Charles Saatchi has been collecting art for the last 30 years and showing it, for the last 20, in his own gallery in London. In its early days, the Saatchi Gallery mounted landmark exhibitions of American artists including Donald Judd, Brice Marden, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Jeff Koons and Robert Gober, giving British audiences unprecedented exposure to this work. Following the stock market crash of 1989, Saatchi sold most of his blue-chip works to become contemporary British art’s most enthusiastic champion, in the process launching the careers of some of today’s best known artists. Now his interests have shifted again, and he is currently installing his gallery at County Hall with an entirely new display of European paintings. Here Charles Saatchi answers questions—the first time ever that he has been prepared to do so on the record—submitted by The Art Newspaper and its readers. His responses provide a unique insight into a man who is arguably Britain’s greatest collector of the past two decades; his only rivals are Lord Lloyd Webber who buys the pre-Raphaelites and Nasser D. Khalili who collects Islamic art.
The Art Newspaper: You have been described both as a “supercollector” and as “the most successful art dealer of our times”. Looking back on the past 20 years, how would you characterise your activities?
Charles Saatchi: Who cares what I’m described as? Art collectors are pretty insignificant in the scheme of things. What matters and survives is the art.
I buy art that I like. I buy it to show it off in exhibitions. Then, if I feel like it, I sell it and buy more art. As I have been doing this for 30 years, I think most people in the art world get the idea by now. It doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind about the art that I end up selling. It just means that I don’t want to hoard everything forever.
TAN: Your practice of buying emerging artists’ work has proved highly contagious and is arguably the single greatest influence on the current market because so many others, both veteran collectors and new investors, are following your lead, vying to snap up the work of young, relatively unknown, artists. Do you accept that you are responsible for much of the speculative nature of the contemporary art market?
CS: I hope so. Artists need a lot of collectors, all kinds of collectors, buying their art.
TAN: Do you think this speculation has inflated prices for contemporary art over the last decade? Do you expect the bubble to burst soon?
CS: Yes. No.
TAN: Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility towards the artists whose work you collect? Artists who benefited from your patronage in the late 70s and early 80s, such as Sean Scully and Sandro Chia, felt an acute sense of betrayal when you off-loaded their work in bulk on to the market. In the case of Chia, you have been accused of having destroyed his career. Do you regret how you handled these artists’ works?
CS: I don’t buy art to ingratiate myself with artists, or as an entrée to a social circle. Of course, some artists get upset if you sell their work. But it doesn’t help them whimpering about it, and telling anyone who will listen.
Sandro Chia, for example, is most famous for being dumped. At last count I read that I had flooded the market with 23 of his paintings. In fact, I only ever owned seven paintings by Chia. One morning I offered three of them back to Angela Westwater, his New York dealer where I had originally bought them, and four back to Bruno Bischofberger his European dealer where, again, I had bought those. Chia’s work was tremendously desirable at the time and all seven went to big-shot collectors or museums by close of day.
If Sandro Chia hadn’t had a psychological need to be rejected in public, this issue would never have been considered of much interest. If an artist is producing good work, someone selling a group of strong ones does an artist no harm at all, and in fact can stimulate their market.
TAN: What do you look for when buying a work of art?
CS: There are no rules I know of.
TAN: Whom, if anyone, do you listen to for advice when buying art?
CS: Nobody can give you advice after you’ve been collecting for a while. If you don’t enjoy making your own decisions, you’re never going to be much of a collector anyway. But that hasn’t stopped the growing army of art advisers building “portfolio” collections for their clients.
TAN: When you express interest in an artist, the art world takes immediate notice. The result is a rise in prices. Do you ever try to buy works anonymously to prevent this from happening?
TAN: Are you ever concerned about your influence on taste, when it comes to contemporary British art? Does it worry you that your purchases (or sales) have an impact on the market? Or is this something you enjoy?
CS: I never think too much about the market. I don’t mind paying three or four times the market value of a work that I really want. Just ask the auction houses.
As far as taste is concerned, as I stated earlier, I primarily buy art in order to show it off. So it’s important for me that the public respond to it and contemporary art in general.
TAN: Which do you enjoy more: the hunt involved in collecting or the pleasure of owning major works of art?
CS: Both are good.
TAN: How do you decide what to sell and when to sell it?
CS: There is no logic or pattern I can rely on. I don’t have a romantic attachment to what could have been. If I had kept all the work I had ever bought it would feel like Kane sitting in Xanadu surrounded by his loot. It’s enough to know that I have owned and shown so many masterpieces of modern times.
TAN: Do you believe in philanthropy? Do you believe that people who are rich and successful have a responsibility towards society?
CS: The rich will always be with us.
TAN: You are a generous lender to exhibitions. However, some of your donations to art schools and colleges are arguably just a way of purging your collection of second-rate art that will be hard to sell. Is this a fair judgement?
