Frieze sits down with New York labour unions

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After artists speak out about labour practices on Twitter, fair organisers meet with Teamsters

By Julia Halperin. Web only
Published online: 28 February 2014

Union workers erected their trademark inflatable rat outside Frieze New York during the first two editions. Photo: Casey Fatchett

Representatives from Frieze New York met with local union leaders for the first time this week to discuss the organisation’s labour practices. The fair, which is set to return to Randall’s Island in May, has been criticised by artists and activist groups for employing non-union workers to build its sprawling tent and transport art.

“I can confirm that we’ve had a conversation, however the details and scope of those talks are confidential,” a Frieze spokeswoman says. A representative from New York’s Teamsters was not immediately available for comment.

The tension between Frieze and the city’s organised labour community is well documented. During last year’s fair, union workers erected their trademark inflatable rat outside Frieze New York while activists affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement protested and distributed flyers inside the tent.

In a press conference held on the steps of City Hall ahead of last year’s fair, union representatives said that Frieze leadership had repeatedly ignored their letters and requests to meet. The Teamsters’ chief grievance was the discrepancy between wages for union and non-union employees. A non-union carpenter is paid around $15 per hour, while a union carpenter can make more than $80 per hour.

Following the press conference, Frieze New York maintained in statements to the press that the organisation was “not in a labour dispute” and “has never had a dispute with any union”.

Although a Frieze spokeswoman declined to specify the impetus for the recent talks, artists including Nicole Eisenman, Andrea Bowers, William Powhida and Joshua Smith have become increasingly vocal in recent months about their concerns with Frieze’s labour practices on Twitter. (During last year’s fair, Bowers also hung a letter expressing solidarity with the Teamsters next to her works on show and pledged to donate a portion of her sales proceeds to Occupy or other labour groups.)

“I like to think of art workers—people administering the fair, people making art, people transporting it—on a continuum, and we should be looking out for one another,” Smith says. He considers the conversation between Frieze and union leaders as a “fantastic first step”.

If Frieze ultimately decides not to adopt union labour for this year’s fair, however, Smith said he would likely avoid the fair and encourage other artists to do the same. “It is important to me that my neighbours benefit from the field that I am in,” he says.

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