What London Frieze Week was like this year without a fair

The hybrid event proved that the art market is still sound

Visitors to the October Gallery room at the 1-54 African art fair. Courtesy 1-54 
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The new term last week was "almost Frieze", as Frieze Week in London went ahead without the physical art fair that initiated the week-long programme of openings, talks, performances and sales when it began 17 years ago. Due to the coronavirus, Frieze's regular tents in Regent's Park never appeared, but such is the fair's influence on the art world calendar that UK art professionals were still left clocking up the steps and Uber rides as they travelled from appointment viewing to appointment viewing.

One after another, the major autumn shows opened: the National Gallery's anticipated exhibition of the Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi; the Tate's slightly too small retrospective of American artist Bruce Nauman; Whitechapel Gallery's superb presentations of the German painter Kai Althoff and its new commission by Indian-Pakistani artist Nalini Malani; and the Barbican's celebration of choreographer Michael Clark.

Nalini Malani's new video commission, 'Can You Hear Me?' (2020), opened right before Frieze Week at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Whitechapel

Frieze itself was a hybrid event, with a live performance and exhibition programme complementing the online talks and viewing rooms in which Frieze's 250 galleries sold their wares. Despite some initial worries over the state of the art market and online viewing room fatigue, the overall feedback was sound. Two-dimensional work, especially paintings, led the way: Hauser & Wirth, the international mega-gallery, sold a Mark Bradford painting for $3.5 million; London gallery Lisson sold four diptychs by Laure Prouvost at €35,000 each ($41,300); and Lehmann Maupin from New York sold a Mandy El-Sayegh painting in the price range of £20,000-50,000.

Frieze Live's performances included Zadie Xa and Benito Mayor Vallejo's 'Dream Dangerously', 2020. Performed by Jia-Yu Corti. Courtesy of the artists and Galería Agustina Ferreyra

Regional galleries also reported sales. Sunny Rahbar of the Third Line in Dubai sold two Nima Nabavi mathematically inspired geometric drawings to the Deutsch Bank Collection, and Sfeir-Semler in Beirut sold 12 drawings by Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh to the Tate. These went via the £150,000 fund supported by Endeavor, part-owner of Frieze, for acquisitions from the fair for the Tate collection.

Green Art Gallery, from Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, set geometric paintings by Kamrooz Aram beside sculptures by the Brazilian artist Ana Mazzei, and reported reserves on some of the works.

Over at Cromwell Place, the new gallery network that also opened on Saturday, Lawrie Shabibi of Dubai reported impressive numbers: they sold three paintings by Mohamed Melehi at $35,000 each, as well as silkscreens by the Moroccan artist.

And – somewhat remarkably – there was still a physical event in the 1-54 African art fair, which takes place in the historic Somerset House, a former palace fronting the Thames. Benefiting from a smaller scale and being in a permanent institution, the fair was able to open with 30 galleries worldwide with artists from Africa or its diaspora.

Visitors came at appointed slots and followed a strict one-way system around the building. The fair, which has previously hovered on the periphery of the Frieze itinerary, was suddenly thrust front-and-centre, offering the pleasure of seeing new art in person, and buoyed also by the art world's long-overdue interest in black artists. The fair met the spotlight handily, with stand-out booths by Tafeta from London, Polartics from Lagos, Ubuntu Art Gallery from Cairo, and Gallery 1957 from Accra, which sold out its entire booth.

The painting Saint Madiba, 2019, by the British-Ghanaian artist Godfried Donkor, on sale at Gallery 1957's presentation at the 1-54 African art fair in London. Gallery 1957 sold out its entire both. 1-54

The star of the week were the gallery presentations, which also differed from previous years in a so-old-it's-new reversal: contemporary art galleries … in Mayfair. Galleries such as White Cube in Hoxton Square and Maureen Paley lured art professionals away from their traditional moneyed stomping grounds of Mayfair in central London.

But over the past few years galleries have been edging back. For Frieze Week, Studio Voltaire, Sadie Coles HQ, Lisson Gallery, Frieze Live and Stephen Friedman showed in pop-up sites on Cork Street, just a few steps away from Bond Street. This meant gallery-goers could take in around 50 exhibitions in central London before collapsing at Frieze's temporary HQ at the Fumoir bar at Claridge's. A mix of old glamour and new, international offerings and socially distanced catch-ups: it was as good an almost-Frieze Week as anyone could have hoped for.