Articles in This Issue
In Allan's Intro
“This was a year of protest and activism,” writes Cristina Ruiz in this issue, in which we look back on 2019 and the major events that have shaped the year, as well as best exhibitions and books.
From fires to floods, from new trade agreements between East and West to collapsing old relationships between the US and the international cultural community, Cristina reviews the most significant events of the year.
Some of the moments of greatest gravity have been brought about by artists who, increasingly, are raising their voices to force change upon institutions around the world. There have been major trigger points of protest and activism in the art world before—the Vietnam War and student rebellions in Europe and Latin America in the 1960s, for example. Racial and gender inequality were touchstone issues especially in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s and again now, grimly. Has so little changed over the past 50 years, even in culture and the institutions that exist to represent it and serve the public?
While the art world can often get politics wrong, the demands being made by artists are moving towards a tipping point. Certainly some of the friction will be fruitful, and bring about change in the economic, intellectual, political, racial, and social fabric of our public institutions, their leadership, content, and audiences. Who knows what potentials will be unleashed in art, our understanding of it, and where it leads us when we embrace greater complexity.
Change is coming, whether you like it or not.
This was a year of protest and activism. People took to the streets in huge numbers around the world, demanding reform and challenging those in power. In Hong Kong, students led the ongoing battle for democratic concessions. In Venezuela, opponents of President Nicolás Maduro staged mass gatherings. In Chile, student demonstrations beginning in Santiago escalated into country-wide unrest. In Lebanon, nationwide non-sectarian protests against austerity and corruption forced the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In Iran and Iraq, anti-regime unrest was brutally suppressed, leading to the deaths of hundreds of protestors. Around the world millions of children and adults—inspired by a Swedish schoolgirl—took to the streets to call for action on climate change.
As millions marched, fire and floods overwhelmed some of our most beloved cultural sites while governments looked on powerless to stop the devastation. The damage wreaked on our heritage this year reminds us that our most precious buildings are precarious and, in almost all cases, inadequately protected.
Freedom is not free
As the year approaches its end, new popular movements continue to flare. Just a few weeks ago, a Facebook post created by four friends in Bologna, Italy, led to a flash-mob protest of more than 12,000 people rallying in opposition to the leader of the far-right League Party, Matteo Salvini.
What unites demonstrators from around the world is their youth; the speed at which they are mobilizing through social media; and the inspiration they appear to draw from one another. “Freedom is not free, you need to fight for it,” an anonymous Hong Kong protestor said, offering encouragement to demonstrators in other countries in a short film that was then posted by artist Ai Weiwei to his 560,000 Instagram followers.
Museums under fire, but it takes artists to force change
This wave of activism crashed through the art world with tidal force this year, sweeping museums to the frontline of a generational battle for accountability. Where these institutions once seemed unassailable repositories of our shared culture and values, they are now being challenged on virtually every aspect of their operations from the constitution of their boards and the sources of their funding, to the diversity of their work force and the protections they afford those workers as well as the art they hold and acquire and display. It remains to be seen whether the institutions will continue to respond to crises on a case-by-case basis or if they will embark on institutional overhaul.
In July, Warren Kanders, a vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, resigned after months of protests over his ownership of Safariland, a company which manufactures tear gas which was found to have been used by US authorities on migrants at the US-Mexican border. Four months earlier, the activist group Decolonize this Place had launched a weekly occupation of the museum lobby calling for Kanders to step down, yet the museum appeared to be weathering the storm of demonstrations and internal museum dissent.
That was until the magazine Artforum published a letter addressed to the curators of the Whitney Biennial, written by four artists—Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman and Nicholas Galanin—who asked for their work to be removed from the exhibition. Citing “the museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists”, the artists said they refused “further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence”. Shortly after three more artists (Eddie Arroyo, Agustina Woodgate, Christine Sun Kim) and the collective Forensic Architecture followed suit, Kanders resigned.
The intervention of an artist proved decisive in London, too. The German film-maker Hito Steyerl asked the Serpentine Galleries to withdraw a digital work of hers from its website just days after The Guardian newspaper published an article that revealed the links between Yana Peel, the gallery’s CEO, and an Israeli cyber security company. The NSO Group has been accused by human rights organizations of developing technology that is used by authoritarian regimes to track dissidents (the firm denies this, saying its products are only used to fight crime and terrorism.) A group of artists also wrote to the gallery privately to demand that action be taken. The next day Peel resigned.
Also in London, artists including Gary Hume and Rachel Whiteread called on the National Portrait Gallery to ditch the sponsorship of its annual portrait prize by the oil giant BP. When the museum closes for a three-year revamp next summer, it is widely expected to quietly divorce itself from the company. (In a statement the museum notes that “the BP Portrait Award 2020 exhibition will run at the National Portrait Gallery from 21 May to 28 June 2020. We are currently considering options for our annual competitions when the building in London temporarily closes from 29 June 2020 to spring 2023.”)
What these examples show is that artists are uniquely placed to force change on institutions. Despite their sometimes-progressive programming, most museums are deeply conservative. They “do not generally take the lead on issues of morality; they tend to react to changes in public opinion”, is how Adrian Ellis, the director of cultural advisory firm AEA Consulting, puts it. And they tend to follow the example set by their peers, because nobody wants to be the first to jump.
Sayonara to the Sacklers
Nowhere is this more evident than in the sector-wide repudiation of the Sackler family. Last year, journalists on both sides of the Atlantic detailed charges made in thousands of US lawsuits against Purdue Pharma (the drugs firm owned and directed by some members of the Sackler family), and seven individual Sackler family members who are being sued personally in some states. All of them stand accused of misleading doctors and the public about the addictive properties of the opioid OxyContin to boost profits (charges that they deny). Again and again, the press questioned museums over their acceptance of Sackler money. But, by and large, institutions brushed these questions aside. It was only after one major museum turned down a grant from the Sackler Trust that others followed suit—and swiftly.
The involvement of an artist proved again to be a key turning point. The photographer Nan Goldin, who became addicted to OxyContin after being prescribed the painkiller for a hand injury in 2014, began staging at major museums, with her activist group P.A.I.N, performance-type demonstrations that were covered extensively by the media. She then warned the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London that she would refuse to proceed with a proposed exhibition if the museum accepted a £1m Sackler gift.
Museums increasingly find themselves at odds with the very artists whose work they exist to promote
The NPG, which had referred the matter to its recently-constituted ethics committee, made the announcement on 19 March that it would refuse the money. Two days later, the Tate announced it would no longer accept money from the family either. The very next day, the Guggenheim in New York followed suit, as did the Metropolitan Museum of Art in May. Others continue to follow.
In this era of renewed political engagement and politically-engaged art, museums, particularly those devoted to the display of contemporary art, will increasingly find themselves at odds with the very artists whose work they exist to promote unless they begin to factor their concerns in to every level of their institutional thinking.
