USA: Today, Tomorrow, Every Day

USA_OD.jpgIs it just me or have others noticed the ubiquity of American exhibitions in West London over the past year? Whether it’s NY Fashion at the V&A, yet another exhibition of an American artist at the Serpentine — old (Ellsworth Kelly) or new (Paul Chan) — or group shows put together to show visiting Americans some American art at Frieze fair time (the Royal Academy / Saatchi’s USA Today or the Serpentine’s Uncertain States of America), it looks like London’s expensive postcodes just can’t get enough of a good thing.

The combination of American corporate largesse, political will (the US Embassy funded Karen Kilimnik’s recent show at the Serpentine) and rich friends (cocktails with the Blairs for American Friends of the Tate) is convincing enough as it is. Combine this with a dearth of curators that can look beyond – or are interested in anything other than – the Euro-American nexus, and we see a pattern emerging. One in which much of London’s public art world (at least in those parts of town where corporate hospitality is at a premium) seems at risk of being ‘captured’ by one country. So while the world rhapsodises about ‘new’ art coming out of Asia, London gets to see very little of it, whereas Tate Liverpool is showing contemporary Chinese art and Newcastle’s Baltic had a recent Subodh Gupta show.

One wonders how long this will continue? As the 2012 London Olympics-related cuts to arts funding start biting, the allure of American patronage will only grow stronger. Perhaps, as the current show of British photography at Tate Britain suggests, American Friends will act with ‘enlightened self-interest’ and start supporting non-American shows, lest the natives get restless.

Or perhaps London is set to be the battleground for a cultural version of the new Great Game — one where America is the dominant power; the Russians have an outpost in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, which can be leveraged by Russian oligarchs (once they grow tired of running football clubs or funding revolutions); and the Chinese have the Red Mansion Foundation ‘co-producing’ exhibitions. The only ones yet to show their hands are India’s billionaires and its ranks of art-market entrepreneurs. Surely it is only a matter of time — I’d give it a few months.

Author: Hammad Nasar

Curator, writer and co-founder of the London-based not-for-profit Green Cardamom, and the arts advisory firm Asal Partners.

9 thoughts on “USA: Today, Tomorrow, Every Day”

  1. It’s probably not time yet to pull down the shutters and switch off the lights in London galleries that show English art. The preponderance of American art may just be a cyclical fad. Whatever the case, your comment made London sound like a very exciting place. The view from this side of the pond is markedly different. I couldn’t be more pleased that American art is receiving support and receptivity in Britain. Maybe the art world is pointing the way forward in this respect. After years in which the transatlantic alliance lay in tatters — and U.S. cultural diplomacy was gutted — the tide may be turning. Europe seems to be taking another look at America and finding that there’s something to like after all (the election of pro-American heads of state in two of the EU’s most important countries is another thawing sign). Whoever is supporting the Karen Kilimnik show at the US Embassy deserves a medal. It’s a refreshing break from the dumbed-down “reading corners” and globetrotting ice skaters that were supposed to project American values around the globe. When it comes to cultural diplomacy, I am an unrepentant globalist. Send us Brits. We’re happy to have them.

  2. No problems with cultural diplomacy per se, its the terms that make me uneasy.

    Funding American shows may be easier, but its done at the expense of shows from elsewhere. And my wider concern is about London’s capacity for putting on shows that are not fully underwritten, in an environment where state funding will only get tighter.

    Call me an idealist, but I still think funding should support programming — not drive it.

  3. I think it’s a important to remember here that while the Americans may seem like invaders, in fact they are invited guests – albeit guests whose invitation may hinge upon their willingness to help fund the party they are attending. So, I think if we’re going to assign blame here, it has to lie with the local institutions, who after all can say no when various Stateside funders offer financially facilitated shows.

    I have to say that what’s bizarre to me here is the fact that we’re talking about this issue in relationship to London, which has arguably replaced New York City as a finance capital of the world. Seen from a distance, at least, the issue is not a lack of local money, but a lack of local aptitude for tapping it.

    Then again, these days London is a city in a state of constant mutation, and its cultural sphere is no exception. So perhaps the next cultural import from America will not be art itself, but rather the funding tactics that surround it.

  4. I think it is difficult to look at the issue without breaking down the relationship between private and public funding. If they can get the private sponsors to cover their interests, it is hard to imagine them taking the huge amount of time it takes to get public money with all of the attached local politics. In addition to that, why would a person pay additionally for something that they think that their government should support with their tax money already paid?

