Frieze, which organizes major art fairs in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Seoul, will acquire two of the US’s most important home-grown art fairs: the Armory Show in New York and Expo Chicago.
“Let’s start with the fact that the US art market is the biggest in the world by far,” Frieze CEO Simon Fox told ARTnews in an interview about the acquisition. “The opportunity to have a larger fair at a different time of year, in such an important market in New York, was very exciting for us. … Chicago, of course, is a completely new opportunity for us … to become involved in a culturally rich part of the US market that we haven’t been involved with before.”
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Both the Armory Show, which is led by executive director Nicole Berry, and Expo Chicago, led by founder and president Tony Karman, will operate as separate divisions under Frieze with their existing teams but will share business services—like sponsorship, finance, legal, HR, digital—according to Fox. Fox said he would not comment on how long negotiations for the acquisitions of both fairs has been in the works.
The acquisition of the Armory Show would seem to complicate the future of Frieze’s New York fair, but Fox said both fairs would continue to operate as he sees them as complementing each other, calling Frieze New York a “smaller fair but a much loved fair” that is among the company’s most successful. (Both fairs take place down the road from each other in Far West Manhattan: the Armory Show at the Javits Convention Center and Frieze New York at the Shed in Hudson Yards.)
“They [have] different audiences, different histories—this just allows us to play a bigger role in exciting new marketplace,” Fox said. “As I mentioned, the market is huge. The two can coexist very comfortably as they currently do. We think we can enhance what the Armory Show currently does.”
A further complication to this acquisition is that this year’s editions of the Armory Show, which moved its dates to September and to the Javits Center in 2021, and Frieze Seoul overlap during the same week.
“Going forward, it’s not ideal,” Fox acknowledged. “It’s also not straightforward moving dates. Both Frieze Seoul and the Armory Show are in busy convention centers. Over time, if we can somehow move the dates a little bit so we could avoid direct overlap that would be helpful. It’s not something we can achieve necessarily immediately.”
Both of Frieze’s newly acquired fairs are among the oldest to operate in the US market. The roots for Expo Chicago date back to 1980, when its predecessor Art Chicago was founded. Art Chicago was for decades considered the US’s top art fair, and the Armory Show, which began as the Gramercy International Art Fair in the rooms of the Gramercy Park Hotel in 1994, was founded by several New York dealers as an alternative to Art Chicago.
In its final years, Art Chicago experienced several operating and financial difficulties and ultimately canceled its 2011 edition; Expo Chicago, operating as a separate business but with the groundwork already laid by Art Chicago, launched its first edition in 2012. The Gramercy International renamed itself in 1999 after it moved to the nearby 69th Regiment Armory, which was also where the now iconic Armory Show of 1913, which brought European modernism to the US, was also staged.
The two fairs, however, are arguably beat in importance and size by Art Basel Miami Beach, which started in 2004. The 2023 edition of Expo Chicago, which marked the company’s 10th in-person fair, had just over 170 exhibitors, while the upcoming Armory Show has more than 225 exhibitors lined-up to take part. Art Basel Miami Beach, which operates each December, has not yet announced its exhibitor list, hosted 283 galleries at its 2022 edition. (Art Basel Miami Beach is still without a fair director.)
For their 2023 editions, both the Armory Show and Expo Chicago failed to lure any of the four mega-galleries—Gagoisan, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, David Zwirner—to the fair, though they each did attract major blue-chip galleries on their exhibitor lists. Now, as part of the Frieze umbrella, that could change.
Both Frieze and Art Basel have been continuing to expand over the past several years, which could likely be attributed to the launch of Frieze Los Angeles in 2019. Frieze’s continued expansion was likely stymied slightly by the pandemic, as it announced the launch of a new fair, Frieze Seoul in the ever-growing Asia art market, in May 2021.
Since the launch of Art Basel Hong Kong in 2013—itself an acquisition of an existing fair, Art HK, which was founded in 2007—Art Basel has maintained three fairs a year. That all changed when Art Basel made headlines in January 2022 when it announced that it would launch a new fair, Paris+ par Art Basel, after it secured the October dates for the Grand Palais that had long been held by the French fair FIAC.
In an interview with Vanity Fair columnist Nate Freeman last October, Ari Emanuel, the CEO of Endeavor, which acquired Frieze in 2016, said that he thought “LA is going to be bigger than Basel’s Miami,” adding, “This is not to bash Basel: I think they made a mistake in Hong Kong. I think we made the right decision in South Korea. I think we made the right decision in LA—I think it’s overcommercialized now in Miami. That’s not what we want to do because, again, I think they’re just trying to make money.”
Fox declined to comment on Frieze’s competitor but said what distinguishes Frieze as a company from others is that he sees it “as not just a fair operator,” pointing to its roots in publishing with Frieze magazine and its more recent additions of its year-round gallery, No.9 Cork Street, and its membership program, Frieze 91.
“We’ve been growing and innovating across all parts of our organization,” Fox said. “I see lots of future growth opportunities for us, thinking about Frieze as a whole rather than simply as an operator of fairs.”