Diversification? Maybe not
In May, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art sold an untitled 1960 painting by Mark Rothko for $50.1m at Sotheby’s New York and then used the money to purchase works by Leonora Carrington, Mickalene Thomas, and Lygia Clark and eight other non-white male artists. It was one of several museums to signal progressive intentions made possible by deaccessions: the Baltimore Museum of Art has been selling work by white male artists like Andy Warhol to fund acquisitions of work by underrepresented artists and recently announced it will only buy work by female-identifying artists in 2020.
Dig a little deeper into the numbers and the story is actually regressive. The number of works by women acquired by major US museums has not increased over time. In fact, it peaked a decade ago. The finding was revealed in an exhaustive data study on gender parity in museums undertaken by In Other Words and artnet News which was published in October. It found that just 11% of all acquisitions and 14% of exhibitions at 26 prominent American museums over the past decade were of work by female artists. The investigation found that a total of 260,470 works have entered the museums’ permanent collections since 2008 but, of these, only 29,247 were by women.
The findings “challenge one of the most compelling narratives to have emerged within the art world in recent years: that of progressive change, with once-marginalized artists being granted more equitable representation within art institutions. Our research shows that, at least when it comes to gender parity, this story is a myth,” the report concluded.
The findings were described as “heart-wrenching,” by the artist Mickalene Thomas.
Cultural heritage at risk in Paris…
The world watched in horror on the night of 15 April as Notre Dame in Paris was engulfed by flames that destroyed the cathedral’s 13th-century oak roof and 19th-century spire. In a televised address the day after the fire, President Emmanuel Macron said the church would be rebuilt and restored within five years, in time for 2024 when Paris hosts the Summer Olympics. This ambitious timeline was immediately disputed by experts who cautioned that restoration could take more than a decade; over 1,000 art historians, conservationists, architects and engineers signed a letter, published in Le Figaro, which called for a “scrupulous, considered approach” to the building’s restoration.
Within a week of the fire, more than €1bn had been pledged to the reconstruction effort by French corporations and billionaires (the luxury goods magnates and private museum owners Bernard Arnault and François Pinault pledged €200m and €100m respectively). In July, the French parliament passed a law vesting control of the project in a new agency led by a retired general, Jean-Louis Georgelin, which answers directly to the president.
The world watched in horror
In October, Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect in charge of the building, told Le Parisien newspaper that Notre Dame is still unstable. The biggest threat to the building is scaffolding that was erected on the roof in 2018 to restore the now-destroyed spire. The structure, which is secured to the corners of the cathedral, survived the blaze but the extreme heat caused its metal tubes to melt and coalesce into massive, twisted lumps of steel that are highly unstable. “This is not insignificant…there’s between 200 and 300 tonnes of metal up there…it is a miracle that it still holds,” Villeneuve said, adding that he hopes to complete the removal of this scaffolding by January 2020.
Another threat is the possible collapse of the cathedral’s stone vaults, which were severely weakened by the flames; all the cathedral’s external buttresses have been reinforced with wooden frames to prevent them crumbling in case the cathedral’s stone vaults give way. At the time of writing, Notre Dame’s structural condition is still not fully known. The cathedral will not be “secure” until next summer, Villeneuve added.
In Los Angeles, a wildfire on 28 October came perilously close to the hilltop Getty Center and the precious works of art in its museum but its rapid extinction demonstrates how forethought combined with generous financial resources can effectively protect sites. The 1997 campus, built to the designs of architect Richard Meier, is made from stone, metal and cement specifically to resist fire and smoke and it is surrounded by trees and grass which sit on top of an irrigation system connected to a million-gallon water tank; as the flames approached the center the sprinklers were activated to drench the site. Just hours later, a museum spokeswoman confirmed that the situation was “under control” and the art was “safe”.
Just three days after the Getty fire, Shuri Castle, a 15th-century royal palace turned shrine complex in the city of Naha on the Japanese island of Okinawa was devastated by flames. Three intricately carved and decorated wood buildings, including the main temple, were totally destroyed. The governor of the island pledged to rebuild the Unesco World Heritage site and the chief cabinet secretary of the Japanese government, Yoshihide Suga, told a news conference in Tokyo that “the state will do whatever is necessary for rebuilding, including providing financial support.” The destruction is a blow to the island’s tourist industry; last year Shuri Castle was visited by 2.8 million people. The site was rebuilt extensively once before following sustained US shelling in 1945 when the complex was occupied by the Japanese army.
…and in Venice
Seven months after the burning of Notre Dame, the city of Venice was hit by catastrophic flooding, the most severe since 1966 when water levels reached 194cm above mean sea level. On the night of 12 November, water levels reached 187cm and 80% of the city was inundated. More flooding followed in subsequent days and authorities repeatedly closed St Mark’s Square, the lowest part of the city. The basilica itself was flooded as were many of the city’s other churches and nearly all the ground floors of private buildings, hotels and shops.
Experts noted that the flooding, caused by high tides and fierce winds, has most likely been exacerbated by the persistent and deliberate deepening of Venice’s canals to allow the entry of large vessels such as cruise ships, which has increased the volume of water they contain. The Italian government declared a state of emergency and pledged a speedy response to the crisis, but there is no clear way forward. Despite expenditure of €6bn ($6.6bn), work has been stalled on a huge system of flood barriers which can be raised to protect the city since a corruption scandal in 2014. The barriers, which were announced to great fanfare 16 years ago and are now more than 90% complete, have not been maintained for the last few years and may fail in certain conditions, experts say.
The loss of a giant mind
The aim of curating is not to be a tastemaker but to “produce knowledge”—not just of art, but of the world in which it is made, Okwui Enwezor told The New York Times in 2002. Arguably the most influential curator of the last few decades, Enwezor died from cancer in Munich on 15 March, aged just 55. He had stepped down from his post as director of the Haus der Kunst just nine months earlier to focus on his health.
He was only the second person to direct both Documenta in Kassel, Germany (in 2002) and the Venice Biennale (in 2015), the two most prestigious contemporary art surveys in the world (the only other curator to achieve this was Harald Szeemann).
Especially in his later group shows such as Documenta, the 2012 Paris Triennale and the 2015 Venice Biennale, Enwezor “showed up the provincialism of his Western colleagues by foregrounding the work of artists from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the diasporas of the Black Atlantic,” as Adam Shatz put in, writing in the London Review of Books after Enwezor’s death. “Okwui’s art world looked more like the world itself. But this was no occasion for self-congratulation, much less for exercises in the sterile American rhetoric of ‘inclusion’, which he disdained. His project was to decolonise the art world: not to make it more ‘diverse’ but to redistribute power inside it.
MoMA rethinks its displays
The impact of Enwezor’s polyphonic view of art history on our field was evident in the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York after a $450m renovation and expansion designed by the architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, which added 47,000 sq. feet of display space.