    Americans in general have grown up in an environment that devalues culture, and as such are easy targets to provide this kind of support, which is a thankless job when done at home. Why shouldn’t we get something in return?

    New York and London compliment each other well. Both sides benefit. They both speak English. It makes the local politics of deals on either side easier to understand. Even better, England wants to keep an identity outside of the EU while benefitting from it too. It is hard to think of Damien Hirst as a European artist for example, yet somehow every Swiss artist is.

  5. I totally agree with Lisa. And when it comes to the influence of US funding, we need to put things in perspective.

    I don’t have numbers at my fingertips, but the US-funded shows in general, and the government-funded projects in particular, could only make for a morsel of all the shows currently on view in London. Public funding for the arts in England surely surpasses, on a per capita basis, such funding for the arts in America. Arts education can be obtained free. Forgive me but I just don’t see this as an unlevel playing field.

    I have a great deal of empathy for Europeans — having been born as one myself — when it comes to their concern for homegrown culture. I have less empathy when they sound the alarm bells about US cultural imperialism. The response should not be protectionism, a la Francaise, or crying wolf about the big bad Americans who are coming to town with their big bags of money. The response should be making better art and getting the local funders to get behind it.

    The truth is that on both sides of the Atlantic we have been seeing the emergence of hybrid cultural economies, and nowhere more so than in the visual arts. In the art world we have a vast and robust private market working hand-in-glove with all sorts of government support — from direct subsidies to tax breaks to exemptions and public handouts for infrastructural investments.

    The mingling of public and private money is a good thing, in my opinion, because it corrects the excesses of both. The same goes for the mingling of art. For, as Lisa suggests, what are the terms “European” and “American” at this point but vague cultural abstractions?

  6. My principal gripe was not against ‘big bad Americans’ but lazy London institutions. My complaint was (and remains) that as a Londoner I am not getting to see too many, well-funded shows of international contemporary art from anywhere but America.

    I think there is no question that a sustainable mode of funding will be a mixture of public and private. And that American institutions have a lot to teach us in this regard. But until we absorb these lessons, the challenge (as Marc pointed out) is not to be reduced to a “bring your own art” exhibition venue.

    (ps — gone are the days of a free art education in London, Andras. MFA is the new MBA in fees as well as employment prospects.)

  7. This discussion has echoes of the constant French complaint about the cultural imperialism of the US, particularly in film. As if the large marketing budgets of the US production companies were the only reason no-one watches French films these days…

    I don’t care who pays for a show or where the artists come from as long as the technical quality is high and the content within the work is interesting. If the US, because of its successful economy, has an excess of funding for the Arts, both public sector and private sector, and takes shows around the world for us all to see, then we all benefit. Let us not forget that the touring of big US shows is a bonus rather than something that removes anything from the Art scene. I, like Hammad, would be delighted to see great touring shows from other countries, but let us not castigate the Americans just because they have the money to do more.

    And that’s the rub. In talking to Arts bodies in the UK (and the same is true for much of Europe) many understand the need for a mix of public and private funding sources and are actively marketing to local (& foreign companies) to support UK projects. But there simply isn’t as much cash washing around. Until that changes (unlikely to be the case, at least in the short term) we can expect to see fewer wonderful touring shows from the UK, and continental Europe. But perhaps more, soon, from India, Russia and China.

  8. I’m basically with Ian on this – blame the locals , not the exporters – but when it comes to London, “There simply isn’t as much cash washing around” does not cut it as an excuse. No city on earth seems more awash in cash these days than London. That’s reflected in everything from the price of property to the $35 Sidecar I once ordered, only to discover that the barman’s idea of that classic cocktail was a mediocre whiskey sour.

    BTW, Hammad, MFA may be the new MBA in terms of costs, but it’s not really there in terms of career expectations. For every Conrad Shawcross there are dozens of recently minted MFAs executing the visions of other artists as studio assistants. Sure, some graduate to having their own assistants. But on balance, only a very lucky artist can bank cash in the same style as all but the most hapless MBA.

  9. Totally agree on the ratio of Conrad Shawcross to the thousands graduating the same year but destined to eke out a living from sporadic grants and a mixed bag of freelance work.

    The MFA/MBA reference was to an old Harvard Business Review piece on Breakthrough Ideas in 2004.

    “Businesses have come to realize that the only way to differentiate their offerings is to make them beautiful and emotionallly compelling — which explains why an arts degree is now a hot credential in management.”

    But that’s a whole different discussion — on whether the arts put as much value on creativity as business now does.

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