2021: The Malfeasance of Power in Contemporary Art

For a long time, the grip of power curators, directors of established institutions, superstar gallerists and the influence of high-profile, wealthy patrons has been left chiefly unchallenged. Copious amounts of texts and theories have been written and immaculate Public Relations (PR) exercises have been methodically served up to reinforce their positions of authority. This highly-regarded circle is pretty much the one which decides the fate of the living (and sometimes long-dead) artists in the art world. Their authority and influence is hard to deny. Collectively, they steer the content of international biennales; career-defining exhibitions, public commissions, prestigious art awards and blue-chip gallery representations. Options and opportunities for independent artists to emerge and establish international visibility outside the purview of this hierarchical cobweb appear limited, if not unheard of. Their decisions and actions frame an artists’ institutionalisation. And, since time immemorial, their way has been the highway for an artists’ international validation and ranking within the art market’s value chain.

If one were to quickly scan through ArtReview’s 2020 edition of its ‘annual ranking of the most influential people in art’ known as the Power 100, one will find 22 entries listed as “Artists” and four others listed as “Artist Collectives”.[1] Meanwhile, there were also 11 entries for “Collectors”, 15 “Gallerists”, 10 “Museum Directors” and 21 “Curators”. If pooled together, this group of influential players collectively makes up 57% of the list, more than double that of the artists who made up 26% of the total. By virtue of this list, artists are suggested as being only one-fourth as influential as other actors in their own professional field.

Kunstkompass, a ranking of the top 100 international artists created by art and business journalist Willi Bongard in 1970 is now published by Capital, a German business magazine.[2] In this list, Gerhard Richter has consistently appeared in the pole position, unchallenged since 2004. Artists in this list are ranked by their participation in international museum and institutional exhibitions, features in magazines such as Art Forum, Art in America and Kunstforum International and for artworks acquired by major museums. However, looking at the list, its bias toward German artists is quite evident.

Recently, in mid-2020, the world heard deafening campaigns emanating from what are regarded as epicentres of contemporary art (read USA and Europe). They demand an end to all forms of discrimination, bullying, exploitation, misconduct,[3] racism[4] and to dismantle the dominance of elite, white-centric power structures and patronage[5] that has dictated value systems and key narratives. Stories of manipulation and questionable ethics are not unheard of in art’s commercial and institutional quarters. Artists and art-workers, especially the younger ones, have been known to swallow these bitter encounters in the interest of pursuing their careers.

Scott Reyburn recently wrote an opinion piece on how ‘today’s art world has been shaped by the prism of price’ festered by neo-liberal attitudes, wealth and power in the hands of an elite few.[6] We face a future where the place of artists and thinkers, whose work has been labelled as ‘non-essential’[7] may be consumed by a data-driven obsession to accumulate wealth. Sadly, the torrent of market-centred actions and commodification of art, and the active branding of artists appears to have done little to reinforce art’s own power to be humanised. Artworks are now used as collateral against bank loans,[8] at an average of 40 to 50% of their value.[9] Of course, such loan arrangements favour blue-chip artworks primarily for their tested market value and desirability. Anyone flush with excess cash to spare and profits on their minds will almost naturally gravitate their art interests in this direction. Despite this, billionaire ‘art trophy’ collectors and investors are often feted for their supposed contributions towards the art economy.