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Frieze Art Fair Makes New York Debut With Custom Campus on Randall's Island

Approximately 45 PVC vinyl strips were anchored to both the north and south entrances, creating a carnival-like structure that gave the rigid structure a more approachable aesthetic and hid the unsightly mechanical elements and plumbing. The tenting alone required more than 100 tractor trailers, with the total number of trucks used to transport the production components approaching 1,400.

Photo: Jim Shi

Local city dwellers usually don't cross water for culture—unless it's an ocean—but with more than $350 million worth of art on display, the organizers of the first New York fair from London-based nonprofit Frieze sought to provide every incentive to do so by converting Randall's Island Park into a contemporary art campus. Opened to the public on Friday, Frieze Art Fair New York turned the barely one-square-mile island in the East River into a four-day hub. The extensive venture was designed by Brooklyn-based architectural firm SO-IL, and experiential agency Production Glue spearheaded the manpower needed to assemble it.

Overseeing the entire 44-day build was Production Glue co-founder and principal Tom Bussey, who worked with Frieze founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover, as well as Louise Dixon, the art fair’s director of production. “One definite goal was to maximize the usable gallery space and keep a clean side on the water side, so it remained as pristine as possible,” said Bussey, this being his firm’s largest undertaking to date and its first project with Frieze.

As Slotover himself said, only Frieze would be “crazy” enough to opt for a temporary structure. “But people wanted a sense of freshness,” he said. “Art is supposed to be this surprising and challenging thing—people like new things.”

Bussey and a core staff of 20—with an extended support team of 15 and an additional 500 workers daily—built the main structure in 14 days; it will take only seven days to dismantle and remove it. Production Glue also coordinated with Randall’s Island, N.Y.P.D., F.D.N.Y., the Department of Buildings, and the Parks Department in the management of all transportation logistics, including shuttles and the ferries.

To hear Bussey tell it, Randall’s Island itself proved to be the greatest challenge. With no outlets for food, construction, or other everyday necessities, every single element had to be brought in. “Outside of that, the challenge was the duration [of the build],” he said of the nearly-seven-week process. “This Randall’s project is comparable to what you would do for the Olympics or another long-term site installation. You’re bringing and building all the infrastructure.”

Due to the sloping elevation of the site, the very large tent that housed the event (with a price tag of $1.5 million) was raised in various places between eight inches and six feet to achieve an even level. With 42,000 more square feet of space than the Armory’s combined piers, the enormous undertaking was billed as the largest temporary structure in the world. So much so, in fact, that Bussey has submitted two Guinness Book of World Records entries: largest installation of temporary level floor in North America, and largest continuous tent structure in North America.

Within the structure, Art Book/D.A.P. was able to build the city’s largest-ever temporary art bookstore, Soho House opened a pop-up, Cecconi’s restaurant debuted its first outpost in New York, and eateries ranging from the Fat Radish to Sant Ambroeus all set up shop.

“It’s lighter, brighter, and a lot more user friendly than the Armory or the Piers [in Chelsea],” said one collector.

“The layout of the fair gives those works room to be properly shown/viewed—adequate depth and width within booths, natural light, easy flow between booths,” said art adviser Heather Flow. That said, she noted Frieze could have better utilized the auditorium. Also of note: virtually no booths featured films. “It might be interesting to present artist films in the future,” Flow noted. “Galleries could potentially pay for a time slot and could present the work[s] on the big screen.”

Following the fair, the rental structure was dismantled, with certain elements, including the five customized wedges that gave the space its snake profile and the vinyl tops, heading into storage for potential future use. In total, the event utilized nearly 1,400 tractor trailers.