“The museum could be on its way to its second round of greatness,” was the verdict of Roberta Smith in The New York Times. The curators have used the extra room to rethink the collection and its installation. Work by artists who were historically overlooked now sit in direct dialogue with some of the most acclaimed works in the museum’s collection: Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967), a bloody disquisition on race relations during the Civil Rights era, is audaciously juxtaposed with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), for example. Meanwhile, film and video were better integrated throughout the display, too.
The story of art MoMA articulates was once fixed around a few immovable people and places, now it is a museum that aims to be in perpetual motion. MoMA, one of the major institutions in charge of writing the canon, is now willingly involved in dismantling and expanding it.
To return or not to return?
After sweeping promises made in 2017 and 2018, France’s plans for the restitution of African objects acquired in the colonial era from its national museums appeared to stall this year: no works were returned and a major conference scheduled for April to discuss the issue was cancelled. Although a small clutch of European museums did return a handful of colonial-era objects to Africa and to indigenous communities elsewhere, there was no systematic rethink of museum policy on restitution as promised by President Macron and, for the most part, directors of major museums retreated to their entrenched positions on the issue. It was only at the very end of the year, on 16 December, that France’s culture minister said on a visit to Benin that 26 royal objects looted by French troops in the colonial era and now in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris will be returned to the West African country by 2021. Before that happens, French law will need to be revised to permit the deaccessioning, although the works could be sent to Benin on loan before the lengthy legal process is complete.
The most recent announcement follows Macron’s grandiose pledge, made during a visit to Burkina Faso in November 2017, that the restitution of African objects would be a priority during his term in office. “I am from a generation of French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up part of our history. I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” he said. A year later, a report commissioned by the president and written by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr, recommended the permanent return to the continent of all works held by French museums which were taken in the colonial period unless it could be proven that these objects were acquired “legitimately”.
Artefacts were taken in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today
The controversial report sparked heated debate. But, pressure from national museum directors and Macron’s own culture ministry appears to have led to the president revising his ambitious restitution plans. The government says it remains committed to returning some objects and sending others on “long-term loan” to Africa, an option which was specifically rejected by the Savoy-Sarr report as inadequate.
Meanwhile in Germany, culture ministers from the country’s 16 states agreed in March to work towards the repatriation of artefacts in museum collections that were taken from indigenous peoples “in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today” and around €2m ($2.2m) was set aside for provenance research for artefacts acquired during the colonial era. But it remains to be seen whether this initiative will lead to wide-spread restitution—an increasingly divisive issue in the run-up to the opening next year of the Humboldt Forum, a new museum for Berlin’s ethnological collections, which include around 50,000 artefacts removed from Africa during the colonial era.
Elsewhere, the directors of encyclopedic museums defended their institutions’ collections with varying degrees of tactlessness. In January, Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, an institution facing numerous long-standing restitution claims, made the tone-deaf assertion that the removal of the sculptures from the Parthenon had been “a creative act”. The V&A director Tristram Hunt wrote in The Guardian that, for his institution, “to decolonize is to decontextualize” and pledged instead to focus on provenance research, new displays and co-operation with source countries on a range of initiatives including loans of disputed objects. He also reiterated the oft-repeated and somewhat disingenuous claim that British museums are legally barred from deaccessioning (as are French museums).
Speaking on the In Other Words podcast in September, the Metropolitan Museum director Max Hollein said the concept of the encyclopedic museum “clearly encapsulates the urgency and the importance of being able to show all different cultures in multiple ways in one place,” adding that “to argue that works can only fulfill their destiny by returning them to the place where they originated, that goes completely against the whole idea of…art.”
The debate is unlikely to disappear. In November the Open Society Foundations (OSF), an organization set up by billionaire businessman George Soros, launched a $15m initiative to assist African lawyers and groups in their efforts to secure the return of works taken in the colonial era. “The legacy of colonial violence has deep implications for the ways that racism and imbalances of power are perpetuated today. This isn’t just about returning pieces of art, but about restoring the very essence of these cultures,” Patrick Gaspard, OFS president said when the project was launched.
The rise of China
The Tate in London signed a memorandum of understanding in June with the Chinese state-owned developer Shanghai Lujiazui Group, which is building the Pudong Museum of Art. Under the terms of this agreement, Tate will send three exhibitions from its collection to the new institution, scheduled to open in 2021. It will also assist the fledgling institution with art and visitor management. In November, Paris’s Pompidou Centre opened an outpost in Shanghai in a building designed by the British architect David Chipperfield. To coincide with the opening, the Picasso Museum and the Giacometti Foundation, both in Paris, also announced they will together launch a new museum in Beijing’s 798 art district next June.
Meanwhile, in March, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) signed an agreement to partner with the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, founded by the Indonesian-Chinese collector Budi Tek, who is seriously ill with pancreatic cancer (the partnership was first announced during a panel discussion arranged by In Other Words in Hong Kong in 2018). A new foundation will take control of Tek’s collection and focus on joint exhibition and programming with LACMA. In October, Qatar Museums (QM) in Doha joined the partnership. “Together, we are experimenting with new and innovative ways to share the collections and programs from LACMA, Yuz, and QM with a larger global audience,” said LACMA director Michael Govan in a statement.
Another partnership was forged at the end of the year by Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, who signed a memorandum of understanding with Vincent Liu, director of Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) which operates 17 local museums. The collaboration will enable the Hong Kong Museum of Art to stage the first Botticelli exhibition in China with loans from the Florentine museum (medium and small paintings only) next September as part of a five-year exchange agreement. In return, LCSD will pay €600,000 to the Uffizi for the Botticelli show.
For the most part, the fees payable to Western institutions are not disclosed, but , these are highly profitable ventures and we’ll no doubt see more of them in years to come. Curiously, Western activists who are definitively reshaping our conversations about museum power and accountability this year have remained largely silent on these new collaborations, despite increasing evidence of the detention of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China as part of a systematic “re-education” campaign designed to make these ethnic groups disavow their religion, renounce their language and profess loyalty to the ruling Communist Party.
Meanwhile the future of Hong Kong as a cultural hub is unclear as the Chinese government continues to pull the special administrative region closer to the mainland. Despite ongoing speculation about the impact of the protests on Art Basel Hong Kong, the organization revealed a lengthy exhibitor list, with more than 240 galleries signed up to participate in the event scheduled to take place between 19 and 21 March. It has also offered concessions to dealers by discounting booth fixtures, local restaurants and shipping.
Culture in the crossfire
President Donald Trump’s “America First” mantra, adapted and reiterated by politicians in Europe and elsewhere, signaled a return to isolationist policies that had significant effects on the cultural sphere this year. At midnight on 31 December 2018, the US and Israel formally quit the United Nations’ cultural organization, UNESCO, founded after the Second World War to foster peace, citing the organization’s anti-Israel bias and its need for fundamental reform and leaving $600m in unpaid dues. The former US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, put it bluntly: the organization is a “cesspool”, she tweeted.
