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.[10] The losers here, once again, are artists - especially those with avant-garde dispositions because funding for independent platforms that support an openness to experimental ideas is, ironically, still hard to come by.


To a bystander, the art marketplace may be seen as a glamorous and cultured playground for grown-ups where one’s participation could be construed as a coming-of-age move and a step up the social ladder. At Art Basel art fairs, ‘Discoveries’, ‘Insights’, ‘Encounters’ and ‘Dialogues’ are offered as specially curated, cutting-edge programmes. While this may be true, these presentations are also paid for by galleries selected to participate in the fair itself. While it is common sense to differentiate the notion of ‘cutting-edge’ at an art fair versus at a biennale, the power of flawless PR machinery behind major art fairs such as Art Basel in dictating the art textbooks are not to be overlooked. Art here is typically presented in all its spectacular splendour, not unlike a well-designed mall display, each work competing against others for attention and affection. One could question the loss of the artists’ voice in these presentations. But, arguably, all participations here are voluntary and commercial exchanges are often described to be purely in the interest of survival and maintaining the livelihoods of everyone connected to the art fair complex.


Compared to art fairs, traditional venues such as museums, art centers and galleries are not exactly temples operating only in service of the converted. As long as social etiquette is maintained, visitors are welcome. Many of these establishments are funded or subsidised by tax payers and accessible to the public pending ticket arrangements. They are unlike independent, artist-run spaces where entry and invitation is at the liberty of their owners. Nevertheless, an exciting and well-managed artist-run establishment could give any respectable museum a run for their money. For the novice art lover, a visit to La Colonie[11] (now reconstructing) in Paris may enlighten one as much as a visit to the Pompidou Centre. La Colonie, co-founded in 2016 by Kader Attia, a French artist of Algerian descent, brought together academics, feminists, refugees, architects, activists, artists and thinkers to speak and share knowledge and ideas without the employ of art exhibitions. For an artist to fund and found a space that puts art adjacent of, and not central to the picture, La Colonie is one of the few faith-reaffirming propositions demonstrating the social ingenuity of artists.


On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Chicago, American artist Theaster Gates founded Rebuild Foundation - ‘a platform for art, cultural development, and neighbourhood transformation' to 'support artists and strengthen communities by providing free arts programming, creating new cultural amenities and developing affordable housing, studio, and live-work space.’[12] Gates had led a US$45 million investment campaign to revitalise the city’s South Side, acquiring and rehabilitating 30 buildings into affordable housing and community facilities. He also ‘launched Black Cinema House to screen and discuss films by and about black people and to offer video classes to youths and adults’; ‘joined with the Chicago Housing Authority and other partners to turn a public housing project into the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, a mixed-income housing development that includes housing for artists, a dance studio, public meeting space and a community garden’; and ‘directed the renovation of a former candy store into Listening House, which provides space for community programs and serves as an archive for esteemed Chicago institutions of a bygone era’.[13] Last I checked, Theaster Gates is not (yet) a billionaire.


The replacement of colour, gender and better ethics expected of high-level curators, museum directors, gallerists and patrons would likely do little to improve the imbalance of a mostly Western-structured dominance. In Southeast Asia where I’m based, its best artists know that they have to hop through categorical ‘success hoops’, first within their country of origin, then Southeast Asia, followed by Asia before finally being considered worthy of a place amongst the international pool. In describing the works of artists at the Singapore Biennale in 2013, ‘parochial’ and ‘outsider’ were common descriptors used by international art writers I met. Also, as one of its curators, I had to argue my case with fellow biennale curators for more than an hour in order to include of a body of paintings by Laotian artist Marisa Darasavath as they were deemed to be too provincial. The thing is, almost all of these curators had not visited an artists’ studio in Vientiane, neither did they have an idea of what constituted ‘the contemporary’ in Laos. The same paintings were later also shown at Open SEA, a show I curated with Thierry Raspail at MAC Lyon in France. The biennale, put together by 28 curators (and artist-curators) from Southeast Asia included the works of artists from Vientiane in Laos, Battambang in Cambodia, Hue in Vietnam and Malaysian Borneo, many of whom were unfamiliar even for the region’s professionals.


