Jeffrey Spalding - Cropped - 2014
IN MY OPINION
Canada needs more art patrons to come to the fore
By Jeffrey Spalding
Like many regular folk, work pressures and impecuniosity recently pinned me at home, so my first-hand art experiences were restricted to Calgary. I won’t excessively lament because we did see some fine things this past season. Yet, comparatively, the art world beyond our doorstep seems awash with extraordinary, unprecedented activity and seismic shifts: escalating numbers of art fairs, biennials and commercial gallery projects of astonishing proportions. By comparison, Western Canada seems out of the loop.
The massive Jeff Koons retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum gives “astonishing proportions” a whole new meaning. Leading critics (see below) wildly disagree about the lasting value of his output. Yet, there’s no denying that Koons is a media phenomenon. The scale of his gestures cannot be ignored: playful, irreverent, spunky and hip, his work is physically commanding, imposing and energized. He’s already ensconced in contemporary art historical tomes.
A Koons sculpture recently sold for almost $60 million, the highest price paid for a living artist. Do the math on the shipping and insurance costs of 100 such works; it would cripple most art museums. It requires a breathtaking scale of money to participate at this level. Quite simply, it’s unthinkable without generous patrons.
Not surprisingly, the Whitney lavished praise on Larry Gagosian, the show’s major sponsor, and, not incidentally, the owner of one of the galleries that represents Koons. We all should thank him. However, there were grumblings. Some worried about the conflation of international art and commerce, and the power of the patron to determine what we see. True enough, if retail values rank in the mega-millions, a little promotional money for a major exhibition won’t hurt future returns for the artist, the dealer and collectors. Purportedly, Steve Wynn, a Koons collector, acquired a Koons sculpture for about $35 million and is currently offering it for resale, seeking a record price, perhaps exceeding $60 million; not a bad return on investment, if he lands the sale.
Does commerce axiomatically compromise integrity? We’d better hope not or we’ll see much less of consequence. But maybe it’s not an ethical question. Maybe it’s the prices that buckle the knees.
In Canada, it’s like we’re living in a parallel universe. We have many gracious patrons, yet at this colossal scale, shows of this magnitude will be rare. Here, a modest contribution of $5,000 can be a game changer for the prospects of hosting an exhibition.
At the same time, wonderful, powerful, meaningful work by accomplished and acknowledged artists can be acquired for under $10,000. Yet the work languishes, awaiting buyers. Meanwhile, we witness south of the border (and worldwide) a totally unfathomable scale of prices. A minimum ante of $1 million will buy you a modest work by a known ‘listed’ contemporary artist, but unimaginably, upwards of $2 million is more prevalent as the starting point.
Canadian art museums have been starved over decades, and it appears we’ll continue to be challenged to stay abreast of current world developments, either by acquisition or exhibition. If our museums are not up to the challenge, who will provide the service?
When I was growing up, I could go to the David Mirvish Gallery, which operated in Toronto from 1963 to 1978, back when $10,000 was a substantial sum. Mirvish had the money and his commercial gallery acted as a public temple. He served Canada by showing the most astonishing art of those days, the then-emerging powerhouses of modernist formalism such as Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, Jules Olitski, Robert Motherwell, Jack Bush, Anthony Caro and Larry Poons. The presentations matched, if not surpassed, the quality of other exhibitions in the western world. Excellent pieces were displayed because Mirvish was renowned as an astute collector of exquisite work. There would be no point in sending him feeble second-tier material.
Over the years, other private patrons have also supported new generations of art: for instance, Toronto’s Ydessa Hendeles, and a number of others, notably in Montreal. Like Gagosian and Mirvish, these collectors made significant personal acquisitions that garnered borrowing clout; we, the art public, were the fortunate beneficiaries.
It’s encouraging the TrépanierBaer Gallery in Calgary recently presented a marvellous exhibition of historical First Nations ledger drawings that would be the envy of any art museum. I suspect public museums could not have gathered the resources. As well, Barbara Edwards Contemporary, a welcome addition to the Calgary mix, is interjecting a number of international luminaries.
In Western Canada, we see commendable patronage, such as the Remai’s infusion into Saskatoon’s new public gallery, and the emergence of private museums: Calgary’s Esker Foundation has marked its second year; the Rennie continues in Vancouver; and the Audain opens soon in Whistler, B.C. Michael Audain remains an exemplary supporter of the Vancouver Art Gallery even while he builds his own art museum for his superb collection. Thank you, thank you.
Is there someone else today who might deliver for us the equivalent of what Mirvish or Gagosian accomplished? Is anyone poised to seize the moment? Is connoisseurship alive? Will some new combination of private patronage, aspiring commercial galleries and progressive museums bring us in closer touch with current world art? Or is our future foreseen by the Bare Naked Ladies?
If I had a million dollars, we wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner, but
we would eat Kraft Dinner, of course we would, we’d just eat more.
Jeffrey Spalding is an artist, a curator and a member of the Order of Canada. He has worked as a museum director and is past-president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.