Art market

The fine line between curating and promoting : the problems of exhibiting contemporary art

It is almost impossible for a museum to mount a contemporary exhibition without the involvement of the artist's dealer


The excellent Richard Prince exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery raises important issues that all public galleries may sometimes face (p11). In 1983 Iwona Blazwick and I presented a show by Richard Prince at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Prince emerged as part of a generation of politically-aware American artists, including Jenny Holzer, Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman. The exhibition included three works now on display at the Serpentine but then the financial value of those pieces was very low. Since the 80s all those artists have entered the market, albeit in different ways. However, one thing they had in common was an interest in what the market could do for them—certainly in terms of wider distribution—as much as what they could do for the market. In this respect they were quite distinct from some politically-orientated senior artists, who were highly equivocal about the art market.

This shift in approach was typified by the artist Leon Golub in an interview for “State of the Art”, a 1987 television series on the UK’s Channel Four. We had put on a show called “Mercenaries and Interrogations” at the ICA in 1982. The works are big, vivid, figurative images of people being tortured and intimidated. They are very political and, we thought, not at all commercial. And then, to the surprise of many, Charles Saatchi bought several. I asked Leon how he felt about that, and he said: “You can say Saatchi ... takes possession of my mind, of my art. But then I enter his home or his environment. I put my mercenaries there.” Thus, over the past 25 years, two issues come into play: there are many more collectors willing to buy a greater diversity of work—including pieces that previously were seen as political, with lower commercial value—and a generational shift among artists, who became more conscious of how they wanted to be positioned vis à vis the market.

Today, no curator can afford to be ignorant of the market. If you are, you will soon learn a hard lesson when you try to mount an exhibition by a “hot” artist. Either you will find it very difficult to secure loans, or you may come under pressure from collectors or dealers to include particular works.

All institutions have some impact on the credibility of an artist, and that in turn may affect prices. It is unlikely that the Serpentine will at this point have any inflationary influence on the market for an artist as successful as Richard Prince. But the potential impact is something that all of us working in museums have to be aware of. In the 1970s and 1980s the German economist Willi Bongard produced a guide for collectors called Kunstkompass, comparing the top-selling 100 artists each year against a points system he had devised. He would award points for museum shows, favourable reviews, catalogues, and so on—something like 20 for a show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and 16 for a show at the Tate at Millbank—and then he would produce a points-to-price ratio, working out who was good value. The winner was almost always Joseph Beuys, who scored highly from the museum shows, yet his prices were comparatively low. Bongard’s larger message, however, was that every institution adds some points, but the degree of market influence is often about timing.

Exhibitions in public institutions come about for different reasons, but you always have to be clear that what you are doing is for the public benefit. After that the largest potential minefield for publicly-funded museums and galleries is maintaining the integrity of the programme when you are obliged to find additional funding. You may try and find an appropriate commercial sponsor for an exhibition, but never want to be in a position that if you don’t get a sponsor you have to drop the show.

Inevitably there is a relationship between the museum and an artist’s dealer because it is almost impossible to mount a contemporary exhibition without their involvement. If they don’t want you to do it, they will make sure that, in effect, you can’t. Theoretically you might borrow all the work from others, but practically it is very difficult. The relationship needs clarity and integrity on both sides. The dealer provides access to information, images and collectors and they may agree to purchase catalogues, which will reduce the net cost. There are also occasions when a dealer might, in a quite direct way, express a particular view about a work and stress its importance. Depending on how well you know them, you have to gauge whether that is simply a knowledgeable and objective opinion, or is highly subjective because they want to keep in with a certain collector, or assure the collector of the wider validation of the work. It is one of the reasons that it is sometimes better to keep a curator working directly on the exhibition, and leave the relationship with the dealer to the museum director.

Whatever the relationship with a dealer, it should never be based on cash. It would be very difficult to maintain the perceived independence of your curator in choosing the right works if your institution was taking funding from the source helping make the works available. It works the other way as well. In the 1970s, when I was deputy to Nicholas Serota at Modern Art Oxford we discussed the possibility of taking a percentage from sales of works on show—if any were made. For those of us working in small-scale, financially fragile, institutions (as it was then) it seemed logical to earn something if a work sold during the run of the show, particularly if an artist was being exposed to early critical interest. The late Bryan Robinson created brilliant programmes at the Whitechapel in the 1950s and 1960s apparently on no money at all, and it was quite well known that he worked with dealers and artists to try to raise money from sales. But we soon realised the disadvantages. Dealers could easily avoid revealing their sales and, of course, it undermined the independence necessary in the public sphere.

It is also common, and desirable, to take works directly from the artist’s studio, because you are often worried when planning a show over three or four years that by the time you open, everything will have been seen. Of course by “seen” you really mean seen in the art world and it could be argued that, as the paramount responsibility of the public gallery is to the public at large, it might not matter. But it may still affect the level of critical interest and publicity you can generate around your exhibition. This links to the issue of artists co-curating exhibitions, as is often the case and is an integral part of the Serpentine show. There are artists, such as Richard Prince, who see the exhibition as an extension of their work. An exhibition like this is really an artist’s project, which is perfectly valid.

Conversely there are concerns regarding collectors, especially as many of them are museum supporters. Everyone tends to be cautious if one collector has dominated the ownership of an artist’s work, in which case mounting an exhibition might be an aggrandisement of their interests rather than serving the public. Most museums in the UK take the view that they will not exhibit a collector’s collection on its own unless there is an explicit commitment to donate some or all of that collection. Of course you could say, “but the public may still want to see the collection, the public doesn’t care about the price, the public cares about access to works that would otherwise be on private walls”. Nevertheless I think that none of us working in public museums wants to feel that an individual has an opportunity to exploit the public sector.

So what is the difference between a multimillionaire collector and a multimillionaire artist with their own personal collection? The answer is: probably a lot less than there used to be. But however discerning the collectors’ tastes or however famous the collection, they are not the originators of the works. That is why it is one rule for the collector and another for the artist. When the curating is undertaken by the artist, creator status trumps other concerns, as the artist’s creative intelligence is of pre-eminent interest.

The writer is director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, and a member of the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee. He was speaking to Jane Morris

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The fine line between curating and promoting'