When an art fair comes to town, VIP tickets to preview days are coveted among those hoping to buy blue-chip art or simply be close to it. Last year, during Frieze London, the roomy aisles that are typical of a VIP preview day, where only a select few are able to attend, were bursting with fresh faces. And to the dismay of the old guard, the lines to enter the fair stretched outside of the tent, through Regents Park.
For many at Frieze London in 2022, it took hours of waiting just to get into the fair, which turned the “I” in VIP from “important” to “indignant.” There were always lines for VIP days at Frieze, one of the world’s top art fairs, but this was something new. In the days leading up to Frieze Los Angeles, ARTnews came across more than a few fair regulars who worried that they’d be queueing up for hours, baking in the West Coast sun outside the fair’s new venue, the Santa Monica Airport.
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The VIP ticketing system once looked like this. Gallerists would request tickets for their best collectors. The fair would then mail tickets to the gallery, who would in turn post passes to their clients. Guests of those VIPs, art advisors, fair partners, and journalists would also get special access.
After the Covid-induced introduction of timed digital tickets in 2020, things began to look a lot different.
Now, according to those familiar with art fair operations, gallerists on their way to Frieze or Art Basel “nominate” well-heeled collectors, and the fair emails them digital tickets. (This also helps avoid people receiving duplicate tickets.)
But there has also been another, bigger change: VIP tickets are now not limited just to collectors and the people who were always granted passes. Influencers abound, and so do crowds. This isn’t a situation unique to Frieze, but it is acutely felt there, especially following the situation on VIP day at London last year.
Some at Frieze said that this shift was in part due to the pandemic. According to one high-level source at Frieze who asked to remain anonymous, since the return of in-person fairs in 2021, attendance has been thin relative to the amount people who RSVPed. Pre-pandemic numbers were more predictable, but now, it has been harder to tell just how many people will show up.
“There was definitely greater attendance than expected” at the London edition last year, a source at Frieze told ARTnews. “There’s a very fine balance in trying to get the number right. Even if people RSVP, it’s not a guarantee that they will attend.”
Some have claimed that a behind-the-scenes change has also initiated the shift. The entertainment powerhouse Endeavor acquired a majority stake in the fair’s parent company, Denmark Street Limited, back in 2016, and since then, there have been a lot more people who aren’t collectors coming to VIP days.
One prominent art advisor, who also asked for anonymity, speculated that because Endeavor is mainly an entertainment company, Frieze may be prioritizing the social media influencer set.
“This was more like waiting for a sneaker drop than trying to get into an art fair,” the advisor told ARTnews. “I had one client leave before even getting in. ‘Don’t ever bring me to an art fair again,’ that’s what they told me. I’ve never seen anything like it. We couldn’t even find the end of the VIP line. I didn’t recognize a single person in line and there was no end in sight.”
The ruckus was enough for Frieze to issue an official response when they were brought questions about the multitude of visitors on VIP day. “There were no changes to our processes for VIP entry this year, but we did see a significant increase in interest in the fair this year—particularly from people who may not have attended since the pandemic,” Frieze said in 2022, adding that they would do a full review of that year’s attendance and “make any necessary adjustments for 2023.” (A Frieze spokesperson declined to comment for this article.)
There is always the possibility that people are just unaccustomed to crowds the way they once were. According to Frieze, attendance at both Frieze London and Frieze masters comes in just over 60,000 people—which is not a record figure. (Frieze declined to send attendance numbers for its VIP preview days specifically, saying that it does not publicly release those figures.)
Of the rumors that still percolate among the collector set, one involves VIP tickets being sold or given to people who would inflate the fair’s social media presence at the expense of the collectors. One source at Frieze disputed that idea, calling it “completely and wholly inaccurate,” and saying that the VIP pass allocation process was unchanged from previous years.
At the time, the Canvas newsletter speculated that the VIP day was “so insanely congested” in part because of the Frieze membership program Frieze 91, which launched in 2021. Like Elon Musk’s Twitter Blue, Frieze 91 allows anyone with pockets deep enough to score VIP tickets to either one or all Frieze fairs depending on the membership level. “Now anyone can literally pay their way toward becoming a Frieze VIP,” the Canvas reported.
The collector Alain Servais agreed. He told ARTnews that “the reason Frieze has a problem is that art is only an excuse to make an event, another fancy experience Endeavor is specialized in. Frieze’s prime clients are the galleries, and its function is to bring them active collectors. This entry system risks keeping some of them outside the fair during those crucial first hours.”
Despite complaints, there are some gallerists who were pleased with Frieze London last year. For these dealers, the crowds on VIP day represent a culture shift that has been gradually taking place over the last few years. As creative industries like music and fashion become more interested in art, fairs have become more of a cultural event as opposed to an arm of the art market.
“We all assumed it would be a slaughter for every gallery involved, that we would all lose money,” a European gallerist who showed at Frieze London last year told ARTnews, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But strangely the opposite happened. We made some profit. We expanded our client base.
“The crowd was noticeably different, sure, especially during the opening,” the dealer continued, “but it was also one of the best years for Frieze, market-wise, in a long time. Whatever they are doing, it seems positive.”
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