Back home, President Trump introduced a 15% tariff on imported Chinese products including art, antiquities, photographs, books and maps on 1 September as part of the ongoing trade war with the country. At the time of writing, China and the US were in the early phases of deescalating the conflict and negotiating a deal that would entail rollback of the tariffs.
Meanwhile, the French government vowed that the European Union would retaliate if America made good on Trump’s promise to impose tariffs on around $2.4bn of French products, following a disagreement over the taxation of major tech companies.
In Britain, the painful and messy process of leaving the European Union spluttered on, having collapsed two governments and caused two elections . Museum directors and arts organizations in the county warned that the repercussions of Brexit on their industries would likely be severe and could make it harder to staff their institutions, organize major exhibitions and collaborate on cross-border projects. While the Brits wait for the other shoe to drop (nobody, including the government, seems to know what will actually happen when Brexit takes effect)—the lack of clarity has made planning difficult. This, of course, has been bad for business. The overwhelming victory of the Conservative Party on 12 December revealed a fundamental reconfiguration of the country, with several traditionally working class Labour strongholds switching allegiance. With the Conservative victory, Brexit is now confirmed as inevitable. The shape, scope and consequences of this remain unclear
In Italy, the then-culture minister, Alberto Bonisoli of the populist Five Star Movement, announced at the start of the year that he intended to rethink the reforms his predecessor had put in place—notably those which had enabled the hiring of foreign museum directors in the country for the first time, including the German art historian Eike Schmidt as head of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence. The previous administration had placed “much emphasis and importance on searching, above all, abroad,” Bonisoli told the London Times newspaper. “I think they thought they wouldn’t find sufficient talent for the job in Italy.” Now, he added, “I think you will find it”, he said echoing the “Italians first” slogan used by Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party and the country’s then deputy prime minister.
The Five Star-League Party coalition government also announced it intended to block previously-approved loans of works by Leonardo da Vinci from Italian museums to the Louvre in Paris for the French museum’s major show celebrating the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death.
In ten or 15 years time, some of those millions of young people protesting will be working in the very institutions they are now challenging
But, following the collapse of the Five Star-League government in August and the reinstatement as culture minister of Dario Franceschini of the centre-left Democratic Party, foreign museum directors were confirmed in their posts in October and the loans to the Louvre were approved.
Like the now-defunct populist coalition in Italy, populist and far-right governments in Brazil, Poland and Hungary have used culture to impose conservative social values by, for example, cancelling funding for LGBT projects (Brazil); seeking to impose government control over the appointment of theatre directors (Hungary) and exerting increasing control over state-funded museums (Poland).
This year was one in which cultural values were increasingly challenged, and on all fronts—from the protests of left-wing activists to the clampdowns by conservative governments. Museums, in particular, suddenly found themselves at the heart of wider cultural battles that are dividing democracies around the world. Institutions that attempt to bury their heads in the sand and behave as before are likely in for a rude awakening.
Whatever position they take on any given issue, the choices museums make now will define them for a generation. Overwhelmingly, the calls for change are coming from social-media savvy young people around the world who are often bold, sometimes reckless, and, most of all, optimistic in their insistent belief that transformation is not only possible but imperative. It is worth remembering that, in ten or 15 years time, some of those millions of young people protesting on the streets will be working in the very same institutions they are now challenging. What happens then is anybody’s guess.
In Must See
A lot happened in 2019. The Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale made headlines; MoMA closed and reopened again; leading art institutions woke up to demands for greater globalism, protests over toxic philanthropy rocked museums in the UK and the US—and the art market weathered it all to a backdrop of fake news, wars, migrant caravans, revolts, hurricanes, political polarization and, finally, presidential impeachment.
Art, meanwhile, took the measure of things and provided both new and historical perspectives. Here are a few of the exhibitions that captured some of the spirit of the time while speaking poignantly to their own concerns in their own visual language. Ars longa, indeed. C.V.F
“Sarah Sze”, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Sze’s scaffolding-like sculptures, which sometimes look like rose bushes with 3-D images for flowers, are the perfect works of art to reflect on information glut. Arrayed across various kinds of supports in a gallery-wide installation that included the exterior windows, its corners, floor and ceiling, this exhibition suggested a capacious metaphor for life’s disorders, and not a few of its promises.
A typical work consisted of a flimsy-looking armature that contained—to name just a few materials—cut paper, video projections, printed photographs, notes, moss, metal clips and a bottle of cleaning solution. Sze’s first New York exhibition since 2015 made a trope of the idea of transformation—objects turned into images, iPhone vids into postcard stands, workstations into global villages and information silos into observatories. To grasp their symmetry was akin to waking up from a nap with the ability, suddenly, to speak Mandarin. C.V.F
“Beatriz González: A Retrospective”, Pérez Art Museum Miami
The first large-scale U.S. retrospective of the work of this Bogotá-based artist, the show spans six decades of art-making by one of the few living representatives of Latin America’s “radical women” generation.
Critically celebrated but vastly underknown in the US, González’s retrospective—which is currently at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (until 20 January 2020)—seeks to fill this gap by presenting 150 works belonging to the artist as well as from public and private collections in Colombia, the US and Europe.
The show includes conventional oil-on-canvas paintings, but also paintings on curtains, recycled furniture and other surfaces—formal rebellions against being lumped into American-style “international” Pop art. González once described her pictures and picture-objects as “underdeveloped paintings for underdeveloped countries”. Rather than a put-down, the 81-year-old meant to invoke her art’s relationship to the 85% of the world that lives in developing nations. C.V.F
“God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin”, David Zwirner
“Troubled times get the tyrants and prophets they deserve.” So begins Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and curator Hilton Als’s introduction to his exhibition-as-a-profile of writer James Baldwin: novelist, essayist, playwright, political philosopher, and 20th-century Jeremiah of all things American and othered.
A composite sketch of the Harlem bard by way of paintings, drawings, sculpture, video and photographs by artists such as Richard Avedon, Beauford Delaney, Alice Neel, Kara Walker and Baldwin himself, the revealing display captured the visual verve of some of the writer’s most important ideas. Think eloquent, but also urgent, disquisitions on race, sexuality, power, religion, family and creativity.
Among the highlights: a 1941 nude Delaney portrait of Baldwin at age 15, several photographs taken by his Bronx high school classmate Avedon in 1945, and a 2005 Walker video titled 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America. C.V.F
“Garry Winogrand: Color”, Brooklyn Museum
The first exhibition dedicated to the nearly forgotten color photographs of Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), this elegiac display rolled out reams of “what ifs?”. Among them, how much more influence would Winogrand wield today if more people knew his color work?
