Subodh Gupta: Very Hungry God, 2006. Coll.Francois Pinault (Palazzo Grassi, 2007)

Tijdens het 41ste Aica Congres te São Paulo in oktober 2007 sprak Maarten Bertheux als onafhankelijk curator over de huidige invloed van de kunstmarkt op het tentoonstellingbeleid van kunstmusea. Hij pleit ervoor dat musea zich aan deze invloed onttrekken en hun beleid weer richten op educatieve en maatschappelijke taken. Het beleid van Stedelijk Museum directeur Sandberg stelt hij daarbij als voorbeeld.

door Maarten Bertheux

I would like to share with you two articles I read recently in the newspapers. One appeared three weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, about a new group of art buyers: children under the age of fifteen. In America rich art collector parents are staking their children with large amounts of money annually to buy art. One boy of twelve had made a successful bid of $352,000 for a Jeff Koons sculpture of a silver gnome. The work went well with the rest of his collection that included works by Richard Prince, an airplane drawing by Andy Warhol and works by graffiti artists. A girl of fifteen concentrated on collecting artworks that are colorful. Her parents have been supporting her in her acquisitions since she was eight. The estimated annual budgets of individuals in this new group of young collectors are around $50,000. The parents feel it is important that from an early age their children should be aquatinted with art and the creation of their own art collections. Last Saturday’s International Herald Tribune mentioned that the major auction houses are continuing to sell art at a breakneck pace. In July, Christie’s International announced worldwide sales of $3.25 billion for the first six months of 2007, an increase of 32 percent over the $2.24 billion sales of the same period in 2006. In Christie’s salesrooms around the world, 385 works of art sold more than $1 million apiece, compared with 189 sold during the same period last year.

According to Marc Porter, president of Christie’s Americas, New York will remain the world’s primary sale site – and the sales that are lined up for November both for Impressionist and modern art and for postwar and contemporary art have the highest pre-sale estimates in the auctioneer’s history. Porter also says that he expects that while Europeans and Asians collect American paintings, Americans, in their postwar and contemporary collections, often buy European paintings. “Now more and more are buying Chinese contemporary art,” he says, “which is why we include Asian contemporary art in our sales. Art auctions have become truly global events – and Europeans and Asians very much want to take part in the buyout market here in New York”.

Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s head of worldwide contemporary art, points to the continuation of the bull market. He predicts that twentieth and twenty-first century art will continue to sell at a record pace for the foreseeable future. According to Meyer this is simply due to the enormous amount of wealth being created among art collectors in China, India, Russia and the Middle East. Today we don’t have a cyclical market, because now there is an increasing number of individuals from all over the world who buy with a vengeance. As Meyer says: “As far as we can tell this expanding art market hasn’t even properly started yet.”

I have to say that I used to dislike talking about the relationship between art and money. Most of the time it says more about a sociological situation than about art. Moreover, it serves to amplify the prejudices surrounding art. But today, having worked in the Stedelijk Museum for more then twenty years, I have become acutely aware of the relentlessly mounting pressures of economic and political change.

[photopress:scheibitz.jpg,full,alignleft]Thomas Scheibitz: Skilift. olieverf op doek, 220×150 cm. The Saatchi Gallery.                                                                               

I will illustrate this with some observations on my own experience as a curator and member of the management team at the Stedelijk, as it is known among insiders. The Stedelijk used to be a one of the few museums in Europe that gave opportunities to avant-garde artists and it could just get on with developing a program without any interference from politicians. Last year, however, the museum was privatized and it now has a budget of only some $350,000 to create its exhibition program. Such an inadequate budget necessitates a search for private, or corporate, sponsorship for at least the same amount. As there was no special department for development the curators were, and still are, obliged to expend valuable time on fundraising, marketing and communication. As a curator I was faced with a completely changed situation. To put together an exhibition of a young artist, say the German painter Thomas Scheibitz, the works have to be borrowed from several art collectors spread out all round the world. I quickly found that very strict contractual conditions had been imposed on such borrowings; the owners require compliance with, for example, conditions set by their own insurance company, special crates and our employment of their own couriers. The value of each individual artwork is commonly far higher than its listed value on the art market. Nowadays the owners retain exclusive professional organizations, comparable with galleries, to run their collections. Neither the galleries nor even the artists ultimately have the power to persuade the owners to demonstrate a more tolerant and generous attitude.

In the planning of the annual exhibition budget of the Stedelijk Museum we had to decide several issues. Do the exhibitions fit within the profile of the museum as a institution that follows the discourse of modern and contemporary art, yet is also expected to change people’s opinions? Then there is the likely public attendance and the possibility of support from sponsors. This year the museum wanted to organize an Andy Warhol exhibition of on top of those already planned. Even though the enormous costs of such an exhibition would have to be offset by cuts in other propositions the Warhol showing would still be a huge financial risk.

