“Can the arts be a way out?” This was the central question being asked and addressed in Florence from 26-28 April at the eighth annual Art for Tomorrow conference organised by the London-based Democracy and Culture Foundation.
“Our world, our society, our democracy is battered by multiple crises,” said Achilles Tsaltas, the foundation’s president, in his welcoming remarks to the 200 attendees gathered in the gilded, frescoed and mirrored ballroom of the five-star St Regis hotel. In addition to Covid-19 and the “senseless” war in Ukraine, Tsaltas listed inequality, climate change, mass migration and the fast pace of technological change among the “permanent crises” challenging humanity. “Art is a universal language,” added Tsaltas, quoting Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the chair of Qatar Museums and the founding supporter of the conference, who was at the front of the audience (and who also took part in the panel discussion, Heritage for Tomorrow). “Maybe it encourages us to think about alternative solutions to the problems that our world is facing.”
Over three days, a programme of 18 panels, conversations and solo presentations with leading figures in the creative industries brainstormed the well-worn but increasingly thorny question of whether the arts can effect meaningful change in democratically depleted, digitally distracted societies.
“I think about the impact of songs and how they’ve ricocheted through time,” said the British singer-songwriter Lapsley in the opening panel discussion, which asked if art is still capable of changing anything in the world. “A lot of music is to do with changing attitudes,” added Låpsley, who said she grew up listening to Joni Mitchell. “It’s the attitude that creates political change.”
The ensuing panel on private patrimony acknowledged how, in an era of shrinking government spending on culture, contemporary artists had become increasingly reliant on corporate, non-profit and private patrons (Chanel and the Henry Luce Foundation among them), echoing the role that the Medici bankers and other great families had played in Renaissance Florence.
“In Europe now, to be an artist is not always easy,” said the Turin-based collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. Works from her foundation, including an enormous, bespoke-commissioned rocket sculpture by the Polish artist Goshka Macuga, were being exhibited in the Reaching for the Stars exhibition at the nearby 15th-century Palazzo Strozzi. “It’s important”, she added, “to have patrons, collectors who really want to be involved in the production and commissioning of new work.”
The following day, the focus shifted to the public realm and cultural politics. In an opening provocation, Aindrea Emelife, the young curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria, made a plea for her museum to be “not just a repository” for Benin bronzes returned from former colonial powers, but to be part of a global art ecosystem with real cultural exchange. “If we don’t look to Africa, we forget who we as humans are,” Emelife said.
Three prominent museum directors discussed whether the role of their institution should be either a “mirror or megaphone”. Adam Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, recalled how his museum ended up being both of these, at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, when it exhibited Dana Schutz’s controversial painting Open Casket (2016), showing the disfigured body of the lynched Mississippi teenager Emmett Till. Weinberg said a colleague reassured him after the ensuing furore by saying, “We’re doing the right thing if we get it from both sides.”
Then the Palestinian actor and poet Dana Dajani, who delivered virtuoso video and live performances before and after the panel discussion, “Gender and the Arts—Crises and Correctives”, turned the conference’s central premise on its head. “We have this question, ‘Is art a way out?’ But I think art is a way in. That is what artistic expression has been for women, which is why it’s not competitive, why it’s not about bravado,” Dajani said. Her words resonated at the end of a panel discussion held in a city whose male Renaissance artists, such as Brunelleschi, Michelangelo and Cellini, were famed for their competitive bravado. Art by women for women, which Dajani believes will be the art of tomorrow, is, by contrast, “about the internal process”.
Increasingly, the questions raised by the conference’s agenda were themselves being stimulatingly questioned by panellists, such as in the discussion Heritage for Tomorrow.
After hearing Irina Bokova, the former director general of Unesco, outline Florence and Venice’s plans to create sustainable tourism models for their overcrowded cities, Andreas Görgen, the secretary general of Germany’s Federal Ministry for Culture and the Media, further shook things up. “We are complaining about mass tourism?” Görgen asked. Rather than complain about mass tourism, which he regarded as an effect of a more democratic culture, Görgen suggested we should reflect on an economic system “based on the exploitation of natural resources” that has only belatedly woken up to the issue of sustainability. Görgen also questioned the Eurocentricity of cultural administrators. With half of Unesco world heritage sites in Italy alone, why are there so few protected heritage sites in Nigeria, for instance?