When Jean de Loisy assigned me with the task to identify and present the work of a young, fresh and distinctive Chinese artist at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2015, I invited the then relatively unknown Tianzhuo Chen. Tianzhuo’s return to Beijing from his studies in London appeared to have given him more visibility in the alternative fashion and club scene rather than the art scene. His name, although known, was not cited in the recommended list of artists provided by the K11 Foundation, the supporter of the project. My choice invited queries from various quarters of the K11 Foundation as well as China-based writers, curators and artists I met thereafter. Presented side-by-side with the wunderkind Korakrit Arunanondchai, I believe that Tianzhuo’s solo exhibition at Palais de Tokyo ultimately propelled his presence and success in Europe and the international arena. Soon after this solo, he began receiving invitations to exhibitions, festivals and projects such as those at the Kunsthalle Winterthur (Switzerland), Berghain’s CTM Festival (Berlin), The Broad Museum (Los Angeles), Barbican Centre (London), Akademie der Künste (Berlin), Spielart (Munich) - the list goes on.


Ranked second in Art Review’s year 2020 Top 100 is Jakarta-based curatorial collective Ruangrupa, curators of the upcoming 15th edition of Documenta. While many welcomed this acute shift of the art lens, just as many were suspicious and doubtful if these Southeast Asian curators could step up to its exacting international standards.[14] The consequence of Ruangrupa’s work at Documenta 15 is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, in 2012, Singaporean June Yap became the first curator appointed for the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. With a focus on South and Southeast Asia, her appointment culminated in the touring exhibition No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia that premiered at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (2013), followed by Asia Society Hong Kong Center (2013) and ending at Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Singapore (2014). For an initiative where one of its core objectives was ‘to encourage audiences to look beyond political and geographical boundaries’,[15] it is peculiar that only one leg of the exhibition took place in the western hemisphere. Considering that the Singapore Art Museum and National Gallery Singapore combined hold one of the world’s largest collections of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art, how is the city expected to read this signal from the Guggenheim and UBS? Upon reflection, perhaps the answer lies in the rather patronizing exhibition title’s prefix of ‘for’ instead of ‘from’.


Where all manners of discrimination are equal, artists launched in (and by) the West could be considered generally privileged. Their close vicinity to power and influence situates them with an edge unlike artists from other parts of the world. The notion that artists from elsewhere have to ‘make it’ in Europe or the USA to be regarded as having ‘truly made it’ is quite real and still very present. In Southeast Asia, the foundation of its modern and contemporary art histories is chained to its academic roots with Italian, French, Dutch and English fraternities. Despite years of post-colonial scrubbing, the region continues to gaze westward, seeking signs of approval from power-bearers a world away. On this side of the world, at its major exhibitions, biennales and art fairs, the presence and participation of art world luminaries such as Hans Ulrich Obrist, Klaus Biesenbach and Marina Abramovich never fails to stir excitement. And, almost by default, their ‘star power’ confers the event-makers with badges of honour, simply for their connectedness and resourcefulness in courting these art world celebrities.


In an article in 2011, Claire Ruud, current Director of Curatorial Strategy at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago said that ‘the most critical resources in this (art) world are money to make work and space to show work’ and ‘power in the art world is acquired primarily through taste, networks, knowledge, distinctions, and control of resources’.[16] Evan Beard, a National Art Services Executive at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management echoed this when he said, ‘We’re the art world’s corporate infrastructure (banking, insurance, legal), and our marketing dollars, corporate grants, and sponsorships buy us a seat with the beau monde.’[17]


I believe that these dichotomies of power in the universe of contemporary art are not exclusive to an East versus West or West versus the world articulation. I have met misplaced, authoritative art personages in action in small towns too. The attribution of power in contemporary art is somewhat automated to the way its archaic rank-and-file hierarchies have been established, as if there is a caste system in place for all to adhere to. We all now understand an artist is never a museum director, a curator is never a patron, a politician is never a gallerist and academics are never the media. Each pixel that makes up the picture is designed to operate with specificity and is limited by strict codes assigned to it.


