Our annual printed publication – the CoBo Supplement strives to increase awareness by serving as a platform to develop conversations pertaining to contemporary art. This year’s edition, released to coincide with Art Basel Hong Kong 2019, features the opinions and viewpoints of over fifty influential, global art leaders on eleven dynamic topics addressing significant ongoing discourses in the art world. To kickstart on our conversation on Overpowered Collectors – Myths and Realities, we bring to you the musings of Marta Gnyp, Mark Rappolt, Uli Sigg, Alain Servais, and Marisol Rodriguez.
Text: Marta Gnyp, Mark Rappolt, Uli Sigg, Alain Servais, and Marisol Rodriguez.
Images: Courtesy of contributors & Gianni Motti.
Dr. Marta Gnyp, Art Advisor and Author.
The Golden Age of Collectors: When Passion Turns into Power
In July last year, the highly regarded New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote a scathing review of Jenny Saville’s show, calling Saville a student painter lacking the combination of ethics and aesthetics that makes a great artist. Three months later, Jenny Saville’s painting Propped (1992) sold for just under USD12.5 million at Sotheby’s, making Saville the most expensive living female artist. The collector who bought the painting clearly couldn’t care less about bad critical reception; he was convinced of the strength of this specific work as endorsed by top galleries. This is an excellent example of today’s shifting criteria of valorization, where collectors happily ignore expert opinion in favour of the work’s visual power and market opportunities.
The growth of the contemporary art world has been fast and furious over the past fifteen years. This opening up, in combination with the possibilities offered by new media, has created an army of artists: both educated and self-taught, out- as well as insiders, rediscovered and freshly graduated, all of them storming the art world. We live in times of oversupply of art and lack of public funds. Don’t be misled by the record prices of rare works – we live in a collector’s paradise, where the God of Art has created galleries, museums, and a press that serve and love collectors.
Is this bad? Contemporary collectors have added speed and excitement to the art world, soaked art in financial values and put eternity on hold in favour of the now. They have created fertile ground for art to be made, seen, and, in spells, thrive. They strengthened the existing post-war canon and recently happily embraced another market-safe extension of it: overlooked women artists and artists of color. The latter is in a perfect symbiosis with museums and art history, so the art world could attempt to redeem itself from its sins of the past.
As to the present-day deadly sin of collectors, their love of trends and trophies: those who can afford it hover around classic post-war heroes, those who cannot, chase emerging hypes. There is little enthusiasm for being involved in artists’ slow ripening, existential doubts, and creative investigations that inevitably go nowhere at times. Today art has become interesting not because it gives you moments of reflection but because it sets you in motion to do things.
These preferences and impulses result in the neglect of the huge middle field of artists, instead contributing to the consolidation of power at the top galleries and large auction houses where most of the collectors’ money ends up. Collectors’ power is like water: if channelled well it can create immense ambitious energy, let’s say the energy of the Sistine Chapel. If left uncontrolled it will flood the system with ego trips, investment strategies, and bad taste. The question is, therefore, not whether collectors have too much power, but instead how to use this power to the benefit of the proper art system.
Mark Rappolt, Editor-in-Chief, ArtReview and ArtReview Asia
For every salon, a salon des refusés. There is no ‘proper’ system, just alternate points of view.
Look at the popular press today and, as well as the market reports, you’ll find that art can be judged as important as it relates to questioning issues of social and economic equality, to raising issues of gender or cultural identity, to reappraising history and its interpretation, or by moral judgements about the biography or personal behavior of the artist who created the work in the first place. Being relative, these values alter in importance over time. The history of art (as any type of history) is always written and rewritten according to the values of the present not the past. Artists are discovered, forgotten and rediscovered throughout. The German–American Anni Albers was once asked, by no less a figure than Oskar Kokoschka, why she bothered to paint at all. Now (a quarter of a century after her death), she’s the subject of Tate retrospectives and marketed by one of those ‘top’ international galleries.
Whatever kind of value once believes in, the production and consumption of art is essentially linked to supply and demand. And (like cryptocurrencies) an essential dose of faith, trust and belief as well. The way in which we value something is a choice not a given. If you see market judgements as wrongheaded then the choice is not necessarily to adapt the system, but rather to insist on something else instead: to assert and promote those values in which you do believe. If the power of certain collectors is like water, then it can dry up, evaporate or simply trickle away. Embrace the desert of the real.
Dr. Uli Sigg, Collector
Marta Gnyp delivers a well-crafted description of what constitutes the public face and much of the inner workings of the current art world. Yet however heart-warming her intention: seeking to channel the forces that push, pull, bend, shape and distort the art system so as to turn it into a “proper” one – this is as futile as seeking to reconstruct single vegetables from a mush. The far smaller contemporary art scene in the 1970s (for example) was simpler than now: composed of engaged artists, some dilettante yet studious collectors, and a handful of idealist dealers. However, there is no way back to that time. Today, the art world represents a whole universe. As such it now simply mirrors the chaotic reality that surrounds our lives: sparks of excellence, of great taste, of good choices, of well-deserved appreciation – and then a sea of all things else, brimming over with mediocrity, ignorance, greed for gain or status and worst of all, boredom. In other words: we would have to change the whole world! Therefore let us, unassumingly, simply change what is within our reach as best we can.
Alain Servais, Collector
As a collector, I wish that Marta Gnyp’s description of collectors as being trendsetters was exact, but no one should confuse the commercial value of any work of art with its cultural value. And collectors contribute very little to the building of this cultural value. Look at Artreview’s infamous Power 100 list: the first collector to appear on it is Miuccia Prada at number 20, and there are only 12 collectors included in the 100 Power brokers. With a few collectors’ exceptions in Miami, Hong Kong, Zurich, Turin and Paris, the validating machine that is the art world does not consider collectors or hold them in any form of regard. This is clear by the difficulty that I am encountering in getting any curators or museum directors to even pay a visit to the Loft, my exhibition space in Brussels. The only game-changing association occurs when wealthy collectors get influence in cash-starved museums, whether by association or supporting the curators, or by acquisitions or donations. The fame Marta Gnyp is attributing to collectors is only an illusory one reinforced by the sycophants and the Media, who are obsessed by bling bling. The only power they have is to waste their money on the last fad or the second-tier works thrown at them by galleries.
The art world is composed of two groups. One group with cultural knowledge but no money and leftist tendencies is determining the cultural value of art. And another group of mostly white men with money and individualistic rightist tendencies is determining the commercial value of art… There is no relationship between the two, except that the money guys think the brainy guys have influence on the perception of what will be important, what will be going to the museums and what will therefore stay saleable.
Marisol Rodriguez, Curator and Director at gb agency, Paris
What has changed is the amount of money in the world, and how it is concentrated. You have more collectors who are seen to set trends in the market, because of an increase in disposable income. Some people who are not necessarily very informed choose to spend it on art; sometimes they do so stupidly, throwing ridiculous amounts of money at whatever has been hyped, as if they were gambling in Vegas. I don’t see that as changing the status of collectors as a whole; equating passion for the arts with the ambition to influence the market seems vulgar. Good collectors (of contemporary art) are, if it must be so described, powerful influencers of present intellectual trends because, by buying art, they facilitate the creative system, feeding artists and supporting their development. A real collector would seek to support Jenny Saville, go to the studio, and meet her; you don’t need to buy at auction, because you know that by nurturing a living artist you will get the best work eventually.