Ethan and Thea's guide to surviving Frieze NY

New York's foremost art advisors give Phaidon the lowdown on how to do an art fair successfully
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Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich Wagner
Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich Wagner

One of our favourite books of the last few weeks here at Phaidon.com has been Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich Wagner's Collecting Art for Love Money and More. It's a fabulously revelatory tome by a legendary husband and wife team of art advisors which tells you all you need to know about getting started on the journey to not just appreciating or loving art but more importantly buying, collecting and having a real personal relationship with it. It’s packed with interesting tips, acute observations, revelations that will give you the odd raised eyebrow and more besides.

By the end you'll have a pretty substantial knowledge of how the art world in general and the art market in particular works. It's a brilliant, pacey read which will give you a lot of pleasure - even if you never plan to buy so much as a print. We caught up with them as they prepared for this week's Frieze Art Fair and asked them if they had any tips for the fair. 

One of many amazing revelations in Collecting Art for Love, Money and More is the sheer number of art fairs now in existence around the world - 300 alone last year. How many do you think you attended?

Thea: Well, not 300 but a good number! 

Ethan: I bet you we do a dozen a year.

Thea: Oh at least, at least. The reality is that we do actually enjoy them from the standpoint of being able to see things that we otherwise would not see and also visit with people who we like to see and don’t see except at art fairs. So there’s a lot about them that makes them appealing  - as many things of course as can make them not appealing!

We imagine your experiences must differ greatly to those of many of the people there. As well as a physical workout we imagine it’s a pretty intensive mental one for you

Thea: Well, I never have trouble falling asleep at the end of the day!

Ethan: It’s hard to sort of unscramble the egg. There’s a lot of very intense things. To see that much art in one place and when you’re looking on behalf of clients – makes for a really intense day.

Thea: Yes and you’re continually making decisions in a different way than you would when you’re not at a fair - making decisions about acquisitions for clients who aren’t there at that time, for example.

Do you have a checklist or plan that you stick to when it comes to getting round an art fair?

Thea: Yes. This is the really big difference: We always know exactly where we’re going and what we need to see and the order in which we need to see it long before we get to the fair. At this moment (one month before) everyone in our office has a list of where they’re going to go and who they’re going to see for specific clients. It’s all under control.

Ethan: We’ve always made it a practice to reach out to the gallerists that have programs we’re interested in to ask what they’ll be exhibiting. So it’s a very different world but when we’re at the door each of us has their marching orders and we head for the booths to service our clients.

Reading the book it seems that negotiating a purchase at an art fair is a minefield for the artworld newbie

Thea: I don’t think it is for us but yes for the uninitiated it’s very difficult. For somebody that doesn’t have knowledge of what it is they need to do at a fair. The idea of it is pretty clear of what needs to be done. There’s a general rule that when you go through a fair and you’re looking at works of art where you’re familiar with the artist, the exhibition history, you can see where these works can be placed in the oeuvre and that reduces a lot of the difficulty. A lot of these works are works that came out of one person gallery exhibitions and if you are able to contextualise the origination of that context you’re much better off. It’s all about knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. The ability to negotiate an art fair is really about how much you know about what you’re doing.  

The new collector is never going to have anywhere near the knowledge you two have built up over the years. How can they avoid expensive mistakes?

Thea: What the new collector wants to be doing there is looking and seeing what they respond to and trying to wonder why. And get to know about what they’re responding to, not using it as the moment to buy but using it as the moment to start collecting information. And they should view it as an opportunity to establish new relationships because at an art fair - even more than in the home gallery - dealers and all of the people who work for them have their antennae out to make new relationships. So you’re actually advantaged as somebody totally new to the community at an art fair.

Ethan: Yes, this is mentioned in the book but it’s worth repeating: art fairs provide an extraordinarily convenient way to do a number of things and one of those things is to get to know a gallery’s program and the people that work at the gallery. The owner and director of the gallery are usually on hand for these fairs. You can, in a lot a less time than it would take otherwise, to reconnoitre Berlin, or New York or LA, or even the city you’re from or in. My advice would be: browse, enquire, learn, talk and wait before you buy. There’s so much art that’s made today that an uninitiated viewer or new collector simply cannot understand just by looking at the object. A lot of information is behind that object. Without that knowledge you’re short shrifting the work of art and your experience with the work of art. Even with artists that we know well who have deeply conceptual practices, you’ve got to get to understand what prompted the piece, what made the artist make the piece - what’s behind it. It’s not just about whether your eyes like it.

We don’t expect you to tell us what you’ll be looking out for this year but what sticks in your minds from 2012's inaugural Frieze New York?

Thea: I think Amanda (Sharp co-founder) did something last year with the way the fair was laid out and the food opportunities and the points where you can stop to have a cup of coffee. That was laid out well and in terms of battling exhaustion and heat that worked as well as any fair we’ve ever been to and it did give you a moment to pull away. I also felt that the light source was good – you never felt ‘closed in’.

Great. Anything else we should be aware of at Frieze this week or when buying art?

Thea: Yes, the thing I want to add is that the big thing that you will find beautiful and that will attract you isn’t the thing that you come in thinking is beautiful. Great art is ultimately beautiful by other standards - by standards that redefine notions of beauty.

Ethan: Thea made this point and we discussed it at length when we wrote the book and she prevailed. I had trouble subscribing to it at first but it’s that buying the art engages you with the art differently. It just does. You make a commitment and with that commitment comes the need to understand. Of all these psychological things it really ups the ampage on the experience of enjoying art. Check out Collecting Art for Love Money and More in the store now.


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Phaidon is the premier global publisher of the creative arts with over 1,500 titles in print. We work with the world's most influential artists, chefs, writers and thinkers to produce innovative books on art, photography, design, architecture, fashion, food and travel, and illustrated books for children. Phaidon is headquartered in London and New York City.
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