It’s Friezing over here

My barometer keeps jumping. One minute it’s backs-to-the-walls time, art2095friezejeppe_heinthe next it’s all lavish parties and third venue vernissages. It has seemed like a growing, healthy trend for performative, lively and cheap art would be neatly distilled in the line-up for this year’s Frieze Art Fair Projects, curated for the first time by Sarah McCrory, formerly of south London’s small curatorial hotbed, Studio Voltaire. McCrory has commissioned Spartacus Chetwynd (née Lali Chetwynd) and her travelling troupe of players to create daily spectacles in the fair on the obscure subject of tax havens (of course, much inter-fair art revolves around the necessarily thorny question of the perceived evils of the surrounding arena of commerce). A wandering group of ‘Ten Embarrassed Men’, by Swedish-born artist Annika Ström, will prowl the fair looking shamefaced – the emasculation of artists or bankers, maybe? There will also be judiciously placed charity boxes (designed by artists, of course) to tempt collector’s monies elsewhere, as well as lots of free-to-air fun in the surrounding park.

Who are they all kidding? Hauser & Wirth are opening their third or fourth space in London (I have genuinely lost count, but it’s definitely the biggest) with a retrospective of fabric works by Louise Bourgeois. Sadie Coles upscales next-door, the Blain-Southern dealership duo split from their Christie’s holding pen, Haunch of Venison, to open a new gallery as well. Then there are Russian squillionaires galore putting on one-week one-offs including pricey Picassos, New York galleries dipping their toes here… I could go on, ad infinitum. My magazine lists some 200 shows on, or opening, in the now designated ‘Frieze week’ frenzy, most of them seemingly launching on Tuesday with a brunch, lunch, press view, rooftop after-party or oyster-laden dinner. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Is art in some kind of reactionary, recessionary funk? The more it gets hit, the harder it fights back? Or are the commercials slowly moving back into easy street, while the public sector prepares for a governmental pounding at the hands of David Cameron’s October 20 spending review/slash-fest? It could be a fall bounce or just the preamble to another, bigger fall.

Charles in charge

Here in London a stunned silence greeted the surprise news that Charles Saatchi Charles Saatchiwas to ‘donate’ his recently opened Saatchi Gallery and part of his collection to the British nation, perhaps as soon as 2012. The surprise came, not only because Saatchi doesn’t seem like the retiring type – he can still be seen feverishly buying up graduate and degree shows – but mainly because no one knew it was about to happen. Not even the newly installed government had been prepped, with the Culture Minister blurting out something about philanthropy “being central to our vision of a thriving cultural sector and this is an outstanding example of how Britain can benefit from individual acts of social responsibility.”

As well as the headline figures of the 200 works being donated (including Tracey Emin’s notorious bed and various bits by the Chapmans and so on), valued at around £25 million, there was no little devil in the detail. None of the running costs will be passed to the state, which makes a change from those country piles that get left to crumble without National Heritage status, and the gift is not in lieu of taxes, said the small print. So what is this donation really about, if Saatchi is not going to retire anytime soon, as a gallery spokesperson revealed (although he will be past pensionable age, turning 70 in 2012)?

Well, despite grumbles that Saatchi’s collection isn’t comprehensive or coherent (there is no film or video admittedly), this is a fantastic offer for London (it’s free!). But the decision to change its name to the Museum of Contemporary Art London does present a problem for the current holder of nominal MoCA status, namely Tate Modern. And there is some history here. Nicholas Serota was rumoured to have refused a donation of Saatchi’s YBA holdings, so perhaps bad blood remains. Either way, should a collector be allowed to impose his taste on a nation in this way, leaving a marker of his personal choices for posterity to validate it as part of a millennial canon? Shouldn’t our nation’s keepers decide what flows into this cache? Or is this what has always happened with bequests to the nation and this is just another mausoleum by another name?

Money for nothing

For its tenth birthday weekend just gone, NSFS logoTate Modern staged No Soul For Sale, a non-profit ‘Festival of Independents’, bringing 70 artists’ collectives, publishers and non-commercial spaces from all over the world to fill its Turbine Hall. Well, perhaps ‘inviting’ would be a more accurate word to use, rather than ‘bringing’, as each participant had to pay their own way, with resourceful galleries doing last minute fundraising events and even garage sales to afford their flights to London from as far and wide as Beijing, Rio and Melbourne. A necessarily scrappy and messy affair ensued, with many No Soul For Salers showing only what they’d been able to squeeze through hand luggage or the symbolically empty packages they’d sent ahead of themselves.

