As a stream of taxicabs and black SUVs began pulling up at the south entrance of Frieze New York for today’s VIP preview, a red-eyed inflatable rat glared down at the procession from the side of the road. At its feet, a crowd of roughly 30 people was gathered to listen to New York City Comptroller and mayoral candidate John Liu speak out against the fair’s labor policies.
“This is not the last time we’re going to have to set up this rat out here–we’ll do it as often as it takes,” he told the crowd.
Labor union representatives gathered outside the fair said they opposed Frieze New York’s use of exclusively non-union labor. Though they staged a similar protest protest against Frieze New York, Production Glue, LLC–the fair’s production company–and Deutsche Bank, last year as well, that protest was less visible.
“There are more unions involved now,” said Bernadette Kelly, who works for Teamsters Union Joint council 16. “Last year, it was primarily the district Council of Carpenters and Teamsters Local 807 and 817. We’re also now accompanied by the operating engineers–Local 30–and the Painters Union and IATSE locals 1 and 829.”
Ms. Kelly said that fair officials have refused to meet with labor union representatives. “All they do is issue statements that say there is no labor dispute going on”—she was cut off by a big red teamsters truck honking its horn wildly as it drove by, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
Frieze New York did not return Gallerist’s requests for comment.
“They don’t want to acknowledge to their sponsors and to people that could get corporate egg on their face that there really is a labor dispute, that they’re shutting out union wages and union jobs,” said Kirk Kelly (no relation to Bernadette), an organizer at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 30.
The protesters’ flyers, which feature an illustrated woman wearing a breastplate alongside a written condemnation of Frieze and Deutsche Bank, were designed by Los Angeles-based artist Andrea Bowers, who has work in the fair. She only learned of the labor dispute a few days ago, and was “devastated” by the news.
“I was so embarrassed that I didn’t know about it sooner,” said Ms. Bowers, whose work often incorporates imagery from vintage labor rights literature, over the phone. “My immediate response was to just not participate.”
Though she seriously considered pulling her work from the show, Ms. Bowers said she ultimately “felt a responsibility to support my galleries.” Ms. Bowers’s work is on view at two Frieze booths–Kaufmann Repetto of Milan and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Each piece is accompanied by a letter that outlines Ms. Bowers’s concerns regarding the fair’s labor policies and calls for negotiation between fair and union representatives.
At Kaufman Repetto, a large piece consisting of tiled protest posters dominates one wall of the booth. Many of the posters are three years old, but Ms. Bowers created and shipped some new ones when she learned of the dispute that bear slogans like “Don’t Frieze out New York workers.”
Ms. Bowers plans to donate half of her profits from work sold at the fair to the unions. The large poster piece is priced at $28,000, while smaller works can be purchased for $2,800.
She said she spoke with Matthew Slotover, who co-directs Frieze New York, as well as other fair officials, encouraging them to meet and negotiate with union leaders. “It seems to me like one side is willing to negotiate and one side is not,” said Ms. Bowers.
“I spoke also with the director of the fair,” said Chiara Repetto. “They have their own opinions, but we really decided to support Andrea’s battles because it’s so integrated in the work and it’s very sincere.”
“It’s super important,” said dealer Andrew Kreps, who represents Ms. Bowers, of featuring her letters along with the work. “She’s a political artist.”
Despite her concerns, Ms. Bowers made a point of stating that she is not anti-art fair. “I’m not interested in creating an adversarial relationship with art fairs,” she said. “I think they’re so important.”
At Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, two towering marker-on-found-cardboard drawings by Ms. Bowers are available for $50,000. Director of Sales Kevin Scholl said that those pieces, which feature imagery drawn from turn-of-the-century labor literature, have been attracting a lot of attention, not just from museums interested in acquiring the work, but from fair workers. “We’ve actually had a lot of the workers—the people who are sweeping and the people working the cafes—and they come and take photos on their iPhones.”
Over at Untitled’s booth, artist Henry Taylor was also inspired by the protesters. One of his pieces, composed of objects like gallon jugs painted black and affixed to the wall, bears the words: “Once we were a union look at us now.” According to his dealer Joel Mesler, Mr. Taylor painted the text on last night after talking to a few of the teamsters.
[UPDATE 4/10 8:36 a.m.] Frieze New York representatives have submitted the following comment: “Frieze would like to reassure everyone that we are not in a labor dispute with Teamsters Joint Council No.16 or any other collective bargaining organization. Frieze has never had a dispute with any union and has no disputes with any of its employees.
Frieze has a track record of producing high-quality art fairs and has contracted reputable mainly local vendors with the appropriate skills and experience to prepare the Randall’s Island site for the upcoming art fair. We are not engaged in the construction industry in any respect but retain contractors as needed to build the fair according to our participating galleries’ needs. Our contractors have assured us that they comply with all laws and that they treat their employees fairly.
Frieze has a non-profit component to the business, Frieze Projects New York, that supports some of the most exciting contemporary artists working today and provides a public program to accompany the fair. At Frieze New York we aim to make a positive cultural and economic contribution to the City by creating the best art fair experience for our participating galleries and the public.”