Shown though immersive projections of 450 never-before-seen slides of US streets, suburbs, beaches, motels, theaters, fairgrounds, airports and amusement parks, Winogrand captured the raw poetics of life in pre-1970s America—at a time when color film was the preserve of advertisers and amateurs. Selected from more than 45,000 saturated slides the artist produced during the 1950s and 1960s, the artist’s Kodacolor snapshots echo postwar America’s product-consumerist rainbow, while capturing people of all hues and social origins, gracefully and generously, in a show that provides its own civics lesson. C.V.F
“Ribera: Art of Violence”, Dulwich Picture Gallery
Seventeenth-century Europe was a dark and violent place, convulsed by religious conflict—the Reformation and Counter-Reformation plunged the continent into wars. The century was characterized by battles for economic supremacy, plagues and revolution. This was the world of El Greco, Velázquez and Caravaggio, artists to whom the less-well-known Jusepe de Ribera is sometimes compared.
This exhibition, the first in the UK of Ribera’s work, brought together eight monumental canvases, plus prints and drawings, by the Spanish-born, Naples-based artist (1591-1652), from the Prado, the Capodimonte and the Metropolitan Museum among others.
His paintings display a shockingly grisly level of violence, chief among them an enormous painting of an icy calm Apollo torturing a twisted, supine Marsyas (Apollo and Marsyas (1637)). The god peels off strips of skin while the satyr howls in silent pain. An unflinching show, co-curated by the Wallace Collection’s director Xavier Bray, of an artist famous in his time and now slowly returning to prominence. J.M.
Maurizio Cattelan: “Victory is Not an Option”, Blenheim Palace
It was a brave move to let Maurizio Cattelan loose in the opulent baroque chambers of one of Britain’s swankiest stately homes, especially in light of his recent escapades at Art Basel Miami Beach. And Blenheim Palace certainly got more than it bargained for when Cattelan’s golden toilet, America (2016), was stolen from a cubicle in Winston Churchill’s birthplace within days of the opening. There was even speculation that Cattelan was responsible (he wasn’t, but despite five arrests in connection with the theft, no one has yet been charged). However, the heist did not detract from all the other brilliant interventions by art’s most mischievous provocateur within this palatial monument to Britain’s past military might.
The show, Cattelan’s largest in the UK to date, took on a particular resonance in the context of the current Brexit crisis. Sometimes spectacular (his carpeting with giant Union Jack flags of the processional outdoor courtyard, which visitors had to trample across to enter the palace); sometimes sly (the insertion of a number of mini-Maurizios perched on lofty cornices among the swaggering family portraits), the exhibition repeatedly punctured pomposity and injected a very human poignancy into Blenheim’s hubristic aristocratic grandeur. An anti-monumental triumph. L.B.
“La Pelle: Luc Tuymans”, Palazzo Grassi, Venice
Recent choices for shows at the Palazzo Grassi, one of French billionaire and Christie’s owner François Pinault’s pair of Venetian galleries, have divided, even appalled, the critics (Martial Raysse in 2015, Damien Hirst in 2017). But this substantial show of more than 80 paintings by Luc Tuymans was widely-agreed as a return to form.
La Pelle means “the skin”, an ambiguous title—taken from a novel by the Italian writer Curzio Malaparte—that could be taken literally (there are pictures of hands, bodies, faces). Perhaps it is a reference to the very thin layers of diluted paint, applied in a single sitting, that skim the canvas.
More likely, it’s a reference to what lies beneath. Tuymans’s paintings, often inspired by photographs or images from smartphones, billboards and magazines, are superficially cool, but mask dark, often complex, subjects. An innocuous painting of a lampshade on a small glass side-table that forms part of the triptych Recherches (1989), turns out to be anything but. Photographed in an officer’s house at Buchenwald concentration camp, it was made from human skin. J.M.
“Sarah Lucas”, Red Brick Art Museum, Beijing
Sarah Lucas’s first exhibition in China took the form of a survey of some hundred key pieces, along with new work made for the occasion. While the selection of often anatomically explicit sculptures made no concessions to Chinese conservatism, Lucas’s formal acuity and skill in handling scale was brought to the fore.
In the hangar-like larger galleries, photographic works blown up to an unprecedented size formed dramatic backdrops to the fruit-and-veg classics, along with crumpled car sculptures and a new series of bodily “Bunnys” made from stuffed tights. Especially striking was the way in which the plaster-cast lower bodies of Lucas’s female “Muses”—along with her three-meter-tall sculpture of thigh-high cast concrete boots and an especially audacious pair of colossal concrete phalluses balanced on blocks of crushed cars—all became less bawdy and more reminiscent of grand classical fragments. L.B.
“Anne Imhof: Sex”, Tate Modern
Anne Imhof came to international attention when the work she installed in the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017, Faust, won a Golden Lion. Taking over the three Tate Tanks—the underground concrete vaults that were used to store the oil for the former Bankside power station, for a series of four-hour evening performances was arguably a bigger challenge.
Expectations were high, queues long, and the packed audience varied from ultra-serious solo viewers to socially-motivated bunches of selfie-seekers. In the end, “Sex” proved a powerful mix of voyeurism and being viewed, as a troupe of disdainful dancers and musicians strutted through the free-flowing throngs, glaring or ignoring the audience as they chose.
Sometimes the viewers were raised up on crowded ramps, sometimes the performers circled on scaffolding high above. The “dance” was improvised, the performers taking instructions from Imhof in real time via-WhatsApp, while the crowd responded, taking iPhone videos and pictures. The smell of oil that still clings to the tanks, the deep, throbbing music, and Eliza Douglas’s Nico-inspired vocalizing—evoked if not actual sex, then something quite like it. J.M.
“Mike Nelson: The Asset Strippers”, Tate Britain
You could smell Mike Nelson’s commission for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries before you saw it. Giant pieces of salvaged industrial machinery—rusting, clogged with dust and dripping oil—were arranged to form a pungent and dramatic memorial to Britain’s recent manufacturing history.
Mounted on work benches, girders and trestle tables, these stilled, scrapped contraptions also carried strong associations with the 20th-century artists who were so influenced by such mechanical forms. A lathe selected by Nelson was a dead ringer for a reclining Henry Moore; another chunk of equipment resembled a robotic Eduardo Paolozzi; while slabs of steel and stacked wooden planks evoked Richard Serra and Tony Cragg.
Other elements in this masterly installation included swing doors, panels and partitions reclaimed from hospitals and public housing in a richly associative elegy for a more optimistic, productive post-war Britain, whose aspirations for social equality and a welfare state have all but vanished today. L.B.
Okwui Okpokwasili in Bronx Gothic, Young Vic theatre
To witness Okwui Okpokwasili perform is to witness a storyteller in complete control of breath, rhythm, and narrative. This is what I kept reminding myself of in June as I walked into London’s Young Vic theatre for one of Okpokwasili’s final performances of Bronx Gothic. By now, Bronx Gothic has become heralded as a masterpiece of dance-theater and Okpokwasili a performer of unparalleled form. Indeed, in Bronx Gothic, the artist is at the height of her powers.
Upon entering the theater, I watched Okpokwasili move sharply and percussively from a small corner of the dimly lit set. We, her attentive audience, watched as her arms stretched, as she bent at the waist, as her hips turned, as her breath heaved, as the music grew louder, as she conjured. And as she stepped to the microphone and began to read the first of several letters that comprise the verbal narrative elements of the performance we, her attentive audience, were still vibrating.
