Frieze Chiefs Talk WME-IMG Partnership at New York Art Fair

Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover - H 2016
Photograph by Linda Nylind

The Brit co-founders of the fine art "media and events company" recall their first meetings with agency co-CEO Ari Emanuel ("It's f—ing Ari Gold!") as they imagine the possibilities of the fledgling partnership and note the values they share with their new investor: "They believe in talent."

Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover are considered true rock stars in the art world, though they are not even known as session players to most people in Hollywood.

But that began to change April 14 when WME-IMG announced that their company, Frieze, would be the portal for its first foray into the art world. The deal is being trumpeted as a partnership though all parties are keeping mum about the details of WME-IMG’s stake in Frieze.

To get some insight into that partnership, and to understand the draw of Frieze for the super agency, The Hollywood Reporter walked this year’s Frieze New York (through May 8) with Sharp and Slotover during the special VIP preview, with gallerists, collectors and curators frequently approaching to greet and glad-hand. If there’s one thing the worlds of art and Hollywood have in common, it’s an appreciation for the letters V, I and P (though in this context the VIPs are art collectors — both private and institutional.)

Sharp and Slotover, both 47 and both Brits, met cute: at a Bar Mitzvah when they were 12. But their long-standing friendship blossomed when they re-connected their first day at Oxford University, where each studied humanities. Soon after, they created the magazine “frieze” (all lower case), the original platform of “the media and events company” — as they put it — that they have built together over the last 25 years.  

This new phase for Frieze began when Slotover received an email last winter from “a fixer” he didn’t know with an invitation to have dinner with WME-IMG co-CEO Ari Emanuel at a private club in London. When Slotover replied to explain that he didn’t know Emanuel, he soon learned that the agent “is a fan of Frieze.”

Sharp recalls: “Matthew emailed me and I said, ‘Of course you should have dinner with him, it’s f---ing Ari Gold!’”

There were 14 people at the dinner, but, Slotover recalls, “I sat next to Ari and he said, ‘Is there anything we can do together?’” In short order, Emanuel met Sharp in New York, where she was living, as well. “He is very entrepreneurial, which we like,” she said. “That resonated with us.”

Frieze New York takes place in a big white tent, and ad-hoc shelter for more than 200 galleries from more than 30 countries (this year) in Randalls Island Park on the East River. 

The fair is a big tent metaphorically too; the diversity of galleries and the diversity of programs — lectures, public and outdoor art and so on — make Frieze a favorite for gallerists and fairgoers alike. Also a draw: Fare from such restaurants as Cosme, whose chef won a James Beard Award last week; Roberta’s; Marlow & Sons (where Sharp and Slotover shared a plate of oysters as the conversation went on) and others. Fairgoers tend to linger and dine and make a day of it; as Sharp puts is, Frieze is about creating a community and “an exciting place where things happen.”  

In an illustration of the kind of playfulness Sharp and Slotover encourage, this year, the artist David Horvitz has engaged in what Cecilia Alemani, curator of public projects for Frieze (and for New York’s popular Highline park), described as “a clandestine action”: A professional pickpocket is dropping small sculptures by Horvitz into the pockets, purses and backpacks of unsuspecting fairgoers. Alemani described it as “the first time you will walk away from an art fair with a free artwork.”

“As thousands of people will experience this week in New York, Frieze is unlike any other art fair,” Emanuel told THR. “Matthew, Amanda and their teams have developed and curated an incredible cross-section of art, media, food and compelling conversations that are leading the industry forward.”

Of his agency’s investment in Frieze, Emanuel added, “When you think about our network across media, events, digital and brand partnerships and their expertise in the art world, this partnership is a force multiplier for our respective businesses.”

Yet the shorthand buzz about the WME-IMG deal boils down to something like: Ari Emanuel bought an art fair.

And that’s a mistake, according to Sharp. “If you see Frieze exclusively as an art fair and not that it comes out of being a media company, then you may not see the potential for all the stories and storytelling, and how many stories there can be or what you can do with those stories,” she says. And storytelling is Hollywood’s business.

Today, Frieze comprises four publications, including the acclaimed original one that Sharp, Slotover and artist Tom Gidley founded in 1991. The publications — all variations on the name Frieze — are inextricably linked to what’s on the docket for the international art fairs that now form the events part of the business.

“We saw all these art fairs all over the world, apart from London” Slotover said. “It took us 12 years,” he added, but in 2003, they first established Frieze London, the contemporary art fair that now takes place each October in The Regent’s Park. Last year, the 164 galleries at Frieze London attracted 55,000 visitors.

Then, in 2012 there were two new ventures. The first was Frieze New York, also a contemporary fair held each May. Then came Frieze Masters, which coincides with Frieze London in October and features art from the ancient to the modern (typically the 1960s). This year, Frieze launched Frieze Academy, a year-round program of talks and courses.

Apparently, everyone — including THR and the artists and curators queried at the fair — wants to know whether bringing the Hollywood model of talent representation to the world of visual artists is part of the founders’ plans for the partnership.

They demur, defending the gallery model in which, in Hollywood terms, the gallerist serves as both agent and manager for an artist. “But there are definitely lots of conversations about new models in the art world, like there are in every industry,” Sharp said, adding, “And it is an industry.”

Slotover chimed in that “initially it’s more the IMG side of the business that will be helpful to us,” and proceeded to tick off what he calls “unglamorous things like tent rental and construction, event insurance, sponsorship.” The latter is an area where they said WME-IMG has already proven to be supportive over the last five months, even before the deal was cemented — along with helping Frieze to create an impressive sizzle reel. 

It’s the first time that Frieze, a private company jointly owned by Sharp and Slotover, has accepted an outside investor. “We’ve never borrowed money,” Slotover shared. “There are certainly some projects that might require it, as well as certain expertise. And now we have that.”

Sharp segued immediately from that comment into the TV success of Made to Measure, the digital fashion network that WME-IMG launched in October. “We’re impressed with the success of Made to Measure and what they did with that,” Slotover added. 

It’s not hard to imagine that Frieze TV may be in the cards. However, “there’s not a very detailed business plan for the next five years where we know what’s going to happen and that we’re all signed up,” Slotover continued.

Instead, the new partners have had big-picture conversations and shared hopes, dreams and wishes since those first meetings in London and New York.

“We just have this really unequivocal belief in everything follows the art, and that might be where there’s a sort of commonality with where our new partners came from as well,” said Sharp. “They believe in talent.”

Noted Slotover, “We’ve had a lot of approaches in the past. We didn’t see the value of what they would add. With these guys it was really the first time where it felt like they could help us in so many different ways, not like they were out to exploit us for short term financial gain.” He added, “It was about: We continue to run it but we get resources, expertise and investment.”

The other offers had all been from been companies or people who did either live events or publishing or digital content or sponsorships, Sharp and Slotover said. WME-IMG was the first suitor that did it all.

It didn’t hurt that Sharp and Slotover were invited to the most recent WME-IMG retreat near San Diego, where Larry David did a Bernie Sanders imitation that roasted the leadership at the agency. Sharp and Slotover liked the vibe.

“I actually love the Ari Gold character and I’ve watched every episode of Entourage.” Slotover confessed. “And the movie.”

Sharp (left) and Slotover at Frieze New York's preview May 4. Courtesy of Laura van Straaten