Over the past few years, contemporary art foundations have been sprouting up across the globe in large numbers. Though some are driven by personal passion, this is rarely the case. Most obey the logic of marketing aimed at the luxury and cosmetics industries. What’s even more troubling is that these foundations repeat the same stereotypical discourse on art as public institutions, potentially leading to an anesthetizing conformism.
Sibylle Vincendon, “Avec son musée, François Pinault offre l’affaire du siècle à Paris et Anne Hidalgo”, Libération, April 27, 2016
Projet Phalanstère at CAC Brétigny or “De l’orgie de musée ou omnigamie mixte en ordre composé et harmonique”, Sternberg Press, CAC Brétigny, Work Method, 2017.
The artist covered the space in glitter, which was then spread by the visitor’s footsteps, ultimately filling the cracks to become an ingrained part of the building.
“The Canaletto View – Der Canaletto Blick”, with Olga Chernysheva, Franz Erhard Walther, Marcus Geiger, Tomislav Gotovac, Sanja Iveković, Edward Krasiński, Roman Ondak, Florian Pumhösl, Ashley Hans Scheirl, Slaven Tolj, Clemens von Wedemeyer and Lois Weinberger; curators, Kathrin Rhomberg and Pierre Bal-Blanc, Erste Campus, Vienna, Austria, 2017. https://www.erstegroup.com/content/dam/at/eh/www_erstegroup_com/de/%C3%9Cber%20uns/erste-campus/erste-campus-art-in-architecture-booklet.pdf
Originally published in French, after the English publication “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization”, published in 2006 by Sage Publications, INC, California, then published in France the following year by Les Prairies Ordinaires.
During a recent stand-up comedy act by French artist Dominique Gilliot, À propos du financement des centres d’art (“On financing art centers”), performed at Palais de Tokyo on November 24, 2017, as part of an event organized by d.c.a, an association of venues for experimental work which are precisely that: art centers, the artist brought up two ideas before a crowd of institutional actors whose financial stability as publicly funded institutions is at risk today. The first is a proposal to create an ‘immediate heritage’ label, as an alternative to the ‘material’ or ‘immaterial’ heritage categories, and to make a clear statement in favor of the action and economy of the present. The second is to replace ‘non-profit’ organizations with “debit” or “deficit” ones—which to Dominique Gilliot’s eye more aptly describes the places where contemporary art is practiced.
If symbolic capital remains the only fundamentally positive result on the books for non-profit public cultural institutions, it is nevertheless quite difficult to measure this capital when it comes to budget revenues, which are in turn perfectly quantifiable. This could be observed in the deficit created during the recently organized documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens. To bridge the gap, the state of Hesse and the city of Kassel acted as guarantors on a 3,5 million Euro loan. Some felt it was abnormal, even downright scandalous, to use public money to fix a deficit caused by organizing an arts event. Others thought that, on the contrary, organizing and financing a large part of the exhibit in Greece, which was in the midst of major public debt at the time, was an act of solidarity and that the deficit in question – unjustly attributed solely to the Greek portion of the operation – was nothing compared to the 150 million Euros of economic activity that the event generates on average in Kassel and the region.
From shadow to shine
If public appeal is what prevails when it comes to public institutions, things work differently in private foundations. There you find a gray zone that varies according to the ratio of special interests to public ones, especially if the private structure hopes to receive fiscal advantages. This zone turns from gray to silver when a patron uses their foundation to bolster their image. It then turns from silver to gold when it comes to corporate foundations that use their support to push their commercial brand’s business model. In these variations of shadow to shine, it is therefore possible to measure a corporation’s level of commitment to the public interest and reach some conclusions. It should also be possible to establish a scale of values if the artist is invited to partake in more than just the corporation’s objectives or if they are employed strictly for their benefit. In the same vein, it should be possible to evaluate whether the visitor is honored as a citizen, or considered a consumer.
The emergence of the polis in ancient Greece reflects a transition from the economic domain regulating private interests to civic institutions protecting the general interest. The image of the city is projected along a new spatial pattern. Public space becomes a hearth, expressing the polis’ common denominator where collective problems are debated. It is edified in the public space and open, no longer closed in by private residences and places of worship. The center excludes mystery, it is arbitrary and shifts according to the collective will. Rendered secular, institutions thus express a distinction between private and common interests. Speaking up at a political rally is to bring one’s opinion to the center; distancing oneself from the center means becoming a private citizen again. This principle means that anyone may share their wisdom about and for the city. At the scale of foundations, we can therefore see what stems directly from contributing to the benefit of all and making a lasting commitment, and what stems from a strategic desire for visibility, if not opportunism.