The solo dance work chronicles the story of two young women from the Bronx who are just as curious about one another as they are about the world around them. We meet these young girls through their words that live in these letters—journal-like entries might be a more accurate characterization—and the curiosities that inform their mappings.
Though not entirely or explicitly autobiographical, Okpokwasili, who grew up in the Bronx as a first-generation child of Nigerian immigrants, has acknowledged the way in which the spirit of these protagonists is informed by personal memories and experiences.
At times, as Okpokwasili embodies their interiorities, she sings. In other moments, her movements become increasingly jarring as her legs, arms, and body slam into the floor. Still, it is impossible to look away. This too is Bronx Gothic’s potency: that in her conjuring, Okpokwasili dares to challenge the liminal space between audience and performer. J.L.
“John Edmonds: Between Pathos and Seduction”, Company Gallery
John Edmonds has long been concerned with the visual manifestations of intimacy within his image-making processes. His summer solo exhibition at New York City’s Company Gallery, “Between Pathos and Seduction”, extended this central inquiry through a series of photographs that took up the human form as well as Edmonds’s deepening collection of Central and West African sculptural objects as subjects.
In one image, a young man leans against a table filled with several sculptures, his eyes averted away from the camera and intent on the objects themselves. A stillness pervades this composition as line, hue, and gaze become entangled between the sitters—human and non-human. In another photograph, the sitter’s back is toward us, their gaze cast downward and to the right, their arms bent at the elbow.
Elsewhere, Edmonds’s sitters pose against, with, and covered by West African fabrics. Domestic interiors are a shared site throughout the series. As a gesture, Edmonds expertly employs a complex use of light and shadow within his images as a methodology for thinking through the terms of (black) subjectivity and perhaps even, pleasure, just as they engage in a dialogue in and through (diasporic) time. J.L.
“Frank Bowling”, Tate Britain
“Gradually, as I became more involved in the making of painting,” Frank Bowling begins in his Tate Britain interview, “I realized that one of the main ingredients in making paintings was color and geometry. I found that this was the place I felt the most comfortable and I’ve been going along that track ever since.”
Such a statement quite possibly represents the best framework through which to read Bowling’s oeuvre, which spans more than 60 years and was the subject of this most ambitious retrospective at Tate Britain.
The exhibition follows a necessary trend in which major art institutions have finally taken note of, and explicitly named, the rigorous formal and conceptual contributions made by a generation of black artists, now elders, who transformed the contemporary artistic landscape in the latter half of the 20th century—Bowling, 85, being chief among this roster. The artist, long regarded as a master abstractionist, is beginning to receive his due.
The exhibition was organized in eight chapters that chart Bowling’s technique as it developed and evolved from his early studies at the Royal College of Art to his time in New York City in the late 1960s, his acrylic foam paintings of the 1980s, which took on an almost sculpture-like quality, and to the work that he continues to produce in to this day.
Indeed, it is Bowling’s “map paintings” a series embarked upon while in New York that depict startling shapes of South America and, specifically, his birthplace of Guyana, that haunts me still. His paintings take on great depth and profundity as color and scale yield a singular vocabulary of form. In Bowling’s hand, the paint runs and pours, spills and maneuvers its way on the canvas to demonstrate the very possibility of what a painting can be. J.L.
In Must See
The museum landscape in Los Angeles is set to look very different over the next couple of years. Already, LACMA has shuttered its collection galleries as construction continues on its new building, scheduled to open in 2024. Admission fees will be a thing of the past at LA MoCA by January, which should have a marked impact on attendance. And two major openings are in the works: the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures is scheduled to open its doors next year while the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, founded by the film-maker George Lucas, is anticipated to open in 2021.
But this year, the real action was found in the commercial galleries. Aside from a few noble exceptions, including the retrospective of Lari Pittman’s work at the Hammer (“Declaration of Independence”, until 5 January 2020) and “With Pleasure: Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985” at MoCA, the most exciting exhibitions were not in the museums.
Major, multi-city galleries including Matthew Marks and Hauser & Wirth have refused to patronize LA with second-tier shows (as cynics expected they might), while hometown players like Parker Gallery and Nonaka-Hill have contributed to the ongoing education of the city’s art lovers. Here are my picks of the best shows of 2019—any of which would have been a credit to the institutions. J.G.
The Dilexi Retrospective, Parker Gallery, The Landing, Parrasch Heijnen Gallery, Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Brian Gross Fine Art, Crown Point Press
A project coordinated across six different galleries in two different cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, deserves admiration if only for its logistical and diplomatic achievement. Organizing curator Laura Whitcomb managed to divvy up work shown at the Dilexi Gallery—which was co-founded and run by jazz aficionado Jim Newman in San Francisco between 1958 and 1969 and briefly in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. Highlights included the phantasmagoria of Roy De Forest and Franklin Williams at Parker, and carved wooden sculptures by Jeremy Anderson at The Landing. J.G.
“Parergon: Japanese Art of the 1980s and 1990s”, Nonaka-Hill, Los Angeles; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
Another project in which an independent curator—Mika Yoshitake—facilitated a collaboration between galleries, in tribute to a legendary historical venue. Gallery Parergon operated in Tokyo between 1981 and 1986 and showed many of the artists associated with Japanese New Wave art. Unforgettable works in this exhibition included Yukinori Yanagi’s Ground Transposition (1987-2019)—two giant spheres of dirt, one floating on the ceiling—and Noboru Tsubaki’s warty yellow sculpture Fresh Gasoline (1989). J.G.
“Charles Ray: Two Ghosts”, Matthew Marks Gallery
A new sculpture by Charles Ray is a major event, given the artist’s unhurried and thoughtful pace of creation—it can take 15 years to complete a work of art. Two Horses (2019) is a six-ton, 14-feet-wide slab of granite with a relief image digitally carved into its grainy surface of—you guessed it—two horses. This simple description fails woefully to convey the subtlety and sophistication of the sculpture, which nods to the legacy of artists such as George Stubbs and Eadweard Muybridge, while remaining a thoroughly contemporary technological creation. J.G.
“David Hammons”, Hauser & Wirth
Everyone wanted so badly to love this much-anticipated career survey from the reclusive cult figure. But when it finally opened, Los Angeles was thrown into hand-wringing consternation by a show that was recalcitrant, elliptical and ambiguously ironic (not to mention absent titles and press releases). The central installation—a sea of shop-bought camping tents recalling the homeless encampments that abound in Los Angeles—was especially hard to admire. I chose to give Hammons the benefit of the doubt because I believe he is messing with us, the so-called liberal denizens of an art world that had so long denied him a seat at the table. J.G.
