The Royal Academy's 'The Galleries Show'
Snotty TV purists might be appalled if Endemol took over the BBC for a while, but would it be a celebration of the best of independent TV production? Free marketers would shudder if Goldman Sachs and a few other bulge bracket brokers moved into the New York stock exchange for a month, but would investors be getting better trades?
Both outcomes seem unlikely but then for four weeks this autumn visitors to the Royal Academy in London have the chance to check out what co-curators Norman Rosenthal and Max Wigram are describing as '20 galleries in one' in 'The Galleries Show'. Each commercial London gallery included has paid rent for the room they occupy and have had a free run at filling the space with works - just like an art fair with acanthus leaves.
This was a strategy that backfired (fuelled by accusations of 'selling out') for the Royal College of Art's curatorial course when they invited galleries from around the world to run their show in London this spring, but Norman Rosenthal and Max Wigram, whose last two forays into contemporary art have been 'Sensation' (1997) and 'Apocalypse' (2000), have a fairly well-oiled explanation ready to hand. 'You could say it took no work on our behalf' sighs Rosenthal, 'and in any case, we only had one month to put it together.' Conveniently, 'The Galleries Show' fills a gap before the upcoming Aztec art show, and celebrates London's commercial art scene too. Rosenthal is spinning this not as an abdication of curatorial responsibility but merely a commercially expedient act of ecdysis.
Looking around it feels like Rosenthal's previous apocalypse may have really happened and a whole new form of art institution is emerging, Planet of the Apes style, with the rocky outcrop of a marble 'please do not touch the exhibits' plaque visible here and there, illuminated by sunbeams filled with motes of academy dust. The wall texts have been carefully produced to have the forensic appearance of letters sent in by the gallery operators, all on their respective headed notepaper. On one level it is a mailed-in show, untouched and unfettered, but on another it clearly isn't.
Victoria Miro Gallery, with a blue-chip line-up including Peter Doig, Adriana Varajão and Chris Ofili offers a puzzling statement that announces their pick as being a direct descendent of Rosenthal, Nicholas Serota and Christos Joachimides' 1981 RA exhibition 'A New Spirit in Painting': 'Twenty-one years later the situation is similar and the VMG is pleased to announce 'A New Spirit in Painting 2002.' As Charlton Heston found in Planet of the Apes, illogical plot twists abound, and some things you expect just aren't there.
The Approach includes the only directly political work - a text by the artists' group Inventory - but the removal of both references to America is the RA's uneasy act of shiny-shoed censorship and a reminder of the uneasy nature of this transplant. Inventory's spray-painted text high around the walls now reads '******** imperialism is an obese villainy thriving on war. It is a confederacy of hate dictated by selfish oligarchs contemptuous of the world, its cultures and environment. The ******** war machine mutates our sense of community into a savage god of retribution whose emblems shroud the natural selection enforced by the union of free market capitalism and military might.'
With only four video works on show, AK Dolven's Between the Morning and the Handbag (2000), Johan Grimonprez's Kobarweng (1992), Pierre Bismuth's Jungle Book (2002) and Ben Judd's I Miss (2002), by far the biggest contingent of work is painting, but there is a mile wide difference between those who have set out with a didactic curatorial mission (Lisson, the Victoria Miro Gallery), and others, such as Sadie Coles HQ, Emily Tsingou and greengrassi, who are showcasing new work by just one artist. Tsingou, remarkably, has brought in Lukas Duwenhögger's Slowly, Please-Kelaynak (2002), two amazing, painted cantilevered screens - a work that the academy's institutional space suits absolutely.
The most fleeting presence at the fair was at Michael Hue-Williams' space. He kicked off the show's opening night with Cai Guo-Qiang's Money Net (2002), a ten-metre tall sculpture of a moneybag made from 1,300 metres of gunpowder fuse wire. The pyrotechnics when it was detonated sucked in air from the whole courtyard and sent burning fragments skywards - at the very least blurring boundaries with the concurrent London Fashion Week.
Certainly this is all upside for the Royal Academy - the show was cash positive before it opened its doors thanks to the price galleries paid to rent a space. 'We thought about charging commission on sales but in the end we came up with a quasi-rental deal of between £1,000 and £5,000' says Rosenthal. Some non-attending galleries suggest the prices started out much higher. Of 40 galleries who were approached 33 made the cut into a spiral-bound A-Z-style catalogue, 20 of those made it to Burlington House itself. While there are no sales desks, deals are nevertheless being done.
The Royal Academy isn't breaking new ground here - galleries have always attracted more foot traffic when they group themselves together, but to give the event a grand locale ratchets up the rhetoric a little. 'In London people still feel hesitant about going into a contemporary art gallery compared to New York or Paris' reckons Rosenthal. Whether or not paying £5 to see work from galleries that are otherwise free to enter will make sense remains to be seen.
To a certain degree 'The Galleries Show' is easy to explain in terms of corporate re-jigging. Like any leisure business the Royal Academy has been looking hard at vertical integration. Why not develop the droll Cork Street stroll or the Hackney gallery safari - which are clearly activities art collectors do anyway - into a profit centre? If bookmakers can buy greyhound tracks and television companies can buy football teams it makes a certain kind of biz school sense for art institutions to enter into a joint venture with the businesses that nurture the talent.
First published in Issue 70