I Broke Into Frieze Art Fair to See How the Other Half Live

Can a mere mortal like me blag their way into London's annual art pilgrimage for the ultra-rich?
A smiling man next to a Damien Hirst at Frieze Art Fair
The author, sorely tempted to send this Damien Hirst to the realm of NFTs. All photos: Constantin Gardey

For one week in autumn, two draughty tents in Regent’s Park become a mecca for the international mega-moneyed art mob. Welcome to Frieze Art Fair, the Deutsche Bank-sponsored greatest hits catalogue of ways to spend the three million quid you found down the back of your sofa or oil well. Where else can you buy a “Poverty Map of London” for a few thousand quid in a cost of living crisis? But what happens behind the miles of white tent-tarp and ranks of chauffeured BMWs? Can a mere mortal like me blag their way in?


How to get into Frieze Art Fair for free

I firmly believe that there are only a handful of unlucky people who actually buy tickets for these things. Sure, Frieze claims that you can buy them online – incredibly, they do tend to sell out – but prices are steep regardless of which of the two separate parts of the fair you want to visit. At Frieze London, galleries exhibit their contemporary artists working post-2000. At Frieze Masters, they flex their museum pieces and established estate names like Francis Bacon and Andy Warhol. The highest level Frieze 91 pass for both fairs costs £990. 

So how do affluent aesthetes get into London’s premier art sale? They get comped; either by Frieze or by galleries who are courting them. This grand luxe gang is the same suede brigade who rock up for the Wednesday preview (we see you, Rishi Sunak). A favourite side quest when stumbling across these rare beasts in the wild, is to airily mention a fictitious VIP “pre-preview” on Monday evening. You can be confident they haven’t been invited (cue: an aggressive phone call to their PA) since the Monday “pre-preview” doesn't happen to exist. 

A man outside Frieze Art Fair.

Outside Frieze Art Fair.

Unfortunately, I was not invited to the preview, or even the nonexistent pre-preview, so on arrival at Regent’s Park, I went for a recce of the perimeter fences. Alas, the combination of a few hundred million pounds worth of art and the threat of tomato soup-wielding protestors meant that security was tight. This left one option: propositioning galleries in search of a sponsor.


 It’s never wise to be too English about this sort of thing. Most galleries get off on helping a culturally starved autodidact or misanthropic art student; it's good for their brand. Happily, I am perfectly willing and able to prostrate myself like this for the good of the LARP. Flattery never hurts either. To my shame, I upped my odds by approaching five galleries. Twenty minutes after my first sycophantic salvo of emails, I had good news. 

A gallery exhibiting at both London and Masters generously confirmed that they might indeed have a ticket reserved. I concede, this seriously undermined my faith that art dealers don’t have souls (and if you are reading this, you know who you are, and I am extremely grateful). After a short, undignified victory dance, I sauntered up to the VIP Desk with studied insouciance and was adorned with QR codes, Frieze stash and offers to taxi me between the two fairs. 

A man at the VIP desk at Frieze Art Fair

My first clumsy attempt at charming the ticket staff.

Frieze Masters is a ten minute catwalk away through the park, but in the spirit of the blag, I confirmed that their bespoke transport arrangements would indeed be satisfactory. “And would sir like to bring a guest with him?” Why yes of course! A few speed-dials later, I finally entered Frieze London, albeit somewhat dizzied by my rapid elevation from pauper to art world VIP.

How to blag Frieze London

Unlike its swisher, snobbier sibling, Frieze London predominantly exhibits work by living artists. But just because the price point is lower, doesn’t mean that there’s less fun to be had. In fact, since some of the art could plausibly be afforded by a young(-ish) person, Frieze London affords greater opportunities for teasing predatory gallerists. If handled expertly, this is the fastest route to scoring free booze and after-parties. To aid the persona quick-change from penniless art student to newly minted yuppie, I brought some props.

First: a lanyard. Gallerists, staff and most important people wear black lanyards at Frieze. Wise to tuck the end of your bootleg cordage into your inside pocket for maximum mystification of who you are and whether you can afford anything. 


