an understated British manner: a book and a beer or two. In honor of the milestone, Sharp touted a new book from Phaidon, Frieze A to Z of Contemporary Art, think pieces from the magazine’s archive.
But before the frieze festivities this week, Slotover received an email invitation to dinner with WME-IMG co-CEO Ari Emanuel (the model for the outrageously volatile character Ari Gold on the hit HBO series Entourage). Slotover, who didn’t know Emanuel, was dubious.
Sharp recalled: “Matthew emailed me and I said, ‘Of course you should have dinner with him, it’s f—ing Ari Gold!’”
At the dinner Emanuel hosted at a private club in London, there were a dozen other people, but, Slotover recalled, “I sat next to Ari and he said, ‘Is there anything we can do together?’” In short order, Emanuel set a meeting with Sharp in New York, where she was then living.
“He is very entrepreneurial, which we like,” she said. “That resonated with us.”
As for WME-IMG’s point of view? “Frieze is unlike any other art fair,” Emanuel said in an email. “Matthew, Amanda and their teams have developed and curated an incredible cross-section of art, media, food and compelling conversations that are leading the industry forward.” Of his agency’s interest in Frieze, Emanuel wrote, “When you think about our network across media, events, digital and brand partnerships and their expertise in the art world, this partnership is a force multiplier for our respective businesses.”
Yet in Hollywood, far from Frieze’s madding crowds in Regent’s Park this week, the shorthand buzz about the WME-IMG deal boils down to something like: Ari Emanuel bought an art fair.
Many of the artists and curators, as they arrived from around the globe to London this week, queried whether the WME-IMG partnership means bringing the Hollywood model of talent representation to the world of visual artists.
When Sharp and Slotover spoke with me, they demurred, defending the gallery model in which, in Hollywood terms, the gallerist serves as both agent and manager for an artist. “But there are definitely lots of conversations about new models in the art world, like there are in every industry,” Sharp said, adding, “And it is an industry.”
On Wednesday Siddall reinforced the idea of control, saying that WME-IMG will be “additive to what we are doing.”
Slotover told me several months ago that “initially it’s more the IMG side of the business that will be helpful to us,” ticking off what he calls “unglamorous things” for the fairs, like rentals, construction, event insurance and sponsors.
One way the WME-IMG impact was apparent was Emanuel and WME-IMG’s chief content officer Mark Shapiro presence Thursday at a breakfast at Tate Modern for the Frieze Tate Fund. Their firm supported the fund this year for the first time –Sharp and Slotover said they baked that into the deal–enabling Tate to acquire works by emerging and leading international artists at the fair.
“We’ve had an immediate financial impact,” said WME-IMG’s Shapiro. He added, possibly alluding to Frieze’s broader media properties, “The content opportunities are endless, especially as it relates to bringing the Frieze brand home to the consumer.”
One possible culture clash, however, may be WME-IMG’s brazen view of Frieze as a “brand” and collectors and art-lovers as “consumers.” But as Siddall herself reminded me, “The core activity of the fair, the main raison d’être, is of course the galleries,” she said. “There are very significant sales going on here: the millions of dollars we are hearing about just today on the opening day. And that’s not to be overlooked.”
The WME-IMG deal represents the first time that Frieze, a private company jointly owned by Sharp and Slotover, has accepted an outside investor. “We’ve never borrowed money,” Slotover shared. “There are certainly some projects that might require it, as well as certain expertise. And now we have that.”
Meanwhile, the new partners have had big-picture conversations and have shared hopes and dreams since those first meetings in London and New York.
“We just have this really unequivocal belief in everything follows the art, and that might be where there’s a sort of commonality with where our new partners came from as well,” said Sharp. More than anything, she added, “They believe in talent.”
Noted Slotover, “We’ve had a lot of approaches in the past. We didn’t see the value of what they would add. With these guys it was really the first time where it felt like they could help us in so many different ways, not like they were out to exploit us for short term financial gain.” He added, “We continue to run it but we get resources, expertise and investment.”
WME-IMG was the first suitor that did it all.
It didn’t hurt that Sharp and Slotover were invited to one of Ari Emanuel’s famous company retreats. They watched Larry David do a Bernie Sanders imitation that roasted the leadership at the agency, including Emanuel. Sharp and Slotover liked the vibe.
“I actually love the Ari Gold character and I’ve watched every episode of Entourage.” Slotover confessed. He looked sheepish for a second before adding: “And the movie.”
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