While artists from every corner of the world have been known to confront the often dehumanising politics of power on society, it is not difficult to observe how artists have little control over the powers that hover like dark clouds over themselves. Halls of art world patronage, the writing of its histories, the purpose of its production and consumption is increasingly overrun by the script penned through the ‘magic hands’ of a privileged few. We (I sincerely mean artists) need to be able to imagine an epoch beyond the despairing, Covid-19-induced postponement of art fairs, biennales and exhibitions. Without due concern, discernment and active participation, power establishments will continue to refine an oligopolistic script, construct fortresses to bolster their positions and guard years of strategically-invested resources. I am confident that denizens of the art world have longed to be excited by profound actions and propositions that could return dignity to art and artists and inspire a much-needed paradigm shift. This power imbalance in contemporary art is outmoded and lethargic and its players are in obvious need of a good power struggle.






[1] Power 100 (2020 edition), ArtReview, https://artreview.com/power-100/, accessed 5 Feb 2021. [2] Die wichtigsten Künstler des Jahres 2018, Linde Rohr-Bongard, 29 Jan 2019, https://www.capital.de/leben/die-wichtigsten-kuenstler-des-jahres-2018, accessed 5 Feb 2021 [3] Gagosian Director Let Go After Alleged Misconduct Against Women, Katya Kazakina, 4 Nov 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-11-03/gagosian-director-let-go-after-alleged-misconduct-against-women, accessed 1 Feb 2021 [4] Expressions of empathy are not enough – it’s time for US museums to act, Maxwell L. Anderson, 4 Jun 2020, https://www.apollo-magazine.com/expressions-of-empathy-are-not-enough-its-time-for-us-museums-to-act/, accessed 1 Feb 2021 [5] Nan Goldin Demands Punishment for Sacklers as Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty, Helen Holmes, 21 Oct 2020, https://observer.com/2020/10/nan-goldin-sacklers-oxycontin-plea-deal/, accessed 3 Feb 2021 [6] Neoliberalism is distorting how we see art—is there no alternative?, Scott Revburn, 2 Feb 2021, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/analysis/the-prism-of-price-is-distorting-how-we-see, accessed 7 Feb 2021 [7] How beret dare they: survey says artists are the most non-essential workers, José da Silva, 16 Jun 2020, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/artists-the-most-non-essential-worker, accessed 2 Feb 2021 [8] Your art collection as loan collateral, https://www.privatebank.bankofamerica.com/articles/your-art-collection-as-loan-collateral.html, accessed 7 Feb 2021 [9] In debt we trust: the rise of art-secured lending, Georgina Adams, 6 Dec 2018, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/analysis/in-debt-we-trust-the-rise-of-art-secured-lending, accessed 3 Feb 2021 [10] Speculating on Trophy Art, Scott Reyburn, 2 Mar 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/03/arts/international/03iht-Speculating-on-Trophy-Art.html, accessed 5 Feb 2021 [11] La Colonie, 27 Jul 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/340938/support-la-colonie/, accessed 2 Feb 2021 [12] About Rebuild, https://rebuild-foundation.org/our-story/, accessed 6 Feb 2021 [13] To Theaster Gates, Art And Redevelopment Are One And The Same, Jose Gose, 4 Dec 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/joegose/2018/12/04/to-theaster-gates-art-and-redevelopment-are-one-and-the-same/?sh=18df76367576, accessed 6 Feb 2021 [14] Documenta 15: High expectations for artist collective Ruangrupa, Stefan Dege, 18 Mar 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/documenta-15-high-expectations-for-artist-collective-ruangrupa/a-47932372, accessed 2 Feb 2021 [15] 5 years, 3 curators, 3 world regions, 8 exhibitions, UBS, https://www.ubs.com/microsites/guggenheim-map/en/initiative.html, accessed 3 Feb 2021 [16] POWER in the Contemporary Art World, Claire Ruud 30 Apr 2011, https://glasstire.com/2011/04/30/power-in-the-contemporary-art-world/, accessed 4 Feb 2021 [17] The Four Social Classes of the Art World, Evan Beard, 23 Nov 2018, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-four-social-classes-art, accessed 4 Feb 2021

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