May 11, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – The Frieze Art Fair returned for a second go 'round on Randall’s Island this week, and just like its inaugural run held on NYC public land last year, organizers of the London-birthed showcase have done their darndest to duck area standards, wages and benefits. (Watch Video)
Fair operators have consistently refused to even speak to members of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, Teamsters Joint Council No. 16 and I.A.T.S.E. Local 829, even as those groups and their supporters from allied labor groups and city government continue to put pressure on them from outside the exhibition gates.
“I want them to recognize us as the people that do the trade show work,” New York City District Council of Carpenters [NYCDCC] Representative Michael Odenthal said. “NYCDCC has 23,000 members. Probably about 8 or 10 thousand are certified to do this work. They are certified trade show workers. They have thousands of hours of experience doing this work. It is very hurtful that [Frieze] would come here and not talk to us.”
Frieze Art Fair spokesperson Henry Lyon also refused to talk to LaborPress about the ongoing labor dispute, citing a prepared statement from the exhibition’s organizers insisting that hired contractors are treating employees “fairly.”
“They say they treat their workers fairly, but what does that mean?” Odenthal said. “Does it just mean a paycheck? Is it a low hourly wage that has no benefits? I could hire a landscaper and say I’m treating him fairly – but if I’m giving him three-dollars-an-hour, what benefit is it to him in the long run?”
In a further attempt to supress the labor dispute, security guards working for this year’s Frieze Art Fair also tore down pro-union letters that Los Angeles-based multi-media artist Andrea Bowers had displayed outside her exhibition space.
Organizers later apologized to the artist.
“They said it was a mistake by one of the security guys,” Bowers told LaborPress.
Bowers, who has spent the last 8 years researching labor activists and telling their stories, said she only learned about the labor dispute between the Frieze Art Fair and NYC unions a couple of days before the exhibition’s opening. Still in L.A., Bowers contemplated withdrawing from the show before ultimately deciding to participate – but with every intention of speaking out.
“My ultimate goal in doing this was for them to come to the bargaining table and just start having a conversation with the unions,” Bowers said.
Although fresh copies of Bowers’ pro-labor letters have since replaced the ones initially torn down, the artist said that her attempts to convince Frieze Art Fair organizers to talk to labor groups have fallen on deaf ears.
In a lengthy conversation with show organizer Matthew Slotover, Bowers was told that the Frieze art show is a “new fair, and that the labor costs of unions are too expensive for them.”
“This has been going on since last year,” Teamsters Joint Council No. 16 President George Miranda said. “It’s an effort to lower the standards that all those locals have set up over the years. That’s what this is about.”
The Frieze Art Fair began a decade ago in London and showcases some of the world’s leading contemporary art galleries. Deutsche Bank is its main sponsor.
“We know they’re making money,” I.A.T.S.E Local 829 organizer Gregg DeCarolis said. “If it is a little more expensive, I can guarantee that the exhibitors that are in these venues definitely would rather have experienced people, the guys that have been doing these same shows over and over again, than the contractors who supposedly treat their workers fairy, but use different people every show.”
When asked, Frieze Art Fair construction workers on the site declined to talk about their experience on the job.
It turns out that Bowers was not the only artist Frieze Art Fair organizers had to worry about this year, however. Two other artists – Suzanne Lacy and Nato Thompson – also decided to buck Frieze Art Fair organizers by giving some of their scheduled speaking time to Teamsters.
Teamster Union International Representative Bernadette Kelly described the scene this way: “It was great. Frieze management didn't want the teamsters to speak, so our friend/activist/organizer Blithe Riley read her statement from Occupy Arts & Labor. She then put on a Teamster t-shirt and introduced herself as Julian Tysch, Teamster representative from 814, and read his statement. The crowd loved it.”