CS: The artists whose work I have given to the national collections probably wouldn’t thank you for your judgement of their work. And, for example, a large four-panelled Glenn Brown work I gave to the Arts Council would be easy to sell, and for about $500,000.
I obviously like the work I give away, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought it. But would I be a nicer person if I gave away all the most popular works in my gallery?
TAN: What made you decide to open a gallery to the public? Did you feel it was some sort of public duty or were there more pragmatic reasons?
CS: I like to show off art I like.
TAN: Have you ever fallen in love with the work of an artist whose work was unsellable, for example, a performance artist or someone who creates massive public installations?
CS: Lots of ambitious work by young artists ends up in a dumpster after its warehouse debut.
So an unknown artist’s big glass vitrine holding a rotting cow’s head covered by maggots and swarms of buzzing flies may be pretty unsellable. Until the artist becomes a star. Then he can sell anything he touches.
But mostly, the answer is that installation art like Richard Wilson’s oil room [purchased by Saatchi in 1990] is only buyable if you’ve got somewhere to exhibit it. I was always in awe of Dia for making so many earthworks and site-specific installations possible; that is the exception; a collector whose significance survives.
In short, sometimes you have to buy art that will have no value to anyone but you, because you like it and believe in it.
The collector I have always admired most, Count Panza Di Biumo, was commissioning large installations by Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin at a time when nobody but a few other oddballs were interested.
TAN:Which artists do you display in your own home? Are you constantly changing the works you have there? Is there a core of favourites which stay there?
CS: My house is a mess, but any day now we’ll get round to hanging some of the stacks of pictures sitting on the floor.
TAN: Excluding shows in your own gallery, what have been your favourite three exhibitions, either in a museum or commercial gallery, in the last 20 years?
CS: I’m restricting myself to non-blockbusters, so no Picasso at MoMA or El Greco at the National Gallery or the dozen other spectaculars I gratefully lapped up: 1. Clyfford Still at the Metropolitan Museum New York (1980); 2. Jeff Koons at International with Monument Gallery, New York (December 1985), 3. Goldsmiths College MA degree show (1997).
TAN: Why don’t you attend your own openings?
CS: I don’t go to other people’s openings, so I extend the same courtesy to my own.
TAN: Do you think the UK press treats you unfairly?
CS: No. If you can’t take a good kicking, you shouldn’t parade how much luckier you are than other people.
TAN: Were you surprised that the National Gallery of Australia chose to opt out of taking the “Sensation” exhibition in 2000? How do you respond to the chief reason given for the cancellation, which was a serious concern about “museum ethics” in the blurring of lines between public and private interests? The then-director, Brian Kennedy, even wrote an essay about museum ethics, to which he directed the attention of the media. Do you feel there was any question of ethics involved?
CS: The National Gallery pulled out of “Sensation” because it was causing a kerfuffle in New York at the time, and some of your fine local politicians decided to jump on the bandwagon. Brian Kennedy rolled over and who can blame him. Life’s hard enough without looking to be a hero.
But “museum ethics” was just a feeble attempt to build a smoke screen. The central issue was the power of religious groups who it was feared would be enraged by a Black Madonna “covered” in elephant dung.
TAN: Did you personally burn, or did you contract with a professional arsonist to burn, your warehouse filled with your art?
CS: It wasn’t terrifically amusing the first time dull people came up with this. Now it’s the 100th time.
TAN: The concerns of an advertising executive centre upon novelty, immediacy of impact, and relevance to the target market. Many would say that these are the qualities that have characterised your collection. The concerns of the serious collector centre upon quality, the capacity to transcend time, high levels of skill and historical significance. To what degree do you feel these apparently divergent criteria to be in conflict?”
CS: The “adman” theory is very appealing, very popular with commentators. But the snobbery of those who think an interest in art is the province of gentle souls of rarefied sensibility never fails to amuse. Heaven forfend that anyone in “trade” should enter the hallowed portals of the aesthete.
I liked working in advertising, but don’t believe my taste in art, such as it is, was entirely formed by TV commercials. And I don’t feel especially conflicted enjoying a Mantegna one day, a Carl Andre the next day and a brash student work the next.
TAN: What do you think about the great transition in the external aesthetics of museum architecture? Is it detracting from the art within or is it now necessary to attract a bigger audience? Do you think we are now seeing the end of the white cube as a gallery space, because of the nature of modern art?
CS: If art can’t look good except in the antiseptic gallery spaces dictated by museum fashion of the last 25 years, then it condemns itself to a somewhat limited vocabulary.
