Making art their business

As a budding art writer in the 1980s, I went to the unveiling party for the art collection at the newly opened Riverfront Towers in downtown Detroit. Over a glass of cheap white wine and a sparse spread of munchies, I met Paul Cornwall-Jones, director of Petersburg Press, which had published the Frank Stella, Tom Wesselman and other limited-edition, brand-name artist’s prints represented in the collection. Petersburg Press, Cornwall-Jones mentioned in passing, was owned by Sotheby’s auction house, part of the empire of A. Alfred Taubman. Taubman was also an investor in the city-subsidized real estate venture. In other words, Big Al was moving artworks from one set of ledger books to another and taxpayers were footing part of the tab. Welcome to the insider deal, I thought, aka business as usual in the contemporary art world.

In her thoroughly researched and absorbing new study, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s, art historian Chin-tao Wu peels back the veneer of the feel-good aura of corporate arts patronage in the age of free-market fundamentalism. The abuse of power comes as no surprise, artist Jenny Holzer says, yet few have come as close as Wu to showing how it works in the American and British art worlds in the wake of Reagan and Thatcher. Wu has a section on Taubman discussing his museum-trustee, real-estate-developer and auctioneer-gig conflicts of interest. But her intention is to show that he’s the rule not the exception. (Big Al recently got sprung early on account of good behavior from minimum security, where he was serving time for auction price-fixing.)

Severe rollbacks in public arts funding over the last 25 years have diminished the operating capacity of many cultural institutions and forced them to adopt more entrepreneurial practices — much like the Duchess of York, who was turned out by the royal family and reduced to shilling for Weight Watchers. Into the breach have stepped some of the world’s top corporations. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in capitalism (unless, of course, you’re a CEO), so the corporate largesse has come with strings attached.

The most obvious is what artist Hans Haacke calls “social grease,” the halo of high-mindedness that attaches itself to supposedly civic-minded corporations which underwrite museum exhibitions and other cultural programs presumably for the public good. One of the major players in this arena is the company formerly known as Philip Morris (now Altria), which has tried over the years to use arts patronage to persuade us of its altruistic intentions, all the while killing us with cigarettes, alcohol and junk food. As Wu notes, Philip Morris-Altria revealed its true colors in the mid-1990s, when it strong-armed arts organizations across New York City, threatening to pull its funding for a range of cultural programs, to muster support in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to kill an anti-smoking ordinance then under consideration.

Besides the cultural and political capital gained through arts patronage, corporations enjoy economic advantages as well. By virtue of their corporate donations, executives are often invited to become trustees and serve in other capacities that offer a discreet network of influential contacts, plus a tony setting for conducting business. Corporate donations are tax-deductible, providing a discount on every dollar spent. In the case of museum-business partnerships, such as the Whitney Museum branches located in Manhattan office buildings, corporations can receive zoning concessions, tax abatements and other preferential treatments, which directly add to the bottom line.

Over and above the behind-the-scenes machinations of influence peddling and vested interest, there’s the troubling trend of corporations as the new arbiters of taste. Through collecting art and awarding prizes to artists, corporations can directly affect the art market in a big way. This can have the effect of encouraging self-censorship among artists (the watchwords of corporate collecting are “no nudes, no politics”) and a greater emphasis on the gallery star system as corporations compete to acquire “trophy” works of art. There are also the changes wrought in arts management itself, from the global franchising of the Guggenheim Museum brand name to other market-driven practices, such as blockbuster exhibitions that appeal to the financially oriented business elite.

If there’s a criticism to be made of Privatising Culture, it’s that Wu sometimes wears her political heart a little too sternly on her sleeve. She spent nearly 10 years trudging through public and corporate art collections in Great Britain and the United States; she read reams of official reports and compared their statistics; she conducted numerous interviews and surveys and compiled the results. The sheer volume of facts she amassed is damning enough without having to resort to politically correct truisms, which give the opposition ammunition to dismiss her groundbreaking work as the badgering of an ideologue.

But it’s a minor objection when seen in light of her achievement. Privatising Culture is a book that anyone concerned with arts and culture under late capitalism will want to have.

E-mail Vincent Carducci at [email protected].

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