I don’t think it is farfetched to say that 2013 was the year in which the balance between public and private started being truly affected from the point of view of the arts. This shift of paradigm is slightly more complicated than the usual ‘art for the masses’ versus ‘vernissage for the elite’. It is as if the public sector has been captured by the logic of its tax deduction policies to the point where it has surrendered what it is all about in the hands of the mega-private-foundations. While Tate or MOMA are richer than ever before due to tax incentives, Tower Hamlets and Detroit cannot afford to keep their cultural heritage for the enjoyment of their local residents. There is something not right here and it has to be addressed.
On one side, flagship art institutions seem hungrier for funds than ever before in order to continue their, in my opinion, exaggerated infrastructural expansions; but, on the other side, the public sector has started not even hesitating putting on sale important works of art in their possession in order to reduce public deficit.
Some people called 2013, the Age of Cultural Austerity. This took different forms on different sides of the Atlantic. In the UK, public art funding has been hit again and again, and they year was about finding ways to do more with less, of institutions banding together, as well as fitful acts of protest: in late May, a walk-out by members of the Public and Commercial Services union briefly affected attractions from the National Portrait Gallery to Stonehenge; in September, arts supporters staged a symbolic ‘human chain’ around the National Gallery in protest of cuts and ‘zero-hours’ contracts, which fail to give museum workers even minimum guarantees of work.
In the US, art funding largely stayed out of the headlines, though this is mostly because the National Endowment for the Arts is by now so anaemic that it is hard to credit it as the face of Big Government. The alarming go-to symbol of the relentless pressure that an increasingly unequal society put on art was the plight of the Detroit Institute of Art. As Motor City declared the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history amid a soaring art market, chatter naturally turned to whether selling off a few DIA masterpieces might soften the blow. Christie’s experts were brought in to appraise the collection. The art community rallied; the idea of auctioning Diego Rivera’s famed Detroit Industry mural (1932-3) to appease the moneylenders is proof of the extreme behaviour that 2013 had witnessed.
In the UK we all rallied around Old Flo when artist Bob and Roberta Smith made us pay attention to Tower Hamlets Council’s decision to sell the £17m Henry Moore sculpture “at the earliest opportunity”. Draped Seated Woman, also known as “Old Flo”, had been scheduled for auction in February this year but was pulled from sale after its ownership was contested by Bromley Council and the Art Fund. The ownership claim was put forward based on research by the Museum of London (MoL), which uncovered a paper trail appearing to show that ownership of the statue had not been transferred to the new Tower Hamlets local authority after the London County Council and Greater London Council (GLC) were dissolved. Tower Hamlets dismissed the challenge as a “desperate PR stunt” at the time. A council spokesman said this week that the challenge had not been substantiated and the council was now working with Christie’s auction house to prepare a timetable for the sale. The spokesman said: “The council still aims to sell the sculpture at the earliest opportunity and will shortly agree a timescale for this with its auctioneers.
So the local residents of Tower Hamlets Council and Detroit are losing their art in the hands of private collectors who are still pouring money into unnecessary expansions for the Serpentine Gallery or Tate Modern, to give just two examples, where we are forced to see the Chapman Brothers and Yael Shawky who, by the way, are being exhibited, at the same time, in private galleries. It does not take a genius to realise what is going on and the place that State regulation has in what we can already call a whole new relationship between the private and the public spheres in the art world. Just a thought.