“The horses are in the gates and we’re all wearing our fancy hats,” said a brunette woman into her cell phone a few minutes before the 11am entrance on Frieze New York’s VIP preview day. She was notably clean with coiffed hair and straight teeth. During our training orientation the day before, we were reminded to be polite to everyone because “some millionaires dress like homeless people.” But looking around, these early fairgoers were mostly rich people who dressed like rich people. A mix of those with funky glasses who effortlessly belonged and the ones who upon closer inspection looked more like imitation soap opera characters, men with slicked back hair accompanied by women clutching designer handbags.
I was there as temp staff working the VIP desk, ensuring the art fair’s elite clientele got their proper passes to enter the fair at the allotted times. A pink card guaranteed entrance at 11am, a yellow card at 2 pm, a green card at 5 pm, and the glossy cardboard invites an hour after that. If people are annoying enough, they could get a better pass. Last year, a man wearing a bicycle helmet said, “Do you know who I am? I’m art world royalty.” I forget who’s grandson he said he was, but he got a pink pass for it.
Forty-eight hours before the tent on Randall’s Island had looked very different. There was a poetry to the notes scribbled on the boxes, “face” or “fragile,” which were everywhere leaning up against the bright white freshly-painted walls. The labor of all the transport and install is hard to ignore in these days leading up to the big event as art handlers and gallery assistants hustle and bustle around the tent with dollies and hand trucks. Art is the last unregulated market. It also might be the most physical one. These are things that bodies have to lug around before and after they’re bought and sold. The same isn’t true for the stock market.
When the people start to fill it up, the tent feels most like two other large open ersatz places, a shopping mall and a casino. And in function it’s a cross between the two, a place to shop and to gamble. Over the past decade and a half, more and more fairs have cropped up for the one and 0.001 percent to do both. Frieze New York is only four years old. Art Basel Miami only 12. Increasing inequality is one explanation. As the gap between rich and poor continues to grow around the world, more and more people can comfortably afford the priciest pieces, the nine-figure Picassos and Giacomettis for sale at auctions. Christie’s and Sotheby’s both reported record sales last year. Many business magazines have pronounced the art market as “booming” but caution their readers these assets have no intrinsic value! But for some collectors that’s exactly the appeal. In a game of the emperor’s new clothes, sometimes a thing can be worth what you want it to be.
On Thursday, I was working outside the Guggenheim. My job was to spot the well-heeled VIP fairgoers from the run-of-the mill backpacked tourists and direct them to the museum’s side door for a private event. A collector from Vienna kept me company a little while and invited me to his cousin’s apartment later for a party. When I arrived he wasn’t there but there was a mix of more cousins, artists, collectors, and a Christie’s employee, and a spread of wine and cheese on one long table. A second long aluminum table parallel to it stood empty. It was a Donald Judd.
An Italian collector showed me pictures on his cell phone of what he’d bought the day before. He told me he was going to flip one of them soon. When I told him I knew that artist’s studio manager, he became a bit reluctant to brag, but admitted he could probably easily re-sell it for around four to eight times. He told me something I knew already: everything’s value is based on social relationships.
As the night was waning, two men burst in with the numbers from the auction earlier that evening. One was tall and red-headed, the other short and stocky with the air of a rude jack russell terrier. The Italian said “I’ve seen you on Instagram” to the short one. This made the French girl laugh. When she thought my name was “Sam” and the Italian’s “Denny,” this made everyone else laugh. Didn’t she know the artist Simon Denny? “Sam and Denny!” “Simon Denny!” “Instagram!” No one mentioned how funny it was there was a table worth millions.
Friday night Red Bull made the week’s theme of art and money explicit showing a video by the young artist Lucien Smith in a bank vault in the basement of a defunct financial district bank. It was an easily overlooked add-on to an evening of electronic music sponsored by the energy drink company. “Isn’t this terrible?” my friend said. It indeed felt like an undergrad film school application. “He used to date David Zwirner’s daughter,” he added.
I flipped through my Instagram and saw several people had already shamelessly posted video of the secret Bjork set from a few minutes before. “Her cultural cachet is so slippery,” another friend said at the next party when I shamelessly mentioned where I’d been prior. I thought about a photo I’d never seen but someone had told me about, of someone’s assistant taking a picture of Klaus Beisenbach, Bjork, and Lady Gaga together in a hotel room. A rare glimpse I never had of an invisible worker constructing their combined social capital.
Saturday I was back at the fair smiling at rich people again. I asked one of the permanent staff how much of the Frieze team were made of up women. “Probably like 95 percent,” she said. All of them were pretty and pleasant in blazers and silk slip dresses hooked up to tactical radio headsets, performing unfaltering likability as they herded the hordes of people in and out of the fair. The VIP desk was quieter that day as the richest of the rich had mostly came and went on Wednesday, which gave me ample time to consider the value of the gallerina or art fair staffer’s likability compared to that of the artist’s aloofness. Thinking back to Willy Loman’s distinction between being liked and being respected, I reminded myself that I care too much about the former.
But by Sunday I’d already forgotten and did my very best to be likable at a brunch in the home of an art world socialite. I’m so Canadian but so were a lot of people there. We’re just all so gosh-darned nice I guess. As we were leaving someone said the host is the busiest person she knows. He replied without missing a beat, “It’s hard work being everyone’s friend.”