In any event it is often more interesting to see art in appropriated buildings like the Schaffhausen in Switzerland, or the Arsenale in Venice, or that remarkable edifice that hosted “Zeitgeist” in Berlin. Buildings like these are flexible enough to display virtually anything an artist wants to make, and sometimes to better effect than somewhere swankily of-the-moment.
So although a Bilbao or two is thrilling, there seems little point in spending millions on creating identical, austere Modernist palaces in every world city, rather than using the money to actually buy some art. But if you’re looking for a “destination” venue that will bring happy hordes to your city, Frank Gehry is probably pretty good value.
TAN: Blake Gopnik, the Chief Art Critic for the Washington Post has stated that “painting is dead and has been dead for 40 years. If you want to be considered a serious contemporary artist, the only thing that you should be doing is video or manipulated photography.” Do you agree or disagree and why?
CS: It’s true that contemporary painting responds to the work of video makers and photographers. But it’s also true that contemporary painting is influenced by music, writing, MTV, Picasso, Hollywood, newspapers, Old Masters.
But, unlike many of the art world heavy hitters and deep thinkers, I don’t believe painting is middle-class and bourgeois, incapable of saying anything meaningful anymore, too impotent to hold much sway.
For me, and for people with good eyes who actually enjoy looking at art, nothing is as uplifting as standing before a great painting whether it was painted in 1505 or last Tuesday.
TAN: With your painting show, do you think you are setting a trend or following one? Haven’t we all been here before with the 1981 show “A New Spirit in Painting”?
CS: You point out that “A New Spirit in Painting” was nearly a quarter of a century ago. So I am tickled by your suggestion that another survey of painting now is over-egging it.
I don’t have a particularly lofty agenda with the “Triumph of Painting”. People need to see some of the remarkable painting produced, and overlooked, in an age dominated by the attention given to video, installation and photographic art. Just flick through the catalogues of the mega shows, the Documentas, the Biennales, of the last 15 years.
But, of course, much of the painting our exhibition will be highlighting has itself been profoundly affected by the work of video and photographic art…
In any event, who’s to say what will one day appear to have been trendsetting? Sometimes artists who receive breathless acclaim initially, seem to conk out. Other artists who don’t register so keenly at the time, prove to be trailblazers.
TAN: Are paintings a better investment than sharks in formaldehyde? The Hirst shark looks much more shrivelled now than it used to, but a Peter Doig canvas will still look great in 10 years and will be much easier to restore.
CS: There are no rules about investment. Sharks can be good. Artist’s dung can be good. Oil on canvas can be good. There’s a squad of conservators out there to look after anything an artist decides is art.
TAN: At the top end of the art market, public and commercial spaces have become almost interchangeable. For example, at “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, a show of new work by Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, and Angus Fairhurst, at Tate Britain earlier this year, most of the work on display was for sale and it came from just two dealers: Jay Jopling of White Cube and Sadie Coles. Do you see a conflict of interest in a publicly-funded museum being used as a sale room in this way?
CS: I like everything that helps contemporary art reach a wider audience. However, sometimes a show is so dismal it puts people off. Many curators, and even the odd Turner Prize jury, produce shows that lack much visual appeal, wearing their oh-so-deep impenetrability like a badge of honour. They undermine all efforts to encourage more people to respond to new art. So although I didn’t adore “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”, it was nice to see something in the Tate that was fresh from the artists’ studio. It helped make the Tate more relevant to today’s artists. Of course the work had to come direct from the artists’ dealers—it was brand new. Anyway what’s wrong with Jay Joplin getting just a little richer?
TAN: How would you assess the Tate’s performance as a museum of contemporary art?
CS: Obviously Tate Modern is a stupendous gift to Britain, and Nicholas Serota [director of Tate] is my hero to have pulled it off so masterfully. I like some of the exhibitions at the Tate, but many are disappointing.
The curators should get out more and see more studios and grass roots shows. They evidently lack an adventurous curatorial ambition. And as for having outside curators called in to pick work at the Frieze art fair for the Tate collection...
It isn’t enough to rely on the latest Turbine Hall installation and the Turner Prize to generate interest. The Tate seems sadly disengaged from the young British art community. It ought to have reflected the energy and diversity of British art over the last 15 years in both its exhibitions and collecting policy. Puzzlingly, museums in Europe and the US are far more interested in examining Britain’s recent artistic achievements.
TAN: Why do overseas museums have better collections of Britart than the Tate?
CS: Because the Tate curators didn’t know what they were looking at during the early 90s, when even the piddliest budget would have bought you many great works.
But I’m no better. I regularly find myself waking up to art I passed by or simply ignored.
TAN: After your death, would you like to see the core of your collection kept together and remain on public view?
CS: I don’t buy art in order to leave a mark or to be remembered; clutching at immortality is of zero interest to anyone sane. I did offer my collection to Nicholas Serota at the Tate last year. This was about the time I was struggling with the problems at County Hall—both the alarming behaviour of the Japanese landlords, and my failure to get a grip on how to use the space well.
