Analysis United Kingdom

Size matters. Why is the work getting bigger?

The growth of private museums means alpha collectors have space to fill and the means to do it

Heading for the Garage: Jason Rhoades, "Untitled", 2004, at the Art Unlimited section of Art Basel 2011

In 2007, when the art market was at its peak, I was struck how contemporary art was growing—physically. “Buyers Say Big Is Best” was the title of an article published by The Art Newspaper during Art Basel Miami Beach; in it we noted the presence of a 24-foot wall of Roni Horn c-prints, a 26-foot high Jaume Plensa sculpture and Christoph Büchel’s Training Ground for Training Ground for Democracy, 2007, a scaled-down, but still immense version of the aborted project for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. It sold, for $250,000, to the Flick collection in Berlin.

There was a pause in this physical inflation following the 2008 slump. That December, art advisor Todd Levin commented at the same Florida fair: “All those huge installations have disappeared; now people want domestic-size art that they can live with.” But judging by the two key art events this year, the Venice Biennale and Art Basel, the pendulum seems to have swung back towards bigger art, both for commissioned works and for those offered on the market.

The biennale is a showcase for artists, and their countries, and national pride demands that the pavilions should make a bold statement and have maximum impact. This year a number of the projects are like theatrical environments, and some required substantial investment, including Mike Nelson’s building-within-a-building at the British pavilion, or the chapel produced as a tribute to the recently deceased artist Christoph Schlingensief in Germany’s presentation. Some works even spill outside, such as Allora and Calzadilla’s upturned tank in front of the US pavilion. In the Arsenale, Urs Fischer scaled up a Renaissance marble statue to 15 feet tall—and turned it into a towering candle. François Pinault’s museum, the Palazzo Grassi, has an installation by Joana Vasconcelos which has infested the central staircase, like a colourful, multi-armed octopus crawling right up to the second floor, while Loris Gréaud’s Gunpowder Forest Bubble, 2008, is a whole room of ghostly black trees.

Art Basel was notable this year for a clear scaling up of the works on offer, and not only in the Art Unlimited section, created in 2000 specifically for oversized works. In the main fair, large works by Richard Serra, Nam June Paik and Jannis Kounellis were so big that actually getting them into the fair proved problematic.

Big works, however, are exactly what many of today’s alpha collectors want. With the growth of private museums, they have space to fill and the means to do so. They also want works with huge visual impact: contemporary art spaces, be they private or public, need to grip visitors, give them an “experience” and send them away thinking “wow!” Size is one of the ways of achieving this.

And the spaces available for art are breathtakingly huge today—just filling them can be a challenge. The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow, for example, boasts 8,500 sq. m—certainly big enough for the vast Jason Rhoades installation, about eight by 12 metres, which was suspended eight metres up from the floor at Art Unlimited and which went to Garage founder Dasha Zhukova. For comparison, the Grand Palais in Paris offers 13,500 sq. m, which last month Anish Kapoor successfully filled with his inflated structure Leviathan (the name says it all). Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, at 3,400 sq. m, is generally considered a tough call to fill, but it looks small compared to the Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, which will have 11 such spaces for site-specific works in its 31,000 sq. m of exhibition space, when completed.

Commissioning and acquiring art has always been a way for the wealthy and powerful to affirm their position, taste, influence and money; and there is nothing new either about huge spaces to display it in. This was true in the private sphere—look at the palaces of the great Renaissance patrons—as well as the religious and political spheres (from medieval European churches to the massive mosques of the Islamic world, or the kingship-affirming size of Versailles, the Forbidden City or the Hermitage in St Petersburg).

And while such grandiose projects make our own 21st-century efforts look modest, “there seems to be revival of classic artistic patronage with works, often monumental ones, commissioned for reasons beyond private art appreciation,” says András Szántó, author and consultant to cultural institutions (and contributing editor of The Art Newspaper). “There is now such tremendous wealth in the world that major projects are possible: patrons are in a position to purchase or commission works of great size and scope. And just as we love, today, going to those medieval churches, perhaps one day our descendants will love going to a museum originally founded by a hedge-funder in the early 21st century.”

But a note of warning was sounded during an Art Basel panel moderated by Szántó and entitled “How Will Museums Be Able to Collect?”, which brought together Tate Modern director Chris Dercon, Guggenheim chief curator Nancy Spector and the V&A’s incoming director Martin Roth. During the discussions, Dercon noted that “just because something is big, it’s not necessarily good”. And Szántó concludes: “The size of art also reflects the evolution of domestic, gallery and museum architecture, which are increasingly gigantic, and the emergence of artists in countries such as China or India where production costs are so low: where else but in China could you produce 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds, as Ai Weiwei did for his Turbine Hall installation?”

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31 Jul 12
15:34 CET


Thanks so much for the post! This is exactly what has gone wrong with the art world. People just want big, not necessarily good. Real artists that make thoughtful works of art are in danger of bankruptcy. Is this the world we want to live in?

1 Aug 11
15:6 CET


Double edged sword--having a huge space to show one's collection puts pressure to keep buying large scale works to fill the spaces yearly and to buy perhaps indiscriminately since the public generally goes to those spaces to see new works, not permanent installations or individual works of art (unlike a real museum.) Having/maintaing a large art space/"museum" really has nothing to do with being a good collector or having a vision or intellectual position or providing a curated, thoughtful exhibition. It simply demonstrates the tastes of someone who buys a lot of art yearly and spends tons of money.

29 Jul 11
17:25 CET


I think he made a valid point, that is being pointed out through the Art world. He needed to add, "I don't know whats good anymore"

27 Jul 11
17:50 CET


Wow! Such insight in Chris Dercon's remark, "just because something is big, it’s not necessarily good.” What will people in the art world think of next?

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