“Resilience: Philip Guston in 1971”, Hauser & Wirth
A very different, though equally momentous, exhibition from the same gallery: this show focused on a single, cataclysmic year in the revered painter’s career. It was curated by Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, who was uniquely placed to observe the torment he experienced with the adverse reception of his exhibition at London’s Marlborough Gallery in 1970. This was the moment in which he forsook Abstract Expressionism and unveiled his new, cartoony style. Alongside tender paintings made in Rome, this deep-dive exhibition also included Guston’s powerful political satires of Nixon. J.G.
“Laura Owens: Books and Tables”, Matthew Marks Gallery
As with Charles Ray’s Two Horses, a description of this exhibition—a selection of Laura Owens’s handmade books, placed on tables—entirely undersells its invention, delight and complexity. Anyone familiar with Owens’s formal eclecticism will, perhaps, not be surprised at the variety of fabrication techniques included here, from wintergreen transfers to embroidery to pop-up books. Custom oak tables filled with hidden gadgetry offer additional wonders, including one that uses hidden magnets to move its books almost imperceptibly across its surface. J.G.
A book is not just for Christmas. So, this selection aims to give your shelves a little long-term sustenance. I’ve wrapped up a world-renowned collection and vintage vernissages, the stylishly debonair and artistically debauched. But, since no one wants to look like a Grinch, so I’ve also included a volume with a dash of seasonal spirit.
Bigger and better
When MoMA reopened in October it delivered a broader narrative. Mirroring the general cultural climate—more accommodating, less canonical—the rehang conjures up fresh associations, crisscrossing various decades. MoMA Now: 375 Works From the Museum of Modern Art, the bulky new book of highlights from the museum’s holdings, takes a similarly interdisciplinary approach but, thankfully, uses a straight line to joins the dots.
The selection includes 170 works, including photographs, film and product design, absent from previous overviews. Entries are presented simply in chronological order, beginning with a silver print by Julia Margaret Cameron from 1867 and ending with the 2017 film Faces Places, a collaboration between director Agnès Varda and street artist JR.
The design is unfussy, the text approachable. And the traditional approach reveals some surprising timings. We discover that Odilon Redon imagined a hot-air balloon styled as an eyeball before Magritte was even born. Perhaps more meaningfully, we also learn that the meaning of “modern” changes day by day.
MoMA Now: 375 Works From the Museum of Modern Art (Museum of Modern Art)
“I’m very curious by nature‑maybe too curious. Nosy even,” admits Hungarian photographer Gabor Szilasi in his new, eponymously titled monograph. Although best known for his street photographs of Quebec and Budapest, this volume collects Szilasi’s shots of the Montreal art scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Here the artist sticks his nose into cafe “happenings”, champagne toasts and impromptu gigs (Leonard Cohen turns up at one gallery with his harmonica).
The rather niche environment of opening nights might seem a cul-de-sac for a photographer, with their confined spaces and constrained behavior, but Szilasi delivers plenty of comedy, social history and compositional surprises. He snaps couples kissing under coat racks, posturing men and bored women, immense hairdos, impressive spectacles and tight turtlenecks. And everyone is smoking.
It is a fascinating insight into a particular time and place seen through an odd prism. “It was important to show the exhibition itself,” recalled Szilasi, “but it was the people who interested me the most.”
Gabor Szilasi: The Art World in Montreal 1960-1980 (Mcgill-Queen’s University Press)
As well as being hothouses of bad behavior and eye-popping bar tabs, the cabarets and cafés of the late 19th and early 20th century were creative dives for many Modern masters. Into the Night: Cabarets and Clubs in Modern Art—which accompanies a dazzling exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London (until 19 January)—covers some eight decades of work made for, and about, these rowdy haunts.
Some works were consciously created as art and some made for commercial purposes, but all are striking. There are paintings, photographs, posters, invitations, murals, tickets and menus in a survey that touches on a variety of talents, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Josef Hoffmann, Ramón Alva de la Canal and Max Beckmann, among many others. It is a rare artistic milieu that touches on Habsburg glamour, flappers, shadow puppets, Russian Futurism and Nazi persecution.
The cabaret scene of 1920s Berlin is here, of course, with all its androgynous swagger and sickly colors (Otto Dix’s watercolors capture the seamy side of the strasse in brute-camp style). But we also visit lesser-known hangouts, like the Mbari Club in Nigeria and Rasht 29 in Tehran, both of which epitomized 1960s cool, continents away from the Manhattan buzz. This illuminating book takes the pulse of Saturday night and finds that decadence rarely goes out of fashion.
Long before Apple turned wrists into “platforms”, they were pendulous shop windows for watchmakers. And, as Alex Barter notes in The Watch: A Twentieth-Century Style History, what you strap on it tells as much about your taste—and your times—as the pictures on your walls.
Barter, a former deputy worldwide head of Sotheby’s watch department, details how the world of chronometers engages with the metronome of artistic movements. The impact of the Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau, enameling practices and two world wars are all investigated along the way. As Barter observes: “The watch has always been a diverse creature, never immune to the influence of changing fashions.”
Additional material including, advertisements and logos highlight how these watches fitted into the design trends of their day. An ad for Rolex Oyster has all the machismo of a naval recruitment poster. In this elegant guide, which is crisply written, beautifully produced, finely photographed, Barter addresses the complicated nature of style: how it addresses notions of affluence, class, national pride, glamour and gender. You could say they are all timely issues.
German photo-editor and collector Jochen Raiß is obsessed with “the poetry of past moments”. Infatuated by found photographs uncovered in second-hand bookstores and flea markets, this Hamburg-based magpie has accumulated a hoard of some 3,000 anonymous prints of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. His new book picks out a thread from the collection with something of seasonal theme on which to end this column: polar bears. Or, more accurately, 20th-century Germans posing with people dressed up as polar bears.
This craze, which ran from the 1920s to the 1960s, gripped Bavarian ski resorts, grand hotels, picnic parks and the races, all the playgrounds of German society. This is Instagram for the Weimar Republic.
There are bears on deckchairs, promenades and piers, at school outings and family gatherings. Raiß believes the whole ice-capade started as a gimmick at a seaside resort on the Baltic. And he dedicates the collection to all those anonymous models who got hot under the (fur) collar.
Polar Bears (Hatje Cantz)
Certain insights into the landscape of curatorial thinking around the world can be deduced from an analysis of the individual applications over the three years for the Sotheby’s Prize. The award has a slant—it was created to facilitate exhibitions that explore overlooked or under-represented areas of art history. The jury is illustrious—Connie Butler, chief curator at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Donna De Salvo, senior adjunct curator, special projects at Dia Art Foundation, New York; Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis, The Hague and director designate of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; Allan Schwartzman, founder and principal of Art Agency, Partners and chairman of the Fine Art Division of Sotheby’s; Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England; and, for its first two years until his untimely death, the late, great Okwui Enwezor.
Here, the 2019 jurors talk to us about what the data reveals—and bring to light some of the backstage deliberations.