I remembered that at the time Tate Modern opened, Nick had told me that there were new extensions planned that would add half again to the gallery capacity. But by the time I offered the collection to Nick, the Tate already had commitments for the extension. So I lost my chance for a tastefully engraved plaque and a 21-gun salute. And now the mood has passed, and I’m happy not to have to visit Tate Modern, or its storage depot, to look at my art.
TAN: Looking ahead in 100 years’ time, how do you think British art of the early 21st century will be regarded? Who are the great artists who will pass the test of time?
CS: General art books dated 2105 will be as brutal about editing the late 20th century as they are about almost all other centuries. Every artist other than Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst will be a footnote.
TAN: Perhaps your greatest legacy will be that you, more than any other, have been responsible for pitching modern and contemporary art into the UK’s cultural mainstream. Contemporary art is now discussed in taxis and government think-tanks. Did you set out to achieve this from the start?
TAN: What do you think of the art world?
CS: David Sylvester [the late critic] and I used to play a silly little game. We used to ask ourselves, which of the following—artist, curator, dealer, collector or critic—we would least like to be stranded with on a desert island for a few years. Of course, we could easily bring to mind a repellent example in each category, and it made the selection ever-changing, depending on who we ran into that bored us most the previous week. Anyway, we pretty much agreed on the following:
An occupational hazard of some of my art collector friends’ infatuation with art is their encounters with a certain type of art dealer. Pompous, power-hungry and patronising, these doyens of good taste would seem to be better suited to manning the door of a night-club, approving who will be allowed through the velvet ropes. Their behaviour alienates many fledgling collectors from any real involvement with the artist’s vision.
These dealers like to feel that they “control” the market. But, of course, by definition, once an artist has a vibrant market, it can’t be controlled. For example, one prominent New York dealer recently said that he disapproved of the strong auction market, because it allowed collectors to jump the queue of his “waiting list”. So instead of celebrating an artist’s economic success, they feel castrated by any loss to their power base.
And then there are visionary dealers, without whom many great artists of our century would have slipped by unheralded.
The art critics on some of Britain’s newspapers could as easily have been assigned gardening or travel, and been cheerfully employed for life. This is because many newspaper editors don’t themselves have much time to study their “Review” section, or have much interest in art.
So we now enjoy the spectacle of critics swooning with delight about an artist’s work when its respectability has been confirmed by consensus and a top-drawer show—the same artist’s work that 10 years earlier they ignored or ridiculed. They must live in dread of some mean sod bringing out their old cuttings.
And when Matthew Collings, pin-up boy of TV art commentary, states that the loss of contemporary art in the Momart fire didn’t matter all that much—“these young artists can always produce more”—he tells you all you need to know about the perverse nature of some of those who mug a living as art critics. However, when a critic knows what she or he is looking at and writes revealingly about it, it’s sublime.
With very few exceptions, the big-name globetrotting international mega-event curators are too prone to curate clutching their PC guidebook in one hand and their Bluffers Notes on art theory in the other. They seem to deliver the same type of Groundhog Day show, for the approval of 50 or so like-minded devotees. These dead-eyed, soulless rent-a-curator exhibitions dominate the art landscape with their socio-political pretensions.
The familiar grind of 70’s conceptualist retreads, the dry as dust photo and text panels, the production line of banal and impenetrable installations, the hushed and darkened rooms with their interchangeable flickering videos are the hallmarks of a decade of numbing right-on curatordom.
The fact that in the last 10 years only five of the 40 Turner Prize nominees have been painters tells you more about curators than about the state of painting today. But when you see something special, something inspired, you realise the debt we owe great curators and their unforgettable shows—literally unforgettable because you remember every picture, every wall and every juxtaposition.
However suspect their motivation, however social-climbing their agenda, however vacuous their interest in decorating their walls, I am beguiled by the fact that rich folk everywhere now choose to collect contemporary art rather than racehorses, vintage cars, jewellery or yachts.
Without them, the art world would be run by the State, in a utopian world of apparatchik-approved-, Culture-Ministry-sanctioned art.
So if I had to choose between Mr and Mrs Goldfarb’s choice of art or some bureaucrat who would otherwise be producing VAT forms, I’ll take the Goldfarbs.
Anyway, some collectors I’ve met are just plain delightful, bounding with enough energy and enthusiasm to brighten your day.
If you study a great work of art, you’ll probably find the artist was a kind of genius. And geniuses are different to you and me. So let’s have no talk of temperamental, self-absorbed and petulant babies. Being a good artist is the toughest job you could pick, and you have to be a little nuts to take it on. I love them all.
Questions by The Art Newspaper and its readers.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘“I primarily buy art to show it off”'