This perceived lack of financial support drew fire from an anonymous British group of artists and arts professionals, calling themselves Making A Living. In an open letter to Tate, widely emailed and posted online, they took umbrage with No Soul For Sale’s ‘romantic connotations of the soulful artist, who makes art from inner necessity without thought of recompense’ as well as the concomitant expectation that ‘we should expect to work for free and that it is acceptable to forego the right to be paid for our labour.’

In an interview I conducted beforehand with the curators of No Soul For Sale – Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, with Vicente Todolí on behalf of Tate – here, they defend the event (once previously staged as part of X-Initiative in New York) variously as ‘a tribute to the people, the artists and the art lovers who work beyond the traditional market system’ (Cattelan), or an act of ‘hospitality and generosity’ (Alemani). While Gioni adds that, ‘Nobody really ever pays respect to the people who work in situations in which there is very little money involved and yet a lot of energy and enthusiasm’, Todolí qualifies this by saying: ‘Obviously we are not the only ones being hospitable here. All the participants are … as generous as Tate, if not more. But that’s when things get interesting: when people are willing to share, going beyond any immediate quantifiable gain. Continue reading “Money for nothing”

Quest for art’s Idol-Talent-Factor-Runway

c1823697b82db33bb0dcc11edf3397e579847b3aA new four-part reality show, School of Saatchi, begins tonight on BBC television (and will be viewable online). Six artists from an open submission competition are selected, first by a panel of judges – artist Tracey Emin, critic Matthew Collings, collector Frank Cohen and Kate Bush, director of the Barbican Art Gallery – and then vetted by Charles Saatchi. The London-based collector does not himself appear on screen, despite – or perhaps because – he’s trailed as ‘one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in the art world’ (full disclosure: I was asked to appear in some guise in the programme, but declined). Anyway, the show’s tone is Identikit reality TV fare – a set of silly tasks and crashing verdicts that are peppered with a cheeky voiceover and incidental music.

In the same vein is the yet-to-be-aired ArtStar on US network Bravo, produced by that well-known art world luminary, Sarah Jessica Parker. The only other judge revealed so far is Simon de Pury, who’s no stranger to publicity, or indeed to the conflation of art with the world of pop music, seen here belittling his profession to a thumping Euro-house soundtrack and now fresh from his Saturday night auction/performance, in which he sold music-related art to the live accompaniment of techno DJ Matthew Herbert.

But back to the slow creep of art on reality TV, there’s obviously a place for the kind of populist programming that can cut through the crap that the general public usually associates with our intellectually elitist art form. However, there’s also an unhealthy tendency here that assumes you can uncover artistic talent like you can with a singer or rock star – by putting them in front of an audience or a panel of judges and expecting them to perform, explain and show off their work.

Apart from some cash, an exhibition, a studio space and some residual fame, will such talent spotting ever result in serious appreciation for any of the so-called Next Big Things plucked from obscurity? British artist Phil Collins has already explored the phenomenon of the negative impact such makeover/reality/talk shows can have on its participants in a piece for the Turner Prize in 2006 called Shady Lane. Maybe he’ll be counselling fellow artists from now on: Do you feel your life has been ruined by your appearance on television?

Let’s all pretend it’s all going to be OK

FriezeFairSosnowksa.jpgWitnessing the first throngs of yet another busy fair opening, it’s odd to observe what a delicate house of cards this whole art world of ours is, not to mention that I am sat in the ironically flimsy tent of the Frieze Art Fair, this year given an even more precarious feel by a mysterious dent caused by Monika Sosnowska’s crash-landed sculpture which was removed from the roof before the opening (amazingly because the artist felt it looked too dishonest).

Across town, away from the moneyed aisles of the fair (where everyone is kidding everyone else that it’s a good year) is an interesting show called ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ at Tate Modern, which piques the whole fragile institution of the contemporary art market. Its starting point is the vagary of late cash-for-portraits Warhol and his assertion that ‘good business is the best art’. What follows is a torrid wave of money- and publicity-hungry artists leaping from Keith Haring and Martin Kippenberger to Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami et al.

There’s much of the vulgar boom-time art that was discussed a couple of weeks ago here, but also some of the career-making moves of artists (whether knowingly or not) such as David Robbins and Gavin Turk. Continue reading “Let’s all pretend it’s all going to be OK”

New, newest, now, next

It’s the dawn of a new age. No, not another,tate-triennial-01 deeper stratum to the credit crunch, but a new era of art is upon us and it’s called the ‘Altermodern’. So says French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who was also responsible for that other recent frisson of novel art-speak, Relational Aesthetics, which – for better or worse – is now firmly established in our repertoire of recognized terminology.