Exhibitions of work by male artists constitute a growing majority of applications for solo shows (60% in 2017; 64% in 2018; 68% in 2019). Despite “a growing push for gender equity”, there is still a “deeply embedded resistance to it”, says Butler, who organized the ground-breaking exhibition “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at LA MoCA in 2007 and next year will co-curate “Witch Hunt” with Anne Ellegood, director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
The exhibition will be jointly held at the Hammer and the ICA and will feature new work by mid-career artists who are committed to feminism. “Unless you make an asserted push, you won’t get any kind of lasting trend,” says Butler.
The discrepancy is less pronounced than the one revealed in a data study by In Other Words and artnet News earlier this year. The report, “Women’s Place in the Art World—Why Recent Advancements for Female Artists are Largely an Illusion”, found that, among 26 prominent American museums, a whopping 89% of all acquisitions and 86% of exhibitions over the past decade were of work by male artists.
Change will have to come from curators, Butler says. “We are able to focus on this more than directors, because they have broader responsibilities.” This is echoed by Serota, who served as director of the Tate from 1988 to 2017. “The impetus to make these exhibitions is coming from the chief curators; they have power in relation to the program, if not the whole museum.”
It is perhaps not surprising, given the turmoil around the world, that more applicants for the prize are focusing on social and political issues. This year there was a dramatic increase in the number of topics addressed—from race to nationhood, from sexuality to science and technology. The number of exhibitions addressing themes outpaced the growth in actual applications by five to one, suggesting a renewed focus on tackling some of the issues of our times.
The number of exhibitions addressing sexuality has risen each year, doubling with every round of submissions. However, the figures themselves are fairly low: only 8% of applications across three years address the topic. One of these, “Queer Abstraction”, which closed recently at Des Moines Art Center, was commended, suggesting the jury is willing to buck statistical trends. “It is a really smart, risky, bold and committed project,” De Salvo said at the time.
Religion is another theme that has seen outsized growth—more than 300%—but, like sexuality, the overall numbers are low. For De Salvo, this reveals a tendency “towards the personal realities of living in a complex world. It is about lived experience, individuality and identity—and reaffirming of agency.”
Race to the top
By far, the most notable increase was in exhibitions tackling issues of race which, in 2019, featured in one in three submissions. This could be because curators are noticing which exhibitions the prize has so far recognized, including last year’s winner, “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1900-1970” (scheduled to open next year at the Academy Museum of Motion of Motion Pictures) and one of the commended shows, “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott”, (at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati until January 12, 2020)—an artist whose “perspectives on race, life, social mores, historical heritage and cultural hybridity allow us to forthrightly confront what the state of global culture will be in the immediate future”, says its co-curator, Lowery Stokes Sims.
Meanwhile, 15% of all solo show proposals submitted for the Sotheby’s Prize have focused on work by African American artists, a figure closely aligned with the demographics of the American population (13.4%, according to the United States Census).
Within the solo show applications, there is a slight trend towards more focus on female African American artists: 58% of all proposals for African American artists were of work by women. “In the last five to ten years there has been an increase in the appetite for art that addresses political issues,” Serota says, “and a lot of these issues disproportionately affect women. I think African American women might feel there is a greater urgency about the issues they wish to address or portray.”
The submitted proposals “underscore the real strength of African American artists in the contemporary art world”, Butler says. “Museums are making up for a lot of lost time and history—and so they should. We are all trying to correct patterns that historically have excluded women and artists of color.”
Applications for the prize are ahead of the national US museum average in terms of representation of this group. The 2018 report “The Long Road for African American Artists”, by In Other Words and artnet News, revealed that just 2.4% of all acquisitions and gifts and 7.7% of all exhibitions at 30 prominent North American museums have been of work by African American artists.
Proposals addressing issues of nationhood, which is often interwoven with race and racism, also increased, growing by 62% this year to become one of the three most common topics, figuring in one in three of the proposals reviewed by the jury.
The jurors have recognized projects that grapple with these difficult issues, commending “Art for a New Understanding: Native Voices, 1950s to Now” in 2017 (at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University), and this year split the prize between two upcoming projects in São Paulo, Brazil, which both deal with questions of nationhood.
The Museu de Arte de São Paulo received the prize for “Histórias indigenas”, an examination of indigenous histories from the 16th century to today, scheduled for 2021. “Such histories are becoming increasingly urgent and need to be addressed, while obtaining the funding for such projects remains quite challenging,” says its artistic director Adriano Pedrosa.
Jochen Volz, general director of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo, one of three institutions (along with Casa do Povo, a cultural center, and Kalipety, a prayer house) partnering on the other winner, “OPY (working title)”, proposes a wider “indigenous definition of art-making… naturally including music, dance, storytelling and the passing on of knowledge”.
Cool on climate
Only 3% of proposals address the environment or climate change. “It was a surprise to us all not to see more,” Serota says. “There are artists dealing with these issues, but in general the art world hasn’t come to terms with the enormity of this challenge and found ways of talking about it.”
From Salem to St Petersburg, from Taipei to Tel Aviv, from Winnipeg to Wakefield: institutions in 133 towns and cities around the world have applied for the prize over the past three years. But this spread fails to tell the full story. As in many cultural matters, North America dominates. Every year, around half the applications come from this continent—as do the majority of projects that win or are commended. In contrast, despite accounting for 17% of submissions, no proposal from continental Europe has so far been recognized by the jury.
For Serota, US museums have something of a head start because “they think about funds from the outset”. In Europe, says Gordenker, “most development departments have been in place for ten years, max. We’re learning fast, but there is a much better tradition of grant-application writing in the US because there you have to write them.”
One particular type of institution stands out as conducting ground-breaking research: university museums across North America. Over the three years of the prize, these smaller college museums have submitted some of the most dynamic proposals—and one in five exhibitions recognized by the judges has come from a university museum in the US, including the inaugural winner (“Pop América, 1965-1975”, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University) and two that received commendations (in 2017, “Ree Morton: The Plant That Heals May Also Poison” at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and, in 2019, “African Modernism in America, 1947-1967” at Fisk University Galleries).
Overall, 13% of applications from US institutions have been from university museums. Many of these were not formally recognized by the jury but nevertheless were impressive for their vision and quality of research. “Those projects were especially research-driven and collaborative,” says Butler. “They all embraced the inclusion of other kinds of expertise.”
We feel that we have an obligation to take risks and push boundaries
There is something specifically fertile about the intellectual atmosphere fostered by the “umbrella of the university” which allows a certain degree of freedom of thought, says Kate Kraczon, recently appointed curator of the Bell Gallery at Brown University, and curator of the Ree Morton show. “University and college spaces have mounted many of the most significant contemporary art exhibitions over the past 50 years,” she says.
Anna Sampson, senior associate director of development at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, agrees:“We are already a site for learning and experimentation, and we feel that we have an obligation to take risks and push boundaries.”
The US is leading in this aspect but Serota says the UK may catch up. In recent years, one of the judging criteria for academic research funding has been any potential impact the project might have on the wider world, he says, adding: “This is something I would encourage more of.”
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