Trends Contemporary art Fairs United Kingdom

Galleries go beyond the white cube

From rainbow carpets to nail bars, dealers are finding new ways to stand out from the crowd

Esther Schipper’s stand (FL, C12) is decorated with cherry-blossom wallpaper made by Thomas Demand

Visitors to Frieze London this year are greeted by a children’s playground, a red forest and a nuclear bomb shelter—a far cry from the typically pristine white booths. The stands—courtesy of Carsten Höller at Gagosian Gallery (FL, C3; FM, C2), Angus Fairhurst at Sadie Coles HQ (FL, D2) and Michael Smith at Dan Gunn (FL, G27)—show the adventurous ways in which galleries are showing their wares. Even White Cube (FL, D4) is not quite a white cube, having painted its walls grey.

Other dealers with a creative spirit include Anton Kern (FL, E3), who has carved two diamond-shaped holes in his empty grey walls. These encourage visitors to peek at three sculptures made this year by Mark Grotjahn (one sold yesterday for $500,000) and a collection of mid-20th-century beaded Tabwa masks (seven sold for between $9,000 and $40,000). Esther Schipper’s stand (FL, C12) is enlivened by cherry-blossom wallpaper made by Thomas Demand (€45,000; one of an edition of three sold yesterday), while Lisson Gallery has a rainbow gradient carpet (made in 2014, priced at $115,000) courtesy of Cory Arcangel, who has also made clothes for his dealers to wear (FL, B5; FM, E7).

Some booths are doing their best not to be booths at all. At Hauser & Wirth (FL, D6; FM, B5), the artist Mark Wallinger has recreated Sigmund Freud’s study, while the Venezuelan artist Sol Calero has transformed Laura Bartlett’s stand (FL, H3) into an internet cafe (Ciber Café, 2014, priced at £90,000).

It’s a tactic that makes Frieze London—which has also had a welcome revamp—look sharper, and acts as an antidote to fair fatigue. This “keeps the viewer’s experience fresh; and let’s face it, it’s hard to keep asking your artists to produce for each fair”, says the New York-based art adviser Wendy Cromwell. It also boosts morale for the bigger dealers, like Hauser & Wirth, which exhibits at nine fairs a year. “It’s a breath of fresh air and has been a huge amount of fun,” says Neil Wenman, a senior director of the gallery. Its sales yesterday included one of the stand’s centrepieces, Rashid Johnson’s Untitled (daybed 5), 2012, for $90,000.

There are, however, generally fewer works on the more curated stands, so it can be commercially risky—and bespoke carpets, wooden floors and stage lighting do not come cheap. Christoph Gerozissis of Anton Kern says that the tweaks he made to his booth added around 20% to the cost, which can already run into six figures.

This option is not available to all. Cromwell says: “Large-franchise galleries can afford to break the mould and take the risk.” Smaller galleries that are selected for Frieze’s Focus section on the back of one project cannot afford not to. But those in the middle tier have to rely on the tried-and-tested format, which lends itself to more immediate results. “They can’t afford to invest in a booth without selling,” says the Brussels-based collector Alain Servais.

The risks seem less dramatic now that the way in which people buy art has changed. Fewer buyers pluck works straight off the walls, with dealers’ backrooms and iPads increasingly serving as selling platforms. “I don’t feel I am missing out on anything; I ask the dealer if there is anything [else] to show me,” says the Miami-based collector Martin Margulies. And much of the choosing happens outside the fairs. “I have never bought at a fair before,” says the art adviser Constanze Kubern. “I do all my buying before or after.”

Selling the brand

As a result, art fairs are as much about marketing as selling. Fairs are “places to meet people and attract attention; they are a branding exercise”, Servais says. He cites the enormous booth taken by Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (FL, F9) at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2006: empty apart from Urs Fischer’s motorised pack of cigarettes, it generated the biggest buzz at the fair.

For the smaller, lesser-known galleries, having a stand-out booth has always made marketing sense. It is also more relevant to the artists they show, dealers say. For Vanessa Carlos (Carlos/Ishikawa, FL, G26), bringing a group installation (including a nail bar) by her artists Oscar Murillo, Korakrit Arunanondchai and Ed Fornieles is a way to show the breadth of what they do. “Their practices can get usurped by certain conversations—Oscar Murillo always seems to come with his market, but he does so much more,” she says. Laura Bartlett says that showing an installation “can get people interested not just in the work, but in the whole practice”. Her sales included four paintings and a sculpture by Sol Calero (priced between £6,000 and £9,000) that were not on her stand.

The artists also find this approach more fulfilling. Than Hussein Clark, part of the Villa Design Group collective, has created a casting room (available for €150,000) at Mathew Gallery (FL, H18), where the group will hold auditions for a film. He says: “A lot of people see fairs as an unfortunate necessity, but I don’t want to feel cursed to do one; I want to make it interesting.”

An acquired taste

It is not to everyone’s taste. “I find it hard to do an installation at a fair. You might see a booth that’s not a white cube, but it’s still insulated by the large bubble that is the art fair,” says Phil Grauer of Canada (FL, J6). Thaddaeus Ropac (FL, A5) has a traditional stand, with works by Georg Baselitz, Gilbert & George and Robert Longo surrounding a sculpture by Erwin Wurm. He says: “We have tried so many ways, but here, this kind of situation works best.” Within an hour of the fair opening yesterday, he had sold three of five editions of Wurm’s 2014 bronze for €250,000 each.

Either way, the immersive booths “facilitate the visit of both the regular public and a specialised audience; they break with the repetitive and overwhelming rhythm of the fair”, said the curator Cecilia Alemani at Frieze yesterday. “They can be generative labs where new energies are conveyed—and where you can also get your nails done.”

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