Thursday, November 24, 2011


Does art need bankers?
As Italy’s new technocratic government struggled to its feet, 100 financiers, entrepreneurs, collectors, curators, dealers and academics gathered in Florence for a private conference on the future of art and finance

By Robert Hewison. Web only
Published online: 24 November 2011

Not since Damien Hirst cleared £111m from his solo Sotheby’s sale as Lehman Brothers went down in September 2008, setting off the financial crisis that still afflicts us, has there been a more powerful conjunction of art, money and events. Last month, as Italy’s new technocratic government struggled to its feet, 100 financiers, entrepreneurs, collectors, curators, dealers and academics gathered at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence for a private conference on the future of art and finance. The Governor of the Bank England, Mervyn King, senior figures from the European Central Bank, the US Federal Reserve, the Swiss National Bank, the CEO of Sotheby’s, Bill Ruprecht, former Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens, now running his own Global Cultural Asset Management, were just some of the influential people prepared to spend 24 hours sharing their financial wisdom and their concern for art.

The cue was, appropriately, a striking new show at the Palazzo Strozzi, “Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli, and the Bonfire of the Vanities”. Its blunt opening statement, “No Bankers. No Renaissance”, was a suitable subtext to the forum organised by the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation’s dynamic director, James Bradburne. The show elegantly told the story of the rise of Florence as a financial centre and its parallel flowering as a centre for art. There was no doubt here about the meeting of art and money, but the glowering portrait of the doomed priest, Savonarola, was a reminder that the Medici faced their crises too. Florence invented the letter of exchange, a complex financial derivative and a way to get round the Church’s view that making money out of money was usury—a thought powerfully resonant today.

Since this was a closed conference under Chatham House rules, I can’t report who said what, but just as Florence is no longer the cultural and financial powerhouse it was in the 15th century, there was concern that today financial and cultural power is on the move from the West to the East. China has become the largest market for art, both indigenous and Western, but the Gulf, India, Singapore, and Taiwan also have cash and cultural power. There was much debate as to whether financial centres necessarily became cultural centres, but the consensus was, in the words of one delegate who certainly knew what he was talking about, “art tracks money and power”. Abu Dhabi’s plans may be on hold, but there is no doubt about the rise of China.

This was confirmed by the Beijing collector Li Guochang, owner of the private Wall Art Museum and the suitably named Art Bank magazine. We had already been told of the Chinese government’s cultural industry reform plan, launched earlier this year as a “a new pillar industry”, intended to more than double the contribution of their cultural industries to 5% of China’s GDP by 2016. There was some scepticism about the conditions for creativity in China—the case of Ai Weiwei was raised—but at least one Asian delegate was ready to challenge “the cultural arrogance in the room”. Market success was no guarantee of artistic quality (Damien Hirst’s reputation had been much debated), and in any case Western models were not automatically the right ones.

Although there was evident anxiety about China, there appeared to be a certain complacency about arrangements in the West. There was little questioning of how the international art market actually worked. But there was one delegate ready to be a Savonarola, and to go on the record as one. The fact that the Swiss-based Bijan Kherzi is both a financier and an enthusiastic collector of contemporary art gave a weight to his words that academic critics cannot claim. In Kherzi’s view the art world “has been hijacked by the very same forces that poisoned the world of finance: herding, greed, and short-termism leading to asset inflation, market collusion, lack of substance and too many self-possessed individuals”.

Several collectors made it clear they collected for love, not investment, but the presence of so many money men may explain why the discussion devoted to public funding for culture—revealingly framed as “How can public funding support private investment in the arts?”—did not get very far. The consensus was that government funding is in unavoidable decline, and that calls for new models. This was an opportunity for James Bradburne to point to the unique position in Italy of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation itself. Founded in 2006, it is a public/private partnership between the City and Province of Florence, the Chamber of Commerce, and a group of private funders, set up to reanimate the exhibition spaces and outreach programmes at the Palazzo Strozzi, which also houses three other cultural institutions. Bradburne stressed that, unusually for Italy, the Foundation operates at arm's length from its public funders, as a cultural laboratory for the city.

There is, of course, a subtext to this as well. Florence has been losing market share as a tourist destination, and it is the city’s mission to improve the life of its citizens by moving away from the mass-tourism that so afflicts Venice. By making the city better for those who live there, visitors will want to stay longer, and return more often.

The Palazzo Strozzi Foundation—which also has a challenging contemporary exhibition, “Declining Democracy: Rethinking Democracy Between Utopia and Participation”—is on a mission to put Florence back on the map. This was impressively demonstrated by a banquet at the Palazzo Vecchio to celebrate the decision of the trustees of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation, USA, to present their first Renaissance Man of the Year Award to Ted Turner. Turner, the founder of CNN, the man who paid America’s dues to the United Nations, the sailor, restaurant-chain owner and protector of the bison, made a passionate attack on the global military budget, called for “a new Renaissance” of ecological wisdom, and ended by serenading us with “My Old Kentucky Home”. One wonders what Savonarola would have made of that.

The writer is professor of cultural policy and leadership studies at City University, London

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