Frieze’s Rebecca Ann Siegel: ‘New York is a comeback kid’
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It has not been an easy start for Rebecca Ann Siegel, Frieze’s director of Americas and content. Since she landed her new role, mid-pandemic, in November 2020, she has had to pull off two very different and difficult decisions: to press ahead with the fair’s New York edition this week and to cancel its third outing in Los Angeles, slated for July.
When we speak across the Atlantic over Zoom, the thoughtful 36-year-old seems unfazed by the task in hand. “Every person, every gallery, every city has had a different experience [of the Covid-19 pandemic]. Los Angeles isn’t quite ready, but New York is a comeback kid,” she says.
Both cities run deep for her. Los Angeles, where she grew up, “was my first everything in art,” she says, recalling visits with her father to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Her long vowels and, she notes, her mobile phone number, betray her as an Angeleno. She has lived in New York since 2007. After graduating from Yale University, she took her first job at Paul Kasmin gallery in Manhattan before continuing her history of art studies at Columbia University. She is passionate about her adopted city’s “consistent commitment to arts and culture”.
Siegel’s more recent background is in publishing — she co-founded the arts magazine Even and then joined Frieze in 2018 as the publisher of its influential magazine of the same name. “My heart is in print in many ways,” she says. In the context of the Frieze fairs, the move is almost de rigueur. Co-founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover launched the event in London in 2003 on the back of Frieze magazine, which they started 12 years before. “So much of what differentiates the fairs has to do with that move. There’s a respect towards writers and critics as well as to artists and curators,” Siegel says. Her new boss, Simon Fox, came in as Frieze’s chief executive in early 2020 from the UK’s Reach PLC, another media company.
The word “content” in her job title might be a bit clunky, but is relevant across all the fairs, including in its home turf in London, Siegel explains. She is, as ever, attentive about what it means. “The reality is, what started as a print magazine is now also a website, a social media channel, a podcast, a video platform and more. We are producing a huge amount, plus there are the fairs, and fundamentally that breadth of material has quite a bit of overlap,” she says. What that could mean for the future is not yet completely clear, but it sounds like a mammoth editorial balancing act. Art fairs are, she says, “an incredible place for discovery” while also increasingly part of a wider context. “It is about finding the best way to highlight artists and their voices. I am medium agnostic. I don’t care how people fall in love with art, as long as more people do it,” she says.
Siegel’s previous experience has also come in handy during the pandemic. “The necessity to move to digital, forced in the art world by the pandemic, was something that people in publishing already knew about. That sort of knowledge has been helpful going into this,” she says.
The impact of Covid-19 is not her only challenge in New York. Frieze has arguably had a bumpy ride since it opened in a trademark tent on Randall’s Island 10 years ago. Siegel is now the third person to run the New York fair following Sharp and Slotover, a swift turnaround even in the rollercoaster art market. And Randall’s Island — a boat-ride or lengthy taxi journey away — never quite worked for time-strapped New Yorkers.
Siegel says that conversations about the fair’s venue “predate” her appointment, but that the opportunity to show in The Shed, a flexible space in Manhattan, came at the perfect time. “Building a tent of that scale during Covid was not on the cards,” she says. The new venue represents a “unique opportunity”. She notes too that it has already proved its worth as a temporary spot for cultural organisations, including the New York Philharmonic orchestra. Siegel won’t be drawn on whether Frieze will stay at its latest venue, which can only accommodate less than a third of the fair’s usual exhibitors. “‘Permanent’ is a difficult word at the moment,” she says.
In Los Angeles, where the nascent fair has only had two editions since it launched in 2019, Siegel says that Frieze’s original idea for this year’s now-cancelled edition — to host exhibitors through architecturally interesting buildings in town — had been well received. But in a city whose museums have been closed for the best part of a year, mounting the project proved too complicated. Instead, Siegel is looking to the February 2022 edition, “already less than 10 months away”, for which Frieze has secured a plot of land for a temporary structure near the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Westwood.
For now, Siegel is focused on the New York fair, Frieze’s first physical edition since the pandemic and one of the first such real-life events for the art market. As well as the 60 galleries in The Shed, Frieze New York has an expanded Viewing Room online, which runs until May 14. There is a virtual talks programme, projects that happen in real life as well as digitally, a video programme, plus initiatives such as a tribute to the Vision & Justice Project that extend outside of the fair through galleries and public-facing works. Siegel welcomes all forms of engagement and has high hopes for this week’s experimental event. “We have the ability to reach a large international audience in tandem with those people who can be in New York just as the city comes to life. It is a powerful combination.”