What “anticipation” – in reference to Lafayette Anticipations inaugurated March 2018 in Paris – does the near-simultaneous closing of the Maison rouge – Fondation Antoine de Galbert, also in Paris, herald? The latter might be an economy’s transition to classic liberalism as described by American philosopher and economist Adam Smith, which is still attached to distinguishing between rational politics (the State) and economics (the Market), a neo-liberal economy that resembles concepts by another philosopher and economist, Austrian Friedrich Hayek, who considered commerce to be the sole rational regulator. While the Maison rouge was an official non-partisan public foundation, dissociated from any one particular brand or company, Paris only mourned its disappearance briefly, eager to celebrate an era of new private initiatives: corporate foundations.
How else should we interpret Francesca von Habsburg’s decision to relocate the TBA21 foundation away from Vienna, the Austrian capital, which she judged too “static” and whose municipal government decided it would be impossible to cover the installation costs that the mega-collector was asking in exchange for access to her treasure?
In Paris, it was the city government that invited François Pinault to come set up shop in a historical monument if he vowed to restore it. It was the least one could do in exchange for a 50-year lease, long enough for his grandson François Junior, who is part of the family holding, to reach retirement age. The Bourse du Commerce – Collection Pinault Paris renovations are estimated by the newspaper Les Échos to cost 108 M€. 7,5 M€ are granted through the city government over the first two years, then 60 000 € per year for the remaining 48. This amounts a ludicrous rent of 200 000 € per year for 50 years, considering the site’s prestige and surface area. This is undoubtedly why François Pinault announced that his Parisian company wouldn’t ask for a single fiscal deduction, unlike Fondation Vuitton, which according to the May 13, 2017 issue of Marianne magazine, was able to recuperate over half its project costs, evaluated at 800 M€. The Pinault Collection in Paris is not a foundation; it is a simplified joint stock company with sole partner. And so it is under no obligation to serve any public interest. Yet François Pinault managed the colossal feat of obtaining exceptional conditions from the City of Paris for his private French corporation by playing on the media’s ambiguous attention to his foundation located in Venice. The newspaper Libération didn’t hesitate to call François Pinault’s gesture a “gift from the capitalist skies” , forgetting that the Gaul have always feared—with good reason—that the sky might fall on their heads!
Might we determine some evaluation methods to assess what portion of a family- or individually-managed private foundation’s strategy (for example la Maison rouge, Kadist, Luma, Pinault, Sandretto, TBA21) goes to public interest, as opposed to those under industrial management (Cartier, Lafayette Anticipations, Ricard, Prada, Vuitton, Erste Bank)? The former, which are often inseparable from the founder’s personality, demonstrate how passive collectors have evolved over decades into an influential actors in the art world, ones who tout themselves as curators, often competing with private galleries and public museums. Incidentally, when evaluating a collection today, the pieces are now expected to feed into the visions of exhibition curators when it comes to shows initiated by the collector and held within their walls or in a third-party location, such as on loan to public institutions.
On the other hand, perhaps some self-congratulation is in order now that collectors are pushed to meet certain social obligations, a climate that can be credited to the institutional critique put forth by artists and curators in the 1980s and 90s who accentuated the emancipatory role of art in terms of education and civic duty. This pedagogical activity and social role inherently puts foundations in an either complementary or competing role with public institutions, especially art centers and general interest museums. The private funding that once supported museums, or less frequently, art centers, can now be re-channeled into their own activities, putting the public sector at even more risk.
Can private institutions really afford to make critical political or social statements in their exhibitions? It’s rare. You could even say that their approach to the vast field of education or civic life is rather formulaic if not outright conventional. When it comes to supporting creation, the template still calls for policing, normalized by market values that guarantee the work’s recognition as a “piece”—despite the many contemporary practices that elude this art-as-object/author-as -artist label—although here too, aesthetic discourse has broadened over the years to cover participative modes that gather several protagonists within a creative process.