The Stedelijk has thus been forced to wake up from its historic torpor of artistic smugness and become more efficient in order to enter the cut-throat art market run by corporate managers. Museums like the Tate, Pompidou, the Guggenheim and MOMA have become art companies run by managers who spend more time fundraising than in artistic leadership. These museums are branches, or franchises, that must conform with the strictures of the marketplace. They have become multinationals by making dependencies of the Guggenheim earn money and sell their product. Pompidou will soon have its satellites in Nancy and Shanghai; the Louvre is opening a museum in Abu Dhabi at a cost of six hundred thousand million dollars.

[photopress:louvre_abu_dhabi.jpg,full,alignleft] Louvre Abu Dhabi. Ontwerp Jean Nouvel 

Museums are now part of the so-called experience economy. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore in the book The Experience Economy point out that instead of manufacturing things companies can now invest in non-material experiences. Hence we build museums designed by architects like Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. And as Jeremy Rifkin describes in The Age of Access: “At the same time when the commercial sphere is transforming itself from the selling of goods and services to providing access to comodified relationships, cultural productions, and lived experiences, the dramaturgical perspective provides just the right methodology for making sense of this new way of conducting business.” So visiting a museum becomes a theatrical experience in which the public are performers on a stage provided by the paintings arranged in a highly designed space.

A museum’s promotion is forced to adjust to fashion. But since museums cannot deal with things that have yet to be made and possess only artworks that have already been executed and hence cannot be changed, the displays of many museums follow certain fixed tracks: if Gerhard Richter is not hot anymore you acquire a Damien Hirst, with the result that every collection displayed in white cubes becomes interchangeable. When you enter the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo you will immediately see the Stellas, Judds and Mangolds while in some far away room you can find a work by Yayoi Kusama. But even these canonized names are no longer secure, wavering unnervingly in and out of fashion while supposedly lesser artists remain in storage. Instead of making surprising new settings that throw fresh light onto known and unknown artworks, most museums simply repeat the canonized group. Fashion narrows one’s perspective and conceals the cultural expanse. To entice the public with blockbuster artists should not be the only goal. The function of a museum nowadays should be more educational: it should create independent concepts for installations that will debate the traditions of modern art.

[photopress:kusama.jpg,full,alignleft] Yayoi Kusama: The Moment of Regeneration, 2004. National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo.

The philosopher Boris Groys posed the following questions: “How can today’s museum stimulate discussion of the significance of art separate from its economic function? What can be the importance of the museum in a media-led world?” His argument is that all new images that are being produced by say MTV, or the internet and video games, ultimately serve a commercial purpose. The new is accepted as a fact, but there is no reflection taking place, and no theoretical development. According to Groys, it is precisely the museum which is pre-eminently the place where the new – both in art and in design – can be placed in a context. It is in the museum that new phenomena can be juxtaposed with other expressions to which they are related.

Unlike the museum or the commercial gallery, the institute that has neither a collection nor private collectors can follow the market and fashion. Today private collectors dominate the art market. American and European collections like the Flick, the Goetz, Pinault, Marx and Saatchi have bought far more intensively over the past three decades than many museums. The acquisition budgets of museums are unnoticeable fractions of fractions of the budgets of private collectors. The Tate has to get past Saatchi; the Flick and Marx collections dominate the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. These two German collectors greatly influence the policy of the museum. Museums, however, with responsibilities beyond those of private collectors, acquire works to create ensembles within the existing collection or to make a wider and deeper cultural and historical range available to the public.

While it is undeniable that private collections can have a positive function, the museum should form a counterweight, displaying works and ensembles ignored by narrow fashion. We have now reached a stage where museum directors are forced to lobby private collectors to donate their artworks. In this way, as in other methods of fundraising, the European museums are to an increasing extent conforming to the Anglo-American system. But it is clear that, unlike in Britain and the US, in Europe private contribution toward funding is still considered a civic responsibility.

The European Biennales are important as long as they create debates on contemporary issues that museums are not able, or simply fail, to raise. The Biennales, however, also function as competitors in another way. The money that is invested in these events is mostly money that would otherwise go to public museums that are so desperately underfunded. Sponsors invest more in events like publicity-rich biennales than they do in museums, and especially on projects related to collections or education.

The museums should cherish their status as independent havens in a fast-changing world dominated by economic ideologies and ruthless cultural fashion. They should make firm decisions in the face of economic and political pressure. They should resist fashionable hype as the famous Stedelijk director Sandberg did from the fifties till the early seventies. He gave artists a podium on which they could successfully develop new directions in art. Under Sandberg Zero and Nouveau Realistes had their first exhibitions in a museum, exhibitions which had nothing whatever to do with the market. The museum also gave the floor to artists who were in the later phases of their careers. He organized exhibitions outside the cultural centers of Europe and America.

Sandberg is still showing us the way: art museums should define their policy along social and educational lines and should resolutely refuse to pander to the market.

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