The following panel asked if NFTs and the digital arts were really a way to democratise the arts, as so often claimed. It included a rising star of generative art, Bordeaux-based Michaël Zancan, who creates lyrical images of gardens using algorithms. The top-selling artist on the environmentally aware blockchain platform Tezos, Zancan sold his work at the top of the crypto curve and then made the hugely costly mistake of holding on to the digital proceeds as they fell in value by more than 80%. Reflecting calmly on his monetary loss, he concluded: “As an artist I need to focus on art, not to sell.” That said, in contrast to ever more expensive mainstream contemporary art, editioned Zancan NFT landscapes can be bought for as little as €10—less than a ticket to an art fair.
Is there a danger that the bloated price points of on-trend contemporary works will make the wider public view art as a game played only by the super-rich, like polo or ocean yacht racing? “It’s not a danger. That’s the perception,” said Marc Spiegler, the former global director of the Art Basel fair group, in the conversation, The Art Market Bubble: Does it Still Exist? Compared with other industries, the art market is “really small” and “highly consolidated” to a select group of very wealthy consumers. “The art world needs to open up.”
The Israeli film-maker Amos Gitai, in a compelling interview, offered a sobering assessment of the power of art to change political realities. Using Picasso’s famous 1937 painting Guernica as an exemplar, Gitai, who as a soldier in the 1973 Yom Kippur War survived a helicopter crash in which the pilot was decapitated, pointed out that “Picasso didn’t win. Franco stayed in power.” However, a social democratic government was eventually elected in Spain. “The arts don’t change things immediately,” Gitai said. “They keep a trace of the memory.”
But what about protest? Can that help resolve political issues more immediately? In a feisty panel devoted to this theme, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, questioned whether attacks by activists on valuable works of art have “any positive outcome for climate change”. In response, Clare Farrell, the young British co-founder of Extinction Rebellion (who, unlike most panellists and delegates, travelled to the conference by train), pointed out that works of art were not being damaged, unlike in the days of the Suffragettes, when Velasquez’s Rokeby Venus (1647-51) was slashed by a protester. “People have done a lot worse, for a lot less,” Farrell said. “When people do these actions, people talk about it. Some soup on the glass in front of a painting is the very least we can do to ring the alarm.”
Art for the elite
So, then, if art is, in so many ways, such a valuable thing, why are so many governments cutting funding for arts education? Has it become a luxury that only the privileged can afford?
This was the question that the final panel of the Florence conference grappled with. Given that several scientific studies have shown that exposure to the arts enhances students’ cognitive development, Alison Cole, the editor of The Art Newspaper, argued that the nurturing of visual intelligence should be the essential “fourth pillar” of every child’s education.
Reflecting the increasing financial and technological orientation of our times, arts education tended to be justified by the panellists as a means of improving humans’ employability and their ability to collaborate creatively with other sectors of the economy. “The arts have shown their worth,” said Amir Berbić, the dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar. “Arts faculties have more resources if they’re involved in these interdisciplinary projects,” Berbić added. “But it’s important that art isn’t seen as a service provider to other disciplines.” He thought there was still “going to be room for art for art’s sake”.
As delegates left the St Regis hotel and waited for cars to drive them to Perugia for an exclusive Art for Tomorrow Weekend in the nearby hamlet of Solomeo, hosted by the Italian fashion designer Brunello Cucinelli, they might have looked across the square to the church of Ognissanti. It was first built in the 13th century by monks of the Umiliati order as a place for them and the local community of wool workers to worship, with the help of enduring masterworks commissioned from artists like Giotto, Ghirlandaio and Botticelli.
In Renaissance Florence, art and craftsmanship were not artificially separated, and art itself had a range of specific functions serving a wide spectrum of human society. But in 21st-century Florence the function of art has become more difficult to pin down. Is it something in a museum you queue for so you can take a selfie in front of it for an Instagram post? Or is it something you talk about at a conference in a five-star hotel?
An alternative answer was given by Matteo Rosati, the programme specialist at the Unesco Regional Bureau for Science and Culture. He spoke of listed monuments at a final panel discussion, Creating and Preserving Italian Heritage, held in Solomeo, the medieval Umbrian village owned and restored by Cucinelli to house his own family and serve the textile workers who make garments favoured by celebrities such as Mark Zuckerberg, and Kendall Roy, a character in the TV series Succession. “The first duty when you are on the Unesco list is to give heritage a function within the life of communities,” Rosati said, stressing how important it is to “understand heritage with a community-based approach”. It is also important to recognise the role of “intangible” heritage—the tradition of knowledge and practices—that is “the humanity of heritage”, he added.
But what about today’s art and its practices? What is the function of those within the life of today’s communities? How can they be understood within a community-based approach? Is that a new way in for the arts?
To be continued.
• The panels can now be viewed online here
• The Art Newspaper is a media partner of the Art for Tomorrow Conference