So we have a right to ask ourselves whether this investment in the general public is not actually just a way to benefit special interests and bring the capital invested into a contemporary art collection to fruition. Back in ancient Greece, the choragus, which was responsible for maintaining the ancient choirs while the State took care of tragedy authors, also promoted aristocratic prestige by flaunting their wealth, making them seem above the rest and getting their names heard by proclaiming them alongside those of victorious poets. The situation, therefore, has hardly evolved. There even seems to be a more or less conscious resurgence in neo-feudal signs as emblems of new power, notably with the imposing Luma foundation that towers over the Camargue landscape in Arles, or that of Catherine de Medicis now being restored by the Pinault Collection right in the heart of Paris.
All in the same bag (by Hermès)
Concerning the new foundations by luxury brands, they act increasingly in favor of tax-exempted profits for their parent companies, investing massively in contemporary art because of the added value it brings to their product marketing. Let there be no confusion: if we are meant to celebrate the arrival of new social actors in the arts world, ones who also contribute greatly to artistic experimentation, it remains crucial they be held to the same standard of transparency as are public institutions. It is time for institutional critique to gain momentum, one adapted to the international art scene’s liturgical development in diverting rites, ceremonies and prayers without any second-guessing. That these rites increasingly demand of artists or critics that a glass of Ricard replace the liturgical wine, or that ritual incense be substituted by the fragrances Must (by Cartier), Addict (by Dior) or Guilty (by Gucci), shows a troubling conflation of types where everything is thrown into the same bag… designed by Hermès.
In the stereotypes hawked by these brands, it is easy to spot an ‘essentialist’ process at work, which consists of locking artistic communities into cultural typologies or national identities: fashion and spirits for France, cars and banks for Germany. What do all these luxury foundations have to say about our bodies? The dismemberment of every part that constitutes us has been the object of market studies and aggressive advertising. And what do they say about our status as citizens? Is it destined to follow the market’s behavior or will these foundations help to develop critical tools that strengthen it?
We need to deconstruct the framework for these corporate foundation statements in the bio-political age, as suggested philosopher Michel Foucault with regard to penitentiary institutions. The more or less philanthropic foundations derived from these CAC 40 or DAX corporations are places where we see and that make things seen. They rely on ways of lending visibility to art at a given time, much like the asylum or general hospital exposed madness in their time by rounding up the insane, but also vagabonds, beggars, the unemployed and libertines, and placing them under the same banner.
Conformity of disciplines
We must elucidate their politics and not just underline the abstraction, as did Daniel Buren, the once critical activist artist, during one year from April 2016 to May 2017, with his intervention on the outer façade of the Fondation Vuitton building built by star architect Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne park in Paris. To do so, we need to understand the foundation’s rituals and ask ourselves why, rather than radically opening new perspectives, they rehash the same models as the public institutions? Is it to measure up to them? To compete with them? To discredit or replace them?
At a round table initiated by the Banco Santander foundation in Spain, I participated in a discussion on new models for artistic institutions with Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, there on behalf of her foundation, and Susie Guzman and Alice Workman, directors of the Hauser & Wirth gallery, which conducts the Somerset research and residency project in the southern English countryside. For my part, I was presenting Projet Phalanstère, inspired by Charles Fourier’s member-based industrial society and developed at CAC Brétigny, a public institution located in the Paris greater metropolitan area. During the discussion, it was surprising to see that, despite the excellent quality of their exhibitions and initiatives, neither the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo foundation’s project nor the gallery’s offered any innovative ideas aside from those already put forth by public institutions—museums and art centers—over the last decade. Their projects’ main strength was in copying them, just with more resources.
One might expect of these independent operators some originality, alternatives or experimentations that are otherwise out of the public power’s reach. Not at all. They simply revert to the same institutional models, and in doing so, they sometimes even reinforce a conformity across disciplines: creation of an artwork as a product, separating exhibition and educational activities accompanied by reinforcing roles (artists, curators, educators) and dividing them into their respective spaces, confining visitors to a single role.
A blind spot
There are indeed many foundations that seek to stand out. Ricard, as we have seen, supports a small structure called Villa Vassilieff—which is rather little compared to the company’s means. But this is in exchange for their brand (Pernod Ricard Fellow) being systematically present with the artist’s name in all forms of communication, as if the brand were the artwork’s co-author, an authoritarian advertising strategy imported directly from the United States. Can’t these industry giants find a more subtle way of “accompanying” and supporting an artist other than slapping their brand onto the artist’s name, if not onto their very person?