Second, a notebook. Its content matters not: I brought my diary from 2019. If you bring one, wield this in conjunction with seditious questions about the price of obscure items. In Frieze Masters, ask for the providence of artefacts which have clearly been raided from destabilised Gulf states – bonus points if the object required the desecration of a tomb to recover. Funny that curators can recite the entire history of that Tang dynasty sarcophagus, except for how it entered the private collectors’ market

A man holding a notebook at Frieze Art Fair

The notebook, a crucial weapon in any art blagger's arsenal.

Finally, I brought a stack of business cards and listings from other galleries and scrawled some international telephone numbers in the margins for added panache. If nothing else, they make good roaches and bookmarks (and were subsequently deposited into my Frieze swag bag along with some chocolate plundered from the a MATCHES pop-up installation).

The Thomas Dane Gallery was awarded the 2022 Frieze Stand Prize, with a fun installation by Anthea Hamilton starring a spongy carpet and giant pumpkins. But the fair generally felt less daring than in previous years. Bland canvasses a plenty, but not a huge amount that sparked joy.

Two men looking at art in Frieze London.

Inside the Frieze tent.

The big galleries still use Frieze London to flex household names, and this continues to feel like a wasted opportunity. I’m sure that Tracy Emin doesn’t need the exposure, or your money, but there’s a city of young artists that certainly do. I could almost sense the apathy in the gallerists, most of whom were hunched over bottles of craft beer or Gail’s flat whites, like hungover babysitters. London is usually a fresh break from the po-faced, mercenary mood of Masters, but if it isn’t fresh it’s not clear what it stands for. So I hopped on the chauffeured shuttle service to the other half of the fair, and braced for impact.

A man looking at a Francis Bacon painting at Frieze Masters

Thinking about how much Frieze would have upset Francis Bacon.

Overheard at Frieze Masters

This is what you’d get if Kafka ran a nightmarishly decadent supermarket: truckloads of Miró’s, enough Alexander Calder mobiles to entertain a nursery, and the complete skeleton of a 154-million-year-old Camptosaurus. The density of value is overwhelming and slightly repulsive. But lots of it is very special, and it’s worth reminding myself that some of these masterpieces will never again be seen outside of a Bond villain’s subterranean lair (or more likely an art freeport in Geneva). 

Cynicism returns when you are subjected to the sixth pint-sized Lucio Fontana slash within as many minutes of entry. I kept a tally every time I saw Bridget Riley and by the end, I was told my notebook page resembled a Cy Twombly. Despite forecasts of an art market buoyed by Biden bucks, it didn’t seem like a huge amount was selling. Perhaps Europe’s billionaires are saving their duckets for Paris+ par Art Basel, but it's equally plausible that everyone’s just a bit strapped for cash at the moment. I guess Olympic-length infinity pools don’t heat themselves in a fuel poverty crisis.

Art luvvies are also reliably entertaining gossips. “I swear to God, I’ve seen that awful Robert Rauschenberg combine being flogged by three different galleries unsuccessfully,” I overhear, along with plenty of dark speculation about what might have prompted the Gagosian gallery to pull out of their Masters stand (but nothing I can, sadly, repeat).

A man writing in his notebook at Frieze Art Fair

Studiously taking notes.

By the end of the week, the Frieze village is running on paracetamol, caffeine and nervous energy. This cocktail is not conducive to a pleasant drinking environment, so I resisted the urge to minesweep flutes of flat Ruinart and get an invite to a newly opened art pub in Mayfair, The Audley. It’s the latest project from the Wirths (one half of the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth) and includes a ceiling installation by Phyllida Barlow which minimally offsets the criminal price of £6.75 for a Guinness.

Over the dregs of my pint, I couldn’t help but feel that this ten-year anniversary edition of Frieze felt lean, mean and just a bit joyless. Masters was overwhelming, but not quite the gourmand wet dream I’d been hoping for. Then again, I didn't pay to be there, so I have little right to complain. Anyway, I’ll see you there next year. Look out for the boy with the black lanyard being carried out by security.