The ‘Altermodern’ is more contentious, not only for being launched by a showy exhibition at the Tate, but also for being far more numinous and complex. Put simply it posits a post-postmodern situation in which modernism is fractured further and has no central geographical focus. These ‘other’ modernities take place simultaneously through an international network of production, with a constellation of ideas pulsing through various media and means of communication. Altermodern artists are nomadic flañeurs and the work is characterised by translation and heterogeneity.

Is any of this terribly new, however? The post-colonial diaspora of artists and the ‘glocal’ proliferation of biennials has long been a point of discussion, Jonathan Neil recently cited Noel Carroll’s definition of the ‘transnational’ and notions of the ‘other’ have been around for decades in Derrida, Kristeva, Said and others.

Even though you can’t all see the Altermodern show (which I liked despite its flaws), you can watch the video, read the manifesto and join the debate, in which most newspaper critics have waded in with a mixture of incomprehension and vitriol. Personally, while another impenetrable ‘ism’ is not necessarily the solution to tidying up the art history books of the 21st century, I appreciate that it does at least take some courage to usher in any kind of movement that doesn’t have an easily marketable model like the YBAs or the Chindian set.

Join the oligarty party

The art world’s love affair with Russian money continues. After Roman Abramovich snapped up works byphillips Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, he then shipped half of London’s arterati to the opening of his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova’s CCC Garage in Moscow. Now auction house Phillips de Pury & Co have been bought by Russian retail giant, the Mercury Group, who also hosted Gagosian’s first foray into the lucrative emerging market with a 2007 showcase at their Luxury Village mall. Although Simon de Pury will remain chairman and no doubt auctioneer, the obvious next step will be to try and set up shop in Russia and shore up some of the lucrative business opportunities there.

This seems to be part of a concerted masterplan to muscle in on traditional Sothebys and Christie’s territories, not least back in London where Phillips de Pury have done a sponsorship deal with the new Saatchi Gallery to allow free entrance for the public when it opens this week. Not only does the auction house get a dedicated gallery in the Saatchi Gallery, but there’s also a tacit agreement that the collector will sell through Phillips in the future (although how the relationship will weather this news remains to be seen). What next for the great Russian takeover? White Cubeski, Tate Petersburg or MoscoMA?

The Hirstian knot

bimhf-hirst-with-the-goldDamien Hirst’s decision to sell 223 new pieces direct to auction at Sotheby’s on 15 and 16 September represents the breaking of an unwritten rule: thou shalt not defile your dealer. While threatening the very gallery system that helped to make him a household name by selling his work in the first place (and supposedly nurturing and protecting his interests too), Hirst’s solo venture simultaneously slopes the playing field firmly in favour of the artist. He’s not only temporarily freed himself from his artist-dealer honour code, but now attempting to exercise some influence, if not exactly control, over his own market.

It’s recently become clear that Hirst’s 100-strong production line of artisans are producing more than his London gallery can handle, which in turn suggests that he needs this new outlet (if not going so far as to prove that supply has outstripped demand just yet). But could this firesale of familiar-looking works not perhaps herald a brave new world for artists and turn out to be a good thing for the market, allowing some transparency and public visibility into how artist’s reputations are made, for example? Or will such sales be more like grisly art market entertainment, providing on-the-spot popularity contests and some gallows-style bating if the sales should flop disastrously?

There are even suggestions that Murakami will be the next to follow suit, signaling an even deeper shift of power from galleries to auction houses, which may then open the floodgates to similarly commercial-minded artists the world over (Chinese artists are already used to this practice I believe). Hirst has never played by the rules, famously flouting the usual 50/50 split with his galleries, but does this spell the end of the art market as we know it? He divides opinion like no one else, so let’s have a vote. He’s either Damien 666 – the devil in disguise – or Damien 999 (dial 911 in the US) – the art world’s very own emergency services, coming to save the day. Which way do you see it?

Any old collector will do

FreudNude.jpgNow that we know who has been paying top dollar at the auctions (Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club as well as a whole lotta gas and oil) this more or less proves that we are relying on the super-rich to hold the buoyant market aloft. There has been a lot of talk about how the art world is staving off signs of a recession thanks to these new ’emerging market’ buyers, but might this trend have further ramifications for the business?

For example, will the dealers cease to hold back their best work for the supposed ‘best’ collectors and museums, preferring instead to keep cashflow high by offloading to those simply holding the biggest, loosest purses? Maybe galleries have been disingenuous all along, merely paying lip service to the sacred idea of artist representation and not really carefully vetting what sells to whom at all. While you can’t stop anyone from buying at auction (indeed, Abramovich might start to be taken seriously as a collector after his recent purchases), will money run roughshod over the hearts and minds of those in the primary market in the same way? Or should I just take my rose-tinted blinkers off?