The Lafayette Anticipations foundation, which held a radical inauguration of its space in Paris (conceived by another star architect: Rem Koolhaas) “squatted”  by American artist Lutz Bacher (recently deceased), was born from a promising project that sought to erase the distinction between artist and studio, production and exhibition. One year later, the results are far from convincing. The architecture imposes with authority; the heart of creation is kept at a distance, eliciting a cold rapport with the visitor.
The expeditions organized at sea by TBA21 Academy—mobilizing artists, scientists, collectives and curators— breaks the mold by finding mobile interactions with systems. Indeed, being productive is not sedentary, rather nomadic. But is the same emancipatory experience also offered to the spectators of this adventure? Does the same point of view apply to the Viennese, who no longer have access to the foundation’s program, a fortiori following the closing of two other important exhibition spaces: the Bawag and Generali foundations. The exhibition “General Rehearsal” (April 26 – September 16, 2018), which unites the Kadist (Paris and San Francisco) and V-A-C (Venice) foundation collections with the Moscow Museum of Modern Art’s, seems to announce a renewal in artistic language and in the statute of those speaking. Including the visitors? That remains to be seen.
But to more precisely define where I situate my analysis, that is, within this regime between public and private of which I am a member, and that does not preclude a critical view, I will relay an experience. With Kathrin Rhomberg, head of the Kontakt collection (the Erste Group and Erste Foundation’s art collection), I recently led a project on commissioned permanent artworks created for the bank’s headquarters in Vienna; rethinking the relationship between art and capital, and examining the compromises imposed when the viewpoints of users, bankers and employers who cross paths at the site of this financial enterprise converge or contradict one another. “The Canaletto View”  refers to an ideal view of Vienna painted by Bellotto (alias Canaletto) as seen from Belvedere Palace, setting a benchmark height for all new buildings constructed around the Austrian capital, including the Erste Bank’s. The artworks emanating from this project analyze and comment on this standardization principle and the resulting economic situation for those who do not have a bank account, the homeless (project developed by Olga Chernysheva); those who are invisible, like cleaning ladies (by Sanja Iveković); or outside the norms, transsexuals (by Ashley Hans Scheirl), to name but a few. Any initiative developed on private terrain has its blind spot, a repressed consciousness that reveals itself once the exhibit is finished, and this important foundation project is no exception. The Canaletto View’s strength is its focused attention on the absence of idealism in this matter by drawing from Canaletto’s ideal view of Vienna and exposing the vitality of contradictions that revitalize this bank.
In her essay “Les habits neufs de la politique mondiale” published in 2007, Wendy Brown examines the inseparable coupling of neoliberalism to neo-conservatism. Clearly there is room to probe further, putting the theology of public and private institutions back to back while maintaining special awareness of how art serves various interests. To avoid reducing the use of art to something isolated in a speculative bubble or museum display, art must be promoted in its multiplicity, using one (public) or the other (private) and vice-versa. In democratic societies, the question applies as much to public institutions as to private ones, all the more in Austria where neo-conservatism is associated with the Far Right. To what extent do these institutions authorize or prevent the use of time, places, resources, inquiries, memory, phantasm, mores and history? Take for example the courage shown in 2017 by artists Sol Calero, Iman Issa, Jumana Manna and Agnieszka Polska, when they spoke out collectively as nominees for the ‘Preis der Nationalgalerie’ (prize determining the “artist of the year” living in Germany), sponsored by BMW, against the conditions to which they were subjected. The reversal in use they performed by appropriating the ceremony, and the precision of their position, are signs of a new genre and renewal in institutional criticism. Or, to substantiate the singularity of this critique through its feminist and queer roots, you could also look at artist Candice Breitz’ gesture. She temporarily renamed her work, exhibited at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia, with the protest slogan “Wilson Must Go”, and encouraged other artists to do the same. The slogan targeted the security company Wilson, in charge of the exhibitions and accused of mistreating refugees and asylum-seekers detained on the islands of Manus (Papua New Guinea) and Nauru (Micronesia). These acts, which bleed over into reality, retain a plastic and conceptual scope that are certainly lacking in many contemporary works. They express a practice that philosopher Gilles Deleuze invites us to take up in his Postscript on the Societies of Control: “It’s up to us to discover what we’re being made to serve”.
Pierre Bal-Blanc, Athens, April 2018 – May 2019
Translation by Maya Dalinsky