Having just returned from London for the Frieze art fair and October auctions, it is becoming ever more clear that the market for, and interest in, new art is becoming increasingly challenged and imbalanced. A generation of buyers who had been consistently collecting contemporary art for several decades is now reaching an age where their appetites, or capacities, are waning. A new generation has been entering the pursuit with a very different and far more deliberate focus. And while the very effective professionalization of the field of art has produced a much larger pool of young artists, it has become increasingly difficult to pinpoint with confidence the great artists to have emerged over the past ten or 15 years.
It is becoming apparent that the wider ecosystem through which art is tested, challenged and given room to fail, change and evolve is diminishing. And that doesn’t serve any part of this enterprise well. So, I find it ever more fulfilling at this moment that Sotheby’s has created an annual prize of $250,000 to be given to museums to produce groundbreaking exhibitions of the sort that have become increasingly difficult to fund.
When I think back to the most significant exhibitions of postwar art of the past few decades, they have not been those retrospectives that bring clarity to the achievements of known masters (the kind of show which has increasingly become the norm), but exhibitions that rethink recent histories, challenging our perceptions and redefining which voices are vital, where they come from and the very role of what has previously been termed “marginal”.
It was my great fortune to be on a jury several weeks ago with some of the most eminent curators and museum directors of our time: Sir Nicholas Serota (chair, Arts Council England), Connie Butler (chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), Okwui Enwezor (director of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich), Donna de Salvo (senior curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York).
The two-day discussion that resulted in the jurors’ selection of prize-winners was engaging and highly revealing of the challenges institutions are facing today. Museums are often—and for completely understandable reasons—focusing on retrospectives of already-validated artists. Thematic exhibitions are much more expensive to mount; they are less popular in terms of audience and, as a result, don’t bring in the large crowds that blockbusters do and therefore do not generate the same levels of income.
Government and corporate funding is being reduced, and so the main source of support tends to come from a museum’s patrons, who are more likely to engage with exhibitions dedicated to artists whose work they have already supported by collecting it, and the galleries that represent them.
The system becomes self-perpetuating. There are more exhibitions of the kind that reinforce what we already know, and fewer that challenge the status quo. The contemporary art museum in this country that has done the most forward-thinking shows over the past several decades is LA MoCA—and it almost went out of business doing so.
Rethinking art as we know it
And yet, despite the increasing difficulty in funding exhibitions that seek to re-shape the history of art as we have thus far known it, it became clear to all of the jurors that museums of all sizes (but especially mid-sized and small institutions) currently are driven to take risks, be willing to take on serious financial debt and to challenge head-on the problems with the increasing nationalism taking grip across the globe.
While the intent had been to award the prize to a single exhibition, with the understanding that the show would likely not be realized without such a grant, the jury faced so many prescient opportunities that, at the last moment, we decided to split the award, with two institutions each receiving $125,000.
One of the exhibitions, “Pop América, 1965-1975” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, has been fully researched and will now be fulfilled through the grant. The other, “Many Tongues: Art, Language, and Revolution in the Middle East and South Asia” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is just beginning to be formed, so the grant will make it possible for the curatorial team to do the work necessary to fully research and conceive the exhibition.
Exploring forgotten histories
In addition, we found that there were so many other exhibitions worthy of citation and funding that we selected three to receive commendations and a small grant of $10,000. The recipients span from the small and little-known Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida through the mid-sized Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to one of the best-endowed museums in this country, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The Cummer museum will stage a survey of the relatively obscure but highly significant artist Augusta Savage, who was from Green Cove Springs near Jacksonville and was a mentor to, and had great influence over, some of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
The ICA in Philadelphia will mount the first retrospective in the US in almost 40 years of Ree Morton, who died in 1977 after a mere seven years of highly exuberant and influential artistic production which is little seen or known in this country today.
Crystal Bridges aims to create what will in effect be the first history of Native American art, a field that has been woefully neglected by most US art institutions.
My secret wish
While we are all thrilled to be able to make possible and acknowledge exhibitions that look beyond the status quo, it is my not-so-secret wish that the prize not only plays a meaningful role in the essential job of rethinking art as we know it and as it is currently valued, but also provides a base of inspiration and entry point for other patrons to become aware of important art historical work that they themselves might be inspired to fund.