Report: Art fair power and glamour is confirmed
Isla Leaver-Yap reports on art world activity.
With the self-proclaimed ‘hiss and fizz’ of Frieze Art Fair deflated for another year, directors Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover have once again outdone themselves in terms of profits and punters. The young pretender of world art fairs, still a tender tot at four years old, has become the most fashionable, glamourous and boisterously British fair of them all—an unprecedentedly popular 21st century salon. And amidst a spectacle of celebrity—counting Kate Moss, Saatchi and Jude Law plus entourage—it’s evident that the wealthy patrons are the ones taking the contemporary art stage rather than the art itself. The Evening Standard has coined ‘the Frieze effect’ in order to pinpoint that exact alchemy of money, market and revenue that the fair has generated. And despite Modern Institute director Toby Webster again being recruited onto the Gallery Selection Committee, and selling booths devoted to Scottish galleries doggerfisher and Sorcha Dallas, Scotland’s public awareness of the international art market seems relatively disinterested when compared with the gawping-rather-than-buying spectatorship the Financial Times attributes to around 80% of Frieze’s attendance figures. The seductive razzmatazz produced by England’s annual art event and its piggyback satellites like Zoo, not to mention this year’s concurrent Liverpool Biennial, has no match or even lesser equivalent in Scotland. But any future aspirations to emulate such big business success here would do well by paying attention to the problems that accompany the burgeoning art market in which Frieze is an ever more central player.
Whether the absence of trendy fairs is because Scotland can’t compete with the number of contemporary art galleries London has to offer, lacks the UK capital’s mix of social dynamism and international market appeal, or simply shuns the spectacle of glitzy commerce that events like Frieze thrive upon is debateable. Despite attempts of Glasgow Art Fair to replicate European art fair successes, it brings in a fraction of Frieze’s audience, and is generally overlooked in the international art fair calendar. As doggerfisher’s Susanna Beaumont points out, this may be partly due to the fact that it is compromised by being a local council funded event. ‘It’s true that the galleries that were at Frieze and Zoo have had a relatively scant profile at Glasgow Art Fair,’ she says, but goes on to cite the success of Francis McKee’s curated programme at Glasgow International (GI) and the growth of the Edinburgh Arts Festival (EAF) as evidence that there is clear public appetite for contemporary art. Beaumont adds that ‘you don’t know if there is an appetite until it’s got a supply’.
So not lack of interest, but lack of independence may be the reason for Scotland’s disenfranchisement from the wider art scene, although it’s fair to say that the odds of a serious art fair in Scotland are not historically weighted in its favour. Scotland’s traditionally conservative market is reflected in its museums and private collections. The frugal spending might be attributed to the UK-wide economic recession of the 1990s, but also goes further back to 1980s. Writer/curator Bill Hare argues that ‘a high proportion of art produced in the 1980s was geared to address, both through scale and subject, a public audience rather than a private patron’, and has thus not courted private patronage in the manner of our southern neighbour. This has prompted the commercially successful artists, such as Christine Borland, Callum Innes and Alan Michael, to have a London gallery in addition to their Scottish counterpart as a prerequisite to gaining greater international attention.
The rise and rise of Frieze has underlined the fact that art has become a vehicle for global market participation—a market that Scotland does not yet actively participate in and has not had the chance to publicly endorse. Though admittedly, publicly funded events such as GI and EAF are new attempts to change the customarily parsimonious attitude of local spenders, even if the realisation of the goal may be a good few years away. In other more recent events, the National Galleries and Tate’s joint bid to acquire the d’Offay collection has underlined NGS director general John Leighton’s commitment to expanding its meagre holdings of contemporary art and potentially improve the public’s engagement with the contemporary art scene. But any participation that Scotland chooses to take up in the future must at least come with well-labelled health warnings from the market itself. The purists may call it crude, academics may shake their heads, but websites such as artfacts.net brazenly rate artists by their market value and have outlined the idea of art as a status signifier. At the time of press the site put Douglas Gordon up six places at 29 in its Top 100 artists, while Pablo Picasso trounced Andy Warhol to the number one spot. This swelling of the contemporary art market has undoubtedly had a very direct impact on the quantity, and subsequently the quality, of art that it craves. Increasingly selective art fairs (New York’s Armory is one of many to slim down the number of exhibitors while seeing profits rise by over $15 million from their previous year) are putting greater pressure on attending galleries to present stronger rosters, while the galleries in turn put greater pressure on their artists to deliver work for the fair. In collector Adam Lindemann’s new Taschen guide ‘Collecting Contemporary’ there are numerous accounts by the likes of Sadie Coles, Márcia Fortes and Iwan Wirth, warning of ruthless market pressures that can cause the artist’s work to suffer. Fortes even goes on to label the rapid growth of art fairs as ‘cancerous’, while other dealers point to a distaste of fairs because their works tend to look worse in the cheek-by-jowl setting of a fair than in the more considered, intimate setting of their own home galleries. And yet revealingly, for a book focusing on advice for the rookie collector, Collecting Contemporary lacks any interviews with artists’ responses to the collecting world. Lindemann appears distrustful of the artists’ ability to comment on the world of collecting—something of an irony given that the popularisation of contemporary collecting has unquestionably changed the working practice of artists. Pessimists may say that this change has been one geared towards market production that has severely compromised artists’ ability to create a substantial body of work, instead encouraging artists to create more consumable editions, or scaled-down versions of works that might suit, as the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins says, ‘the good-looking sofa and the elegant side lamp’. Yet Lindemann’s omission is interesting.
