Paying the piper

Observations on art

Promoters and practitioners of contemporary art have congratulated themselves in recent years on securing public interest and support for their product, as well as an agreeable inflow of money from sponsors. Large corporations are tapped for support and, in capital cities at any rate, they pay up with enthusiasm.

Much new art is both audience-friendly and easily translatable into corporate advertising, so everyone should be happy. But what happens when the artist or the curator blurs what has become the accepted line? It happened recently in California, when the curator of a prominent museum decided to promote an exhibition in a clearly controversial way.

Chris Gilbert, a young curator with an impressive career trajectory, staged an exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum called "Now-Time Venezuela". This featured a multi-screen video by two artists, an Italian and a German, presenting recent debates in Venezuela's worker-controlled factories. A second part sampled the work of Catia TVe, a community television station in poor areas of western Caracas.

The problem for Gilbert was that he wanted to present the show with the phrase "In solidarity with revolutionary Venezuela" printed on text panels. Even in Berkeley, the notion that an exhibition might promote Hugo Chávez's revolution was too much to swallow, and the museum authorities asked Gilbert to change the words.

Gilbert explains that the gallery wanted "neutrality" and "balance", whereas his approach was about "commitment, support and alignment". He saw himself as "taking sides with and promoting revolution". He dug his heels in and the museum authorities eventually withdrew their objections, allowing the text panels to appear as planned, but Gilbert had already decided to resign and he stood by his decision.

Another clash occurred in Paris last month, when the curators of a show at the Palais de Tokyo were attacked for the tainted source of their inspiration.

Le Monde questioned the enthusiasm of the Palais for sponsors such as Audi and Hugo Boss, suggesting that these corporate friends were having a direct impact on what was actually shown. For example, an unexceptional exhibition of student art entitled "Ultra Peau", or Extreme Skin, had been sponsored by Nivea, a corporation with an obvious commercial interest in the subject.

What goes on behind the scenes in the art world is often a mystery to the outside world, but Gilbert had no doubt, from his experience in Berkeley, where to point the finger. He complained about "the presence of intra-institutional press and marketing departments that really operate to hold a political line through various control techniques, only one of which is censorship". And he criticised "the development departments that, in mostly hidden ways, favour and flatter rich funders, giving the lie to even the sham notion of public responsibility that the museum parades".

A spokesperson for the Palais de Tokyo framed the problem in terms that were both more cheerful and shameless: "This way of financing is far from a constraint. It's a good opportunity, even if it brings some collateral damage."