Twenty-five years ago two young graduates, Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, together with graphic designer Tom Gidley, launched a new magazine about contemporary art. A quarter of a century later frieze, still published in London, is going strong, now part of a global brand that includes three of the world’s most influential and profitable art fairs. Not only have Slotover and Sharp played a significant role in London becoming one of the global centres of contemporary art – it has literally changed the way people look at art; visitors are able to get close to the work, attend talks by some of the world’s most interesting and important creators and commentators, eat great food by renowned chefs, see films and even take part in a performance. Frieze offers a level of involvement that is nothing like the usual experience of visiting a museum or fair.
Slotover’s early introduction to the art world came about almost by chance. “We were really young when we started the magazine. We were twenty-two. I didn’t know anything about business, art, art criticism or publishing,” says Slotover over lunch at the Rochelle Canteen in east London, in the same Victorian redbrick former school building where Frieze has its offices. “I left university with a degree in psychology. I had no interest in art at all. I had a friend at St Martins, and I started going to see art with her. Someone told me about this Damien Hirst-curated warehouse show. I went and was completely blown away. It was exciting – you could feel it. Anyone who was there could feel it.” The pilot issue of frieze, featuring an interview with the ambitious young Hirst himself, wasn’t remotely glossy: it had a more of a music magazine than an art magazine aesthetic. “We were really influenced by The Face and i-D and Blitz, we loved those magazines when we were teenagers. We wanted frieze to feel more like those magazines. We wanted it to be less jargony – we haven’t succeeded in making it totally jargon-free but compared to other art maga-zines at the time we definitely were.”
Retrospectively their adventure seems inspired, but at the time London was still somewhat bleak after the chill of the Thatcher years; setting up a new art magazine didn’t suggest itself as an obvious path to fame and fortune. This was long before the opening of Tate Modern (now the most visited museum in the world), long before Tony Blair co-opted art and music to fuel his short-lived Cool Britannia image. “At the end of the 80s, the beginning of the 90s, there was zero interest in contemporary art in Britain. There were a tiny number of non-profit and commercial galler-ies. One young artist might get picked up by a gallery a year. Damien Hirst and his group saw what was going on abroad, and they said we can either accept what’s going on or we can change it. They saw that they needed to make art that was going to be interesting to a broader group of people, to the media, and to the general public. Damien often said, ‘I want to make art my mum would get something out of’. I do think there was a genuine attempt at a more popular – not populist – art from a small group of people who then got picked up.”