Lunchtime – ‘Going Public’ Study Visit – Nov 20th 2015
‘Going Public’, which runs at five sites in Sheffield from 16/09 to 12/12 2015, is a city-wide event that brings, to public exhibition, contemporary art from a number of major international collections – see here ‘Going Public’. The locations include the city’s well-established Graves Gallery, the much newer (and significantly titled) Millennium Gallery, the University-based Sheffield Institute of Art Gallery, a very recently established new venue Site Gallery, and, perhaps most significantly, Sheffield Cathedral. I include that list to demonstrate diversity and volume, but also because the context of the event was explained to students on the recent OCA Study Visit by the Dean of Sheffield, the Very Reverend Peter Bradley. Sheffield lost its funding for contemporary art some 4/5 years ago and had to part company with its curator of contemporary art. The city needed to consider how it might present relevant contemporary work for public view in those circumstances; and the outcome was a series of approaches to private collectors who were known to be committed to lending their collections for public exhibition. This impressive event is the outcome and includes works from four private collections.
There is way too much to describe in any detail but highlights, for me, would be: some of the minimalist conceptual works from the Millennium Gallery (Cattelain Collection – artists such as Sol Lewitt and Anthony McCall); the Marcel Duchamp works at the Graves Gallery (from the Marzona Collection – not so much art as artefacts from the Surrealist/Dadaist period, and needs another visit with much more time to absorb it all); and the whole concept of (sometimes controversial) contemporary art in the Sheffield Cathedral (Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Collection, including the Chapman Brothers’ Cyber Iconic Man (1996) – see here Artnet News). In the latter case, it was as much, if not more, about the use of this particular space as it was about the art itself – the unexpected juxtapositions and the questions that raised. And, for me, it isn’t particularly about the religious context as the actual nature of the space itself. A Cathedral, whatever one’s beliefs, is always likely to generate a contemplative mood, a sense that one is in the presence of something ‘other’. My own feeling is that it probably brought a degree of profoundness to the Chapmans’ piece that it would not necessarily evoke if exhibited in a plain white cube.
The Going Public event is described as a catalyst for debate about the relationship between public galleries and private collections – and that is where my own reflections have mostly taken me; partly in the context of this module and the need to develop an appreciation of the ‘market’ into which I seek to take my own work. One is led to wonder ‘who are these collectors?’ and ‘what are their motivations?’. (And there are video interviews with some of them available, for example dsl collection and Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo.) ‘Private Collectors’ is not, of course, a single, unified group with common aims and objectives! They must share one characteristic – significant wealth – but their motives might include (in no particular order) some/all of financial gain; philanthropy; addictive obsession; the dream to unearth/discover; a desire to leave their legacy; a genuine interest in art and its development … etc. They are influential, whatever their motives. By making choices – often, it must be said, informed by others ‘in the know’, critics, curators, academics – of what to buy, who to support, they are influencing whose art is most likely to have the chance to develop and gain publicity (and value!).
The question of what they do with their collections is also important – and will also vary between collectors. Do they keep it and view it in their own space for the exclusive benefit of them and their contacts? Do they store it in vaults until the price is right for a re-sale? Do they work closely with others to ensure that the work is on public display wherever and whenever possible? Do they create/maintain their own, controlled means of public display? All of these approaches exist and they relate to the varying motivations, of course, producing different reactions un ‘us’ the public viewers. And one needs to consider whether these artworks would have been on show in Sheffield over the autumn of 2015 without the existence of such private collections. Peter Bradley, in his talk to the OCA students, referred to the difficulty – impossibility, more likely – of public galleries and collections being able to afford to buy such art. (Which would, anyway, be another form of selective choice, by the way.) Perhaps if there was no powerful international art market driving prices upwards for speculative purposes, the public bodies would be more able to buy art. But then, many of these collectors are looking to uncover, support, buy to keep/display – essentially, patrons who are helping art/artists to work. And, after all, such supportive patronage has been part of art for a long time. The dsl collection itself has set out to uncover Chinese contemporary art within an environment where, previously, art, such as it seemed to exist, was presumably that selected by the government. Motivations are, perhaps, as significant for public funding of art as they are for private.
I guess, though, we must recognise that there is a market in operation – no great surprise, since we are in an age of global capitalism – and private collectors have an important role in that context. They are enabling the creation and display of art, but they are also making highly influential decisions; which puts a lot of power into the hands of relatively few people, with varying motives for what they do and how they do it.
it is also worth reflecting on the significance of digital developments, and the internet in particular. How does that impact on this ‘collectors’ market? And are we in a position, yet, to understand what the outcome might be? Walter Benjamin’s The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction comes to mind – the loss of aura, maybe, but with art more widely seen and appreciated. There is the potential, at least, for artists to take their work to a public audience, distribute it digitally, and obtain their support directly from that audience (consider recent developments in the music industry, for example). How could this work for the visual arts? One feels that it can make, almost certainly will make, and probably already is making a difference.