ARTREVIEW’S GUIDE TO THE POWER 100S VARIOUS PLAYERS
Art critics get a bad rap at the moment and many see the golden age of art criticism as well and truly over. Gone are the days when famous critics like Clement Greenberg or David Sylvester passing Olympian judgement on the work of an artist could make or break careers with a well-turned sentence. Power seems to have slipped away from those whose job it is to make evaluations of what is good or bad in art, and to write about it, a situation that shows up in the Power 100. It’s surprising, because there’s no shortage of writers writing about art, and plenty of art magazines out there, so why their lack of influence within the art system? There are many theories about the weakness of art criticism: insiders joke that all publicity is good publicity. Others suggest that it’s hard to be critical about artists when it’s advertising from galleries that supports magazines Some make the argument that the function of critics has passed over to curators, when in the past it was often respected critics who curated big exhibitions of new art. And whilst good criticism still turns up in the academic press, it isn’t always accessible to a broader readership. But a lot of it has to do with postmodern culture’s indifference to absolute truths and its celebration of different perspectives. Because if your taste and opinion is just as good as mine, who needs critics? If critics are to regain the influence they once had, they will have to make the case for art being something worth arguing for, and against.
Question: Why does art look the way it does? Answer: because collectors make it that way. There is in fact no one more important in the art world than the people who buy the work. Without them, gallerists wouldn’t eat, artists would be working in TV or graphic design or the supermarket, and curators would have to find a proper job. Yet collectors are the least visible of all those who make up the art-world economy. So the question is: Are they powerful?
Collectors provide the money, and it’s what they’re prepared to pay that sets the limit for what artists can make if they want to make a living. Yet although there are a lot of them out there and, by and large, they underwrite the economy of the artword, they remain in the shadows. Dealers naturally take care to keep their business with clients a private matter and most collectors tend to act like spectators, taking advice from dealers as much as acting on their own personal taste. But when collectors become personalities, their choices become public statements of their interests: money is after all power, and collectors who choose to exercise that power independently of dealers and advisers have the potential to shift the art world’s centre of gravity. Sleeping giants? Shh! Don’t wake them!
One of the most visible changes in the art world in the last decade is the rise of the celebrity art star. Rather than living in splendid isolation from the rest of contemporary culture, artists now rub shoulders with pop stars, fashion designers and media types, lapped up by the Sunday supplements as much as the tabloid press. With the art market continuing to boom, those artists who get to the top now command truly awesome prices for their work. And once artists are there, power means dominating the exhibition circuit, courted by museums and institutions. But power in these terms can be fickle. Whilst the market shows no sign of ending its love affair with high-price artists, artists can’t necessarily afford to look only to their own success. So the more influential artists are those whose ambitions go beyond the advancement of their own careers, and who use their positions to network amongst the higher reaches of the art world’s institutions. Whether it’s advising on the boards of galleries, or on the committees of funding bodies, or judging art prizes, or curating shows themselves, artists use their reputation and their proximity to other power players to get things done and make things happen. The power of artists in the influence game can be nebulous and tricky to pin down, but given that the art world sees itself as a system revolving around the stars that are its artists, an artist’s reputation facilitates and enables. If their work is always the centre of attention, then artists enjoy the power to influence indirectly and behind the scenes, the most invisible of back-room fixers.
Arrogant, aggressive and flamboyant; love them or loath them, gallerists and dealers are the muscle of the art world. With the market for artworks constantly on the rise, the commercial gallerist takes the strange thing called art and converts it into cold, hard cash, and loads of it. But the skill of the gallerist isn’t simply the selling of artists’ work to wealthy collectors – that’s the easy bit. More than anything else, gallerists know that while artists may have the talent, rising to the top is a complex process of reputation-building, about placing their artists in the right collections, the right group shows, the right museums. In the cash-rich art world of the new millennium, it’s not good enough just to sell an artist’s work; it has to go to a good home, the right private collector, the right public collection – and be seen to do so. But for all their mercenary confidence and legendary ruthlessness, gallerists know that while their artists can only go so far without them, the bigger an artist gets, the more vulnerable a gallerist is to them jumping ship. Herding cats is probably an easier job that the combined process of courting collectors, winning over critics, academics and the media, and controlling the strange alchemical combination of public and private acknowledgement through which confidence builds around an artist’s work. Get it wrong, and you stand to loose a fortune. Get it right, achieve art-world critical mass, and an artist’s reputation (not forgetting the price tag it commands) becomes a self-sustaining reaction. More than selling work, turning artists in the stuff of future art history books is the gallerist’s holy grail.
Curators are the rising stars of a globalising artworld, a trend reflected in this year’s Power 100. With the growth in new-build public museums and art centres, and the unstoppable expansion of the international biennials, these gatekeepers to the highest level of visibility and critical prestige represent a new class of artworld fixers. Of course curators in big old museums have always been there, but the new curators are mobile and fast-moving, and increasingly hands-on about how the work of artists gets presented. And with biennials springing up everywhere from Sao Paolo to Gwangju, from Sidney to Sharjah, the new curator takes a key role in converting a knowledge of local art-scenes onto the international stage, selecting, mixing and remixing shows from the multiplying ranks of artists.
But curators aren’t just about selecting work and boosting artists’ careers. Increasingly, curators see themselves as creative agents in their own right, producing shows that emphasise their instrumental role in how art communicates, so that the phrase ‘curated by’ is often more important than the list of artists names that goes below it. Some curators now see themselves as ‘artists’ in their own right, become the authors of exhibitions, rather than just their enablers. Fusing intellectual ambition and creative egoism with entrepreneurial and institutional flair, curators have are now some of the most influential nodes in the circuits of contemporary art. But is their new-found power in danger of turning them into megalomaniacs? Be afraid, be very afraid!
They’re not artists, but everyone knows that that’s what all architects want to be. And most of the big names in the world of building design can, at several points in their careers, look forward to having one of the world’s major art institutions knocking on their doors and demanding not that they create a spectacular new building in which to house a ‘real’ artist’s work, but that they provide enough eye-pleasing visual material to stock their own shows. Of course the primary reason that architects wield power within the art world is the fact that they literally shape the landscape of art – the way in which everyone views art. Having the right architecture can, at its most extreme, be the difference between the success or failure of any new gallery or museum. And not just because putting your shop and café in the right place can have a significant impact on revenue. Good architecture can boost the profile of an institution that would otherwise be in danger of falling off the edge of the artworld map (Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, for example) and it can open up new possibilities for artists and curators when it comes to the display of work. The only question that remains, then, with regard to the inclusion of architects within the Power 100 list, is whether ultimate power resides with the people who use a building or the people who designed it.