Art fairs don’t die they just multiply

ArtCologne.jpeg Maastricht, Armory, Basel, Frieze, Arco, Miami, of course. But Bologna, Abu Dhabi, Rotterdam, Minneapolis and Stockholm? Who goes to these fairs and are they really necessary? Judging by a hilarious and despairing account of selling absolutely nothing at the recent Art Cologne (read his candid fair obituary here), dealer Kenny Schachter seems to be advocating a cull in the number of deadwood art fairs. Cologne’s problems are well documented and numerous leadership wrangles mean that it’ll get another revamp next year, but to what end?

Similarly, it was with much trepidation that a gaggle of young London dealers sloped off to the newly reborn Art Chicago, formerly the US’s pre-eminent art fair, to exhibit in the invited section of its contemporary sideshow NEXT. What concerns most of them is that the new owners Merchandise Mart (who also own the Armory, Volta and the Toronto Fair) were simultaneously holding three other fairs in the same building (The M. Mart International Antiques Fair, The Artist Project and the Intuit Show of Outsider and Folk Art) under the banner of Artropolis, like some kind of multi-storey monster-truck car park for art.

Despite the mild protestations of their president Chris Kennedy (yes, of that family) – ‘We’re not trying to be the Macy’s of the art world’– Merchandise Mart’s new financial muscle and the windy city’s track record suggest that Chicago deserves another crack of the whip, but when will some of these other art fairs learn to just quietly lay down and die? Oh, and how many dealers do you know ever admit to selling very little or nothing at all?

We pay, you stay: US museums look more attractive

HP_20061208151116_001.JPG With all the empty directorial posts floating around (the Guggenheim, the National Gallery in London etc) and the brain drain that is steadily sucking talent from institutions towards the commercial art sector, museums are having to cough up big in order to keep their best staff from straying. For the most part, the bar is still way below corporate CEO standards, but who’s to say that Phillipe de Montebello didn’t richly deserve his recent $4 million golden pat on the back, after 30 years of solid service to the Metropolitan, America’s largest and most complex arts institution?

However, while museum directors should be handsomely paid for guarding our national treasures (don’t get me started on ‘dodgy’ expense accounts) and no ceiling price can be placed on talent, there is a clear disparity developing between what a museum director gets paid in the US and what he or she would get in Europe. What is the difference between Glenn Lowry’s job at MoMA and say, Nick Serota’s at Tate, apart of course from the gaping $750,000 chasm in earnings (Lowry’s $1.14 million compared to Serota’s $390,000 all in, according to The Art Newspaper)?

Perhaps this is easy to answer given the different funding options available to both men – rich trustees and donors on one side of the Atlantic and poor government funding and limited handouts on the other. But this doesn’t tell the whole story, because Tate is still wealthy enough to run four separate sites in Britain concurrently and build a  £215m extension to Tate Modern (having announced a record 7.7m visitors for last year). Perhaps, in Europe, we expect our public servants to be just that and no more. How long before the museum director post becomes so devalued over here that all eligible candidates begin defecting to the team with the biggest financial clout?

Engineering the (stealth) blockbuster

Unknown MonetCan you cook up a blockbuster? This is what one curator in a prominent London institution (no names) came to ask me, for a series of interviews that may or may not result in the magic formula for big box-office success. There are various ingredients you need for the cauldron of course; a big-name artist, a spectacular debut or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a press deluge and an overstuffed gift shop.

Getting thousands of people through the doors of an exhibition every day used to be so easy – bring in Monet, Matisse, Picasso or all three (Motisso?) – and listen to the cash registers ring out. Nowadays the hugely increased financial pressures of staging such mega-exhibitions – from insurance and shipping to marketing and advertising – mean that the anatomy of a blockbuster show is having to change.

Later this year in London there are a couple of old-fashioned crowd-pullers – terracotta warriors and China coming to the British Museum and Tutankhamun at the old Millennium Dome (now ‘The 02’ venue) – but these are tried and tested recipes. Some museums are now resorting to what I call ‘Stealth Blockbusters’, which on the surface promise the big names and jaw-dropping experience, but can often deceive through clever titles or curating by the back door. For example, the Royal Academy (which has cancelled ‘The Arts in Latin America 1492-1820’ from its autumn slot, because it can’t afford to ship the 250 pieces from LACMA) has recently put on ‘The Unknown Monet’ and ‘Impressionists by the Sea’, which were worthy, scholarly shows with few outright masterpieces. However, once given the sheen of blockbuster glamour and the catchy title, they hit the headlines – and presumably their visitor targets.

Robert Storr put it well before unveiling his Venice Biennale: ‘Once you have enthralled the public enough to get them through the doors, one of the greatest tasks of museums and curators is disenthralling.’ But how long do we wait before we come stomping out of our museums demanding our money back for misrepresentation?