Simon Fox, CEO of Frieze: “Digital art does not replace everything”


Simon Fox, managing director of the Frieze publishing and art fair group, has a confession. “I would have been a magician if I hadn’t come last in a competition at 18,” he says of Zoom from Buckinghamshire. It’s tempting to suggest that joining an event-based business at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic must require all of the tricks in the book, but luckily Fox has other skills beyond his Magic Circle endorsement.

His recent leadership roles – as managing director of the music and books company HMV Group and of Reach, the UK’s largest market information publisher – mean Fox knows a lot about industries facing digital disruption. The 60-year-old father of three in good health seems quietly enjoying a challenge. “I never wanted to jump frying pans into fires. But it’s fair to say that I’m more comfortable with headwinds than just driving in a straight line, ”he says.

Fox seems a good fit for Frieze, which has grown far beyond its niche beginnings in 1991 as a contemporary art magazine. By early 2020, when Fox was recruited for the new role of Managing Director, Frieze had grown into one of the most prestigious art fair franchises in the world with events in London, New York and Los Angeles. The company is now 70% owned by Hollywood sports and entertainment mega-agency Endeavor, whose other events include Winter Wonderland, Taste Festivals for food and the Miami Open tennis tournament.

Visitors to Frieze Los Angeles in February 2020 © Casey Kelbaugh

The original founders of Frieze, Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, own the group’s remaining shares and serve on its board of directors, but have stepped down from day-to-day management since Fox joined Fox. “They wanted someone to grow their business,” he says. His media background – at a time when content delivery seems to dominate the minds of the art market – is the last skill needed for the industry. The owners of rival fairground franchise Art Basel now boast of James Murdoch as an anchor investor.

Art is not a particular passion for Fox, although he visited Frieze fairs prior to his appointment and, he says, “always enjoyed working in industries that shape culture.” It is clear about the differences between the visual arts sector and its previous areas of expertise, especially with regard to the product on offer. “Changes [in the art world] have been less extreme than in other fields, the art has yet to be seen, ”he says.

He appreciates the theme: “The pace of digital change in the news was extraordinary, with the physical product being substantially replaced by an online experience. In music, digital products have completely replaced CDs or cassettes. For books, the Kindle took a large part of the fiction market before finding its level. For art, the development of digital work is interesting and will amplify as digital natives age, but it does not replace everything, it is additive.

Digital has of course occupied a large part of his work, from April 2020 when the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic began to be felt. The Frieze event in New York the following month was one of the first shows to be online only. The two London shows in October 2020 were also unable to take place physically, while Frieze Los Angeles has been canceled, with a digital edition taking place instead next week (July 27-August 1).

“We have done well to launch digital viewing rooms and a considerable amount has been sold [over the platform]. But it was mostly the work of established artists. It’s hard to find out online, ”says Fox. The pivot was also a financial challenge for Frieze. “Our economic model requires us to organize fairs. It has been a very difficult year, ”said Fox. He is grateful, he adds, for the continued support of Deutsche Bank, main sponsor of Frieze since 2004, which has continued to support initiatives such as Art: Live, a broadcast and video program.

The most distinct changes Fox has overseen so far have been physical rather than digital. A new Frieze fair was announced for Seoul in September 2022, in partnership with the Galleries Association of Korea, which runs Kiaf, a more regional event. “It’s a big city, full of culture, but there is no international fair there. At the same time, it’s not a market that we know very well so [the partnership] felt the best way to move in, ”says Fox.

Frieze’s other new business is a building on Cork Street in Mayfair, London, which will function as a small gallery center. The move to the owner helps to diversify the group of mass events, as well as to keep the activity going throughout the year. Fox recognizes the changing needs of galleries and hopes such initiatives will make Frieze a “better partner and a positive force for change” in the industry. “It’s an experience, but I hope we can extend it to other cities, initially those where we already organize fairs,” he says.

The New York Fair returned this year in a scaled-down format at The Shed in Hudson Yards © Casey Kelbaugh

Meanwhile, the fairs themselves are also gradually returning, with some pandemic-induced changes appearing to be more permanent. A much smaller Frieze New York, with 60 physical exhibitors rather than nearly 200 before the pandemic, was well received in May and found a new location in The Shed on Hudson Yards. Previously, Frieze had been on Randall’s Island – sort of a hike from Manhattan – but the intention is to stick with The Shed, for at least 2022. The expanded Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs) that ran alongside the main event will also remain, with the possibility of more stand-alone OVRs, “another way to continue year round,” Fox said. For flagship London shows in October, Fox is clear and confident. “They will perform and hopefully on the same scale as in previous years,” he says.

The wider future of fairs is, it seems, the same but different. Physical events need to become “better and more experiential every time” and the role of digital supporting the physical will prove to be “very important,” Fox said. He sees that “the fair schedule may have been too busy and galleries are rightly concerned about the environment, so they will be more selective. My job is to make our salons what they choose to be, ”he says. And in his spare time, he’s always ready to wave a magic wand for children’s parties and Christmas events. “It’s fun, it makes people happy,” he says. What more could an art fair organizer ask for?

Frieze Viewing Room Los Angeles Edition, July 27 to August 1


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