Uncertainty and Unanswered Questions Are Swirling Around the Armory Show Opening After Frieze Acquisition

In mid-July, when Frieze announced they had bought the Armory Show in New York, the acquisition seemed aimed at leveling up the company to Art Basel – which remains the arbiter of art world success. But the move raised one uncomfortable question that remains unanswered:  how would Frieze juggle both the Armory Show and Frieze Seoul, which run concurrently, in an already over-saturated art world calendar. And that’s, of course, leaving aside the fact that Frieze already hosts a fair in New York in the spring. 

At the time of the announcement, Frieze chief executive Simon Fox told ARTnews that the fairs overlapping “was not ideal,” but that the overlap wasn’t something that could be remedied by simply moving the dates of one or both fairs. Fox, however, didn’t seem worried about the conflict.

“Let’s start with the fact that the US art market is the biggest in the world by far,” Fox said, noting that Frieze New York and the Armory Show are intrinsically different. Frieze New York is much smaller, and often includes mega galleries like Gagosian and David Zwirner, who recently have chosen to participate in the new Seoul fair, now in its second edition, instead of the Armory Show.

“They [have] different audiences, different histories—this just allows us to play a bigger role in an 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.”

It’s not clear what, if any, changes Frieze will introduce to its newly acquired fairs. The company said at the time of the announcement that both Armory and Expo Chicago would retain their management structures and current staff. What is clear, however, is that art dealers with a history of participating in the Armory Show agree that fair is a singular event representative of New York City. 

Nick Olney, president of Kasmin Gallery, sees the Armory Show as imprinted with New York City’s DNA. It’s as much part of the city, or at least the city’s art world, as 10th Avenue or the loft galleries in Tribeca. 

“To have a fair that kicks off the season at Javits Center, it’s really indispensable,” Olney told ARTnews. “It’s like the first week back to school. Not only do you see people, dealers and collectors, that may have been gone for the summer, but the location makes it easy to bring clients back to the gallery, or to other openings in Chelsea.”

Olney pointed out that the Armory Show has always been successful at getting New Yorkers to attend the fair, which is less true of Frieze’s New York fair. And while Frieze New York has “a bit more polish” and is more international, the Armory does have its fair share of European collectors and dealers.

In some ways the Armory Show has everything that Frieze New York lacks. It’s more community driven and frequently partners with legacy institutions in the city like The Kitchen and the last major tennis tournament of the year, the US Open, whereas Frieze NY, with around 60 galleries each awkwardly separated by a full floor at The Shed in Hudson Yards, has none of the New York grit that even the bluest chip galleries in the city like to wear on their sleeve.

Perhaps it’s that sense of community that Frieze wanted to tap into. Some dealers hope that Frieze, which also operates fairs in London and Los Angeles, will be a boon for the Armory, allowing it to further dig into its New Yorkness and deepen relationships with the city’s cultural institutions like The Kitchen and Creative Time.

Candance Madey, who has a gallery in New York’s Lower East Side, sees the acquisition as a firm positive for Armory, in large part because of Frieze’s experience in organizing fairs and dedication to the arts. 

“I think it’s quite different when a fair is owned by an expo-producing company that also deals with watches one week and cars the next,” Madey said. “Frieze began in the art world with a magazine and continues in that tradition with its fairs.”

Frieze bought the Armory Show from Vornado Realty Trust in a $124.4 million deal that saw the realtor unload the fair and four Manhattan retail properties. That sale price seemed low to many, when one considers that a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan can sell for millions alone. It raised more than a few eyebrows in the art world, but the purchase price was never discussed, and it’s unclear if Frieze, or its parent company Endeavor, own or have any plans for the properties. A source knowledgeable about the deal’s inner workings told ARTnews that Vornado had been thinking about selling the Armory Show for at least two years. Vornado leadership had, in the past, given the Armory Show executive director Nicole Berry free reign to run the fair, but new leadership at the company had started to offer unwelcome advice and ideas. Given the low price, it would seem Vornado preferred to leave the art world to the artists and wash their hands of the fair.

For Madey, New York’s current two-fair system is ideal because she has different motivations for participating in each fair. 

“The Armory has always been big. The sheer volume of the fair has made it a success for us because of how many eyes are on the work,” she said.  

This year, Madey has two booths at the Armory, one features work by Samantha Nye, while the other, a shared booth with Nina Johnson, will show work by artist Patrick Hubbell, a strategy that she says increases exposure for the artists. 

“I’m not going to the Armory with like a booth of my program, you know, one thing from each artist. I intentionally do these solo projects here because the Armory is really about exposure for these two younger artists that I think are really promising and people are going to notice it and pay attention,” Madey said. Frieze, meanwhile, is more of a targeted audience, according to Madey. That fair’s smaller size may not be enough to excite a newer collector, she added.

The biggest problem, some dealers said, is Frieze Seoul. “We are all expecting a different thing, but no one knows what or when a change will come. Only that it’s coming,” Omayra Alvarado-Jensen, executive director of gallery Insitituto de Vision, which has locations in New York and Bogota, Colombia, told ARTnews.

Alvarado-Jensen said she’s heard people wonder if the Armory Show and Frieze New York will combine, leaving one or the other in the dust, due to the conflict with Frieze Seoul. Of course, that’s just speculation. “The fact is, I’m not worried about it now. I’m thinking about three years from now,” she said. 

Alvarado-Jensen has no doubt that the Armory and Frieze NY can co-exist. They have, she points out, for a long time. “As a gallerist, what I’m hoping is that the fairs keep their identities, and that Frieze is just going to make Armory stronger, sexier, that they can be freer to deepen the affiliation with the city.” 

This year, Instituto has brought work from Don Abel Rodríguez, a sage of the Nonuya people who possesses the ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants and of the ecological systems of the Amazon basin. It’s quintessential Armory, speaking to the city’s massive Latin American and indigenous population. It’s the kind of work that she hopes the fair will continue to champion.

Still, Alvarado-Jensen noted, there will be art advisers and collectors who will have to choose between Armory and Seoul, which will unavoidably have long-term effects.

All dealers can do for the moment is wait and see, they said. There are few good options for shifting either fair. Moving Armory a few weeks might put the show too close to the November auction sales, which struggled last year in an oversaturated market, or worse, up against Art Basel Miami Beach. In the meantime, the art world will have to see how the two fairs fare against each other. Dealers speculated to ARTnews that this might be Frieze’s plan: to let the two fairs compete and see which wins out and which has to change. 

“I just don’t think they can do Seoul and the Armory at the same time,” Alvarado-Jensen said. “No matter how strong the market is, you can be in two places at once, and in the end, Frieze needs to turn a profit. It’s a business.”

For now, it’s status quo. In an email statement, Berry confirmed that the Armory Show would take place again next year at the Javits Center for its 30th edition. Work on that edition will promptly begin once this year’s fair wraps. 

“The acquisition of the Armory Show by Frieze expands the reach of the organization within the art market and unlocks opportunities for future growth, development, and collaboration between the Frieze-named art fairs and its newly acquired event,” Berry said.