Certainly, the role of the artist in the art fair also seems minimal in contrast to that of the collectors and, equally significant, that of the fair’s private funders. In fact, this year’s Frieze sees an expansion to a jaw-dropping 18 commercial sponsors—a considerable achievement bearing in mind they also receive public funding. The two wings of Frieze are Frieze Events Ltd, and the non-profit Frieze Foundation. The latter is in charge of education, budget projects and music programme and attracts public funding from the likes of the European Commission and the Gulbenkian Foundation. This lucrative and shrewd twinning of private investment and public funding is perhaps defining a new era of privatisation—a kind of brassy hustle that London manoeuvres slickly in and Scotland baulks at. Though on a micro level, the Modern Institute has recently split into the semi-commercial Modern Institute gallery and Toby Webster Ltd.
This financial boom of Frieze itself has, of course, fuelled the flurry of activity. The competition between celebrity buying and museum buying is getting ever fiercer, which can either be exciting or stressful depending on one’s ability to handle the heat on the floor. But although the big private collectors like Peter Brant or Charles Saatchi make and break the market by going for what they simply enjoy, museums still have to cope with what they can get their hands on in a market that shows a huge breadth of work so contemporary that much of it hasn’t yet achieved critical or market value. As well as this, the strengthening market has contributed to a steep rise in demand for independent curators, whose salaries are luring the institutions’ staffcurators away and, in the long term, may prove to be disastrous for those institutions that rely on in-house budgets. At ArtForum, Berlin’s art fair in September this year, an international panel of museum directors and curators Beatrix Ruf, Suzanne Titz, Shamim Momin and Nicolaus Schafhausen all agreed that the growth in the market has led to a certain amount of contemporary art ‘chaos’. Some dealers, buoyed by market success, now stand accused of developing tactical strategies rather than relationships with museums. It is of course true that the lending of art works to museum shows can increase market value through the stamp of museum quality. It is also true that certain private gallerists have prevented museum shows going ahead, refusing to let their artist take part in a group exhibition—instead demanding a solo show. So it seems necessary that dealers, museum directors and curators have to find new ways of participating with, instead of seeing themselves distinct from, market forces. ‘I’m not a mono-identity,’ Titz concurs. ‘I’m part of the market.’ Her collaboration with Toby Webster to conceive the Museum Abteiburg exhibition Strange I’ve Seen That Face Before was highly praised in this respect.
Although such dialogues across the public and private sectors still need development, there is more than a hint of relief that comes with John Leighton and Nick Serota’s bid for Anthony d’Offay’s huge collection. D’Offay is part of a fading tradition when it comes to private collectors donating to public museums. Instead, many private collectors are moving towards creating their own museums in opposition to the publicly funded ones. Ruf voices concern that, as a result of the private museum, there is a lessening of art feeding back into a collective archive, though thanks to d’Offay’s generosity this is not the case for NGS. Beaumont, however, speaks more positively about Scotland’s potential role: ‘It feels like there is a lot of syncronicity in recent events: John Leighton’s arrival at the NGS, coinciding with the d’Offay acqusition, which coincides with Jonathan Mills asking Katrina Brown to curate new projects for the next EAF, which coincides with other things too. Something is in the air—the feeling of a collective community.’ And certainly, Scotland could attempt to follow the Frieze success with the adequate caution espoused by wary curators and dealers alike. Yet the future prosperity of the art, as well as its market, lies in the willingness of its private collectors to take a responsible role for the benefit of a public archive.
Isla Leaver-Yap is assistant editor of Map