Carrie Miller wonders if the downside of art philanthropy is really worth it…
The art he’s helped make famous and almost priceless include a woman’s unmade bed, the floor surrounding it strewn with empty booze bottles, fag butts and used undies, and what critic Robert Hughes calls “the world’s most overrated marine organism”, a shark pickled in formaldehyde. Charles Saatchi is an art collector without peer. He has so much influence on the contemporary art market that he is directly associated with, and part creator of, a major art movement: the Young British Artists (YBAs) who ascended during the 1990s and who, along with uber-stars Hirst and Emin, included Grayson Perry, Rachel Whiteread, Chris Olifi, Sam Taylor-Wood, Sarah Lucas and the Chapman Brothers.
For a quarter of a decade the Saatchi Gallery has been able to make an artist’s reputation and line their pockets with gold. The latest incarnation of it was as a private museum of 6500 sq m in the centre of London showcasing blockbuster contemporary art exhibitions from around the world, free to the viewing public. Saatchi has just announced that this private gallery will be nationalised – handed over to the State in an act of extraordinary philanthropy which will give Britain its own Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), London.
Importantly, the gift will include more than 200 works from Saatchi’s private collection, in total valued at almost $45 million.
While Australian arts philanthropists are yet to match Saatchi’s gift-giving in terms of scale, there has definitely been acts of private benefaction here in recent times that seem to mark a new age in arts philanthropy for this country. Gifts include $4 million by the family of Franco Belgiorno-Nettis to the Art Gallery of NSW towards the funding of a contemporary art annex; the establishment of White Rabbit Gallery by Judith Neilson which houses a selection of her vast collection of contemporary Chinese art; Neil Balnaves recent donation of a million dollars worth of artworks from his private collection to the Mosman Art Gallery and the splashiest of them all, Simon and Catriona Mordant‘s $15 million gifted to the redevelopment of the MCA which will now include the ‘Mordant’ wing.
The question inevitably raised by such donations, whether they be gifts of money or artworks, is one of influence. Take the most recent acts of philanthropy: Saatchi’s in Britain and Belnaves’ here. These demonstrate a direct link between the collector’s personal taste and what becomes institutionalised as part of the ‘canon’ of contemporary art. While those in the know may view these works with a skeptical and critical eye, for the average punter there surely must be a tendency to assume that the works are necessarily significant because they have been given the imprimatur of a public museum.
Focusing specifically on the new age of arts philanthropy in this country, should we be concerned that individual collectors are beginning to have too much influence on the collecting practices of public museums and therefore which artists get counted as ‘worthy’ of institutional recognition?
There is no easy answer to this problem. On the one hand it is easy to take a high-minded stance on the idea that people who’ve made a mint in the corporate world should be determining what counts as significant in the art world. Private collections are necessarily subjective, partial and often skewed towards one style or genre of work. Moreover, the collectors themselves may simply have poor taste and an uncritical eye. Even though Saatchi is often praised for having his finger on the throbbing pulse of contemporary art, as one commentator noted in relation to his recent act of benevolence: “the works he is giving are variable in quality, and not always even the best works Saatchi exhibited. There’s no artist’s film and video, for instance, and little good photography – and how can you have a museum of contemporary art that ignores these media?”
On the other hand, from a pragmatic perspective, so what if private collectors have some influence on public collections that can never aim to be truly comprehensive and representative of the history of art anyway, especially in an era which is moving towards a mixed funding model for the arts in general. Cash injections and donations of work from any source must surely be a positive thing for our underfunded public arts sector.
In the end, wouldn’t we all rather the obscenely wealthy sink their cash into the arts than their favourite footy team?