We’re surrounded by lists – 100 best books, 50 essential films, 10 best celebrity cats. The list is an arbitrary way of classifying and quantifying cultural influence, perfect ‘clickbait’ for the age of internet journalism. Nonetheless, lists have power, to legitimise and to publicise, especially when compiled by a reputable publication. Which is as good a reason as any to get excited/outraged about the list of art’s most powerful people recently compiled by The Guardian.
It’s a simple enough premise: a list of significant artists, dealers and collectors working in today’s art market; with the usual suspects including Damien Hirst and Larry Gagosian. Reading the names, it becomes apparent that some very specific dynamics are at work – money, celebrity, exclusivity. For which reason, I think, the list omits any figure associated with museums and public galleries.
Why might this be so? The list skews toward the contemporary, so a figure like Sandy Nairne doesn’t make the cut, despite spearheading a multimillion pound fundraising campaign to keep Van Dyck’s 1641 self-portrait from entering a US private collection. But where are Glenn Lowry or Richard Armstrong, for example? Where is Sir Nicholas Serota? The director of the Tate empire is a tastemaker of significance, the brains behind Tate Modern and arguably one of the strongest influences on public perceptions of modern and contemporary art for decades.
The key term here, I think, is ‘public’. Public collections have an enormous impact on broader narratives of taste. What’s selling via Hauser and Wirth isn’t necessarily what generates mainstream press attention and exhibition ticket sales. (It’s notable, too, that no critics or writers made the list; despite their role as a conduit for art ideas to a wider public). Aside from art museums’ ability to raise public support in a way that no private dealer or collector ever could – thanks to the understanding that we all have an ownership stake in their collections – they function as repositories and shapers of taste.
Let’s not be naïve – money talks when it comes to art, and museums are constrained by the limits of the public purse and competition for donations. But museums have influence, even without access to an oligarch’s bank vault. If we construct an art power index based solely on who can make or spend the most money, we’ll end up culturally as well as financially poorer.