“What I Bought in Basel This Year.” Review of Art Basel, Liste, and Volta Show, June 14 — 18, 2006.
Published in Studija 49, no. 4 (2006).
View the article on Studija magazine online archive.
View the Art Basel participating gallery list on Art Map website.
View the Liste participant list on Art Map website.
View info about Volta Show 2006 on Volta website.
What I Bought in Basel This Year
Every day at Art Basel commenced with a professional panel discussion in the Bvlgari pavilion. Here, I'd like to take a look at one of these, connected very directly with study of the art market. Participating in a discussion under the title of "Art collections: philanthropy in contemporary Europe" was Marino Golinelli (born 1920) from Bologna, a geneticist, founder and president of a pharmaceutical concern, art collector and patron, along with Arend Oetker (born 1939) from Berlin, businessman, collector and patron of the arts, and Robert Weil from Stockholm, businessman and patron of the theatre and visual arts. The moderator in this discussion was art critic and lecturer Richard Flood, curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. All three guests are respectable men with an enormous influence in world business (having in their pockets companies, conglomerates and possibly also whole cities and even countries, if we are to believe those thrillers based around conspiracy theories) and hence in politics, too, no doubt. This time they've come to Basel to sit at the table in an air-conditioned room designed by Bvlgari, setting out their views on patronage of the arts.
These people have set up countless foundations and organizations that support the arts, they've founded and built kunsthalles, theatres, institutes of culture and education, non-commercial galleries, etc., etc. Thanks to the generous financial support and personal interest of these people and others like them, cultural life in Europe is nowadays flourishing in such a great variety of directions that it takes your breath away. Golinelli is a member of the organizing committee of the Venice Biennale, supports modern art galleries in Italy and is an advisor to the Venice collection of Peggy Guggenheim. Weil is the founder and director of the Magasin 3 contemporary art museum in Stockholm, the founder and director of the experimental Jewish Theatre in Stockholm, a supporter of the Batsheva dance company in Tel Aviv, and the head of the international Jewish Cultural Heritage Foundation.
It's abundantly clear that these influential gentlemen have a perspective on art that differs radically from that held, for example, by artists themselves or by art researchers, but all the patrons have set out their own definite aims, established quality criteria and set up schemes for assessing what and why should be supported. "The public good" is one of the main aims they want to attain through their patronage of the arts. Also heard very frequently is that absurdly vacuous, but beautiful, phrase "The task of art is to make the world a better, more friendly, smaller place". So be it.
Forgetting for a moment that it's all in earnest, you might imagine from hearing part of the discussion that it's some kind of "Monty Python" dialogue, were it not for a member of the audience from a third world country (such as myself) stuffing their face at that same moment with a free croissant, having entirely lost all sense of humour. The absurdity of it is laughable: in my view, the creators of art and the patrons of art are as far apart in terms of interests, ideas and thinking as one can possibly imagine, but in spite of it all, these people from different planets somehow manage to reach an understanding, and in the end both sides - the patrons and those artists who've succeeded in presenting their works in a favorable light to the people with money - are satisfied. And under these conditions, involvement in art and in the professions relating to it, is altogether very respectable and well-paid.
Arend Oetker, resembling a weary, sated Führer, tells about himself: "I'm a businessman - the fourth-generation owner of a food manufacturing concern. My interest in visuality began with brands and labels. This is the link between business and visual art. Art must exist: just as a person has two eyes, science (logic, rationality) and art (feelings, emotions) stand side by side. I purchase art that tells me something I wasn't expecting." Oetker also talks about the possible role of art as a messenger of peace, a peace movement throughout the world: the governments of all countries must be convinced of the need to defend culture and art.
Marino Golinelli asserts that creativity is the only way to look into the future. He talks of a synthesis of art and science, he's founded a lifetime education center at the University of Bologna, as well as a foundation having the aim of spreading the achievements of science with the aid of art. He mainly collects works of art that have a visual link with science. Thus, he takes pride in having a painting from 1969 by Renato Olivieri that depicts energy flows in the universe, and other works that in his view represent the progress of science and technology, discoveries in the field of chemistry and physics, etc.
Robert Weil had problems in his time with the Swedish government: he recalls how 25 years ago it was impossible for private funding to enter the cultural sphere, since all costs were covered by the state and nobody needed private sponsors. Why is he interested in art at all? It is research that lies at the root of both science and art. It's only that in art, the most important thing is observation of the process, while in science the main emphasis is on the result, while the process should preferably not be seen.
What conclusions are drawn at the close of this somewhat surreal discussion? In the first place, it's not a bad thing to be rich, it's just that then you have the problem of what to do with your riches. (Oetker asserted that his aim is not to increase wealth, but to increase value, whatever that means.) Secondly, it should be remembered that collectors and patrons of the arts come from a different planet. I would venture to say that the artist has to be aware of who he or she is working for, what the target audience wishes to see in art, and how to develop him or herself, their name and their works into an integrated, unique symbol, since otherwise it's impossible to sell the work.
Or, in the best case, the artist is permitted not to know anything about it, to live in a country cottage without electricity or internet, and simply create, while the gallerist takes on the task of branding, develops a saleable, quality brand and from time to time pays out to the artist his or her share of the income. The artist also has to be a truly social animal and cultivate relationships with the right gallerists and the right curators, who will be the main figures determining what ends up in respectable collections, since, when investing their funds, all entrepreneurs are careful and will only choose works of whose quality they have been convinced by professionals. Thirdly, from a rational point of view, here in Latvia we only require those twenty or two hundred court artists whose works are purchased by the collectors of our level, and the rest are evidently superfluous in the local context. If anyone can prove the opposite, I'd most willingly listen to their arguments!
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