Splashing Out and Cutting Back: A Sideways Glance at Contemporary Art and Galleries 2010

By Mark Sheerin | 22 December 2010
Photo of an old fashioned cinema building with the words Think About Your Future across the masthead
Emese Benczúr, Think About The Future (2010): public art at Liverpool Biennial© Mark Sheerin
In February, a sculpture of a man who looks like he might be walking through a storm sold for a record breaking £65 million. The Giacometti was perhaps the first sign that art, at least, could be pulling through the recession.

But come December we would see a Turner Prize ceremony disrupted by student protests. By now proposed cuts to higher education and arts funding all point to the fact that culture in the UK still faces a grave economic threat.

Never mind the fact that blockbuster shows at both the Royal Academy and Tate Modern this year demonstrate that art can, if need be, generate revenue. Many of the greatest masterpieces of post-impressionism came to London for The Real Van Gogh and Gauguin: Maker of Myth at both respective venues.

Photo of tourists in a golf cart looking at the burnt out wreck of a car
Jeremy Deller, Baghdad, 5 March 2007: on permanent show at Imperial War Museum, London© Imperial War Museum
London institutions continued to invest in their high audience figures. In January the V&A unveiled a £30 revamp of their Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, and in May Tate Modern celebrated its tenth birthday with three-day festival of independent art collectives No Soul For Sale. The indies, it should be noted, were largely self funding volunteers.

But across town there was a flash of stunning generosity when Charles Saatchi offered to donate his Chelsea gallery plus 200 art works to the nation. Sadly, these plans for a Museum of Contemporary Art in London are now shelved owing to a disagreement about operational funding. Saatchi wanted the museum to be able to buy and sell work. The Museum Association’s code of ethics did not.

Art biennials, on the other hand, are the gifts that keep on giving. Liverpool Biennial offered 45 site specific commissions to the public free of charge for their 10th International Exhibition, entitled Touched. For the Brighton Photo Biennial, Martin Parr curated one of the strongest photography biennials to date. And Whitstable put the spotlight on the UK’s most exciting young artists with their 2010 Biennale.

The British Art Show, staged once every five years, came back with a vengeance for its seventh incarnation. The touring show opened in Nottingham in October and aimed to represent the best recent work of the 40 most important British artists around. Broadly positive reviews suggest their ambitious remit has been ticked off for another half decade at least.

Even Frieze was almost giving it away this year. Once you got past the £25 admission charge, there was free cinema, free performance art, free outdoor sculpture and a fair-wide installation based on an archaeological hoax, Simon Fujiwara’s Frozen City. The extra-mercantile activities seem to be a growing trend at London’s biggest art fair.

Photo of a giant ship in a bottle on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar
Yinka Shonibare's model of HMS Victory on the fourth plinth, Trafalgar Square© Yinka Shonibare
While some public art shot for the moon, some went down in flames. In March plans were unveiled for a 120 metre high rollercoaster-like tower in London’s Olympic Park. The £19.1 million project is designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor and named the ArcelorMittal Orbit - after the richest man in Europe, no less.

Six months later, a 16 metre sculpted dinosaur was burnt to the ground in an arson attack in Portsmouth. The popular artwork by Heather and Ivan Morison had come all the way from Serbia and was due to tour to Cardiff and Colchester. The cause of extinction in this case must have been philistinism.

But it was health and safety officers who arguably ruined this year’s Unilever Series installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. Dust from 100m ceramic sunflower seeds was deemed a menace to the public and is now closed off by a cordon. This was October. In November, Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was put under house arrest for apparent infringement of building regs. So not a good year.

It was a good year for public war art nevertheless. Jeremy Deller’s burnt out wreck from the scene of a car bomb in Baghdad took up permanent residence in the Imperial War Museum. And Fiona Banner installed two decommissioned fighter planes in the neoclassical surrounds of the Duveens Gallery at Tate Britain. Both works got folk talking in a way that casualty lists from Afghanistan somehow fail to.

Another talking point was once again the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, where Deller’s car was first intended for. Since May it has hosted a large model of HMS Victory in an only slightly larger bottle courtesy of Yinka Shonibare MBE. Then July saw the announcement of a six-name shortlist for the prestigious public commission to be shown during 2012. It divided people.

Photo of an artist stood in front of a fighter jet hung lengthways from the ceiling of a neoclassical gallery
Fiona Banner, Harrier and Jaguar (2010) (Harrier detail with the artist). Image Courtesy of Tate© Fiona Banner
Of course, this all may turn out to be a final fling. Cuts to the DCMS budget, first broadcast in May turned out to be greater than expected (24% during a four to five-year period). Following the Comprehensive Spending Review it was also revealed that Arts Council England would lose 30% of their funding. And these figures are compounded by the likely introduction of tuition fees of about £7,000 a year which could well deter students from less well off backgrounds from pursuing careers in the arts.

So much for the 62,000 signatures collected since September by a Save the Arts campaign. Bespoke artwork by David Shrigley, Mark Titchner, Cornelia Parker, Mark Wallinger and Jeremy Deller was not enough to stop a government who seem more keen to cut back public spending than to generate revenue from corporation tax.

But if tax was no longer certain in 2010, death proved as reliable as ever. Among those who will be certainly missed by the artworld are music impresario Malcolm McLaren (64) and sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who was the first to undertake the Unilever commission at Tate Modern. She died aged 98.

It would be unfestive to end the year on a downer, so it still remains for us to mention two or three artists who will be celebrating more than most this Christmas.

They would be Susan Philipsz, who sang her way to Turner Prize success in December with a sound installation. Then there’s Keith Coventry, whose lugubrious blue messiah scooped the John Moore Contemporary Painting Prize in Liverpool in September, and finally Yael Baetana. The Israeli artist may not be celebrating on the 25th, but should still be well pleased with his victory in the Artes Mundi prize in Cardiff.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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