What Makes an Art Capital?

Seven necessities to turn a city into a global art hub.

Hong Kong, skyline of Victoria Harbour.
Photo: Pixabay.

How do Dubai, Istanbul, or Hong Kong differ from the “traditional” hubs of London and New York? How can artistic activity and its economic corollaries be encouraged? Such were the questions put to a panel chaired by the indefatigable art market expert Georgina Adam at Christie’s London on May 27.

Art Dubai director Savita Apte, art critic Louisa Buck, artist Michael Craig-Martin, and Hayward Gallery director Ralph Rugoff discussed the “ingredients” necessary to turn a city into a global art center—one which nurtures and serves a homegrown scene as well as attracting the nomad flock of contemporary art professional aficionados.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. A vibrant artist community (after all, that’s what the art world should be about)
It sounds obvious, but as Rugoff and Craig-Martin pointed out early on, artists are often left out of discussions about the organization of the art world. Any debate on how to foster an art scene should start with how to attract artists. They have to want to be there, come, and stay. Once the process is started, it can quickly become a virtuous circle, with good artists tending to attract more good artists. Just look at what’s going on in Los Angeles right now. For Rugoff, an artist-friendly city means “a good night life, good restaurants, and affordable spaces.” For now, London and New York still hold their own, but will they remain the West’s unchallenged art hubs for long if sky-rocketing rents continue to push out cash-strapped emerging artists?

2. Great art schools
It follows naturally from Point #1 that art schools form the bedrock of any artistic community. In Europe, the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) has become the textbook example. Not only it has produced three Turner Prize winners in the last decade, but the GSA is at the heart of the city’s scene. Many alumni choose to stay and are willing to give back (Douglas Gordon famously turned his townhouse into what is now the critically acclaimed nonprofit space Common Guild). Cities eager to boost their art credentials, such as Singapore, are taking a leaf out of Glasgow’s book. Singapore is now partnering with prestigious Western organizations such as Yale in the US and Goldsmiths in London to set up art courses. Meanwhile in the UK, art education is increasingly weakened by short-termist government policies and prohibitive fees. As former Goldsmiths teacher Craig-Martin pointed out, it may take a generation, but it will have a negative impact on the city as a whole.

3. A strong commercial sector
“Art is tied to the ruling class by an umbilical cord of gold,” said Rugoff, quoting Clement Greenberg. Although this tends to be forgotten (even by the institutions which should care most about these issues) artists need to be paid for what they do. Enter the art dealer, the agent who makes the connection between artist and outside world. Good gallerists working with local artists can have a very tangible impact on the art community. Auction houses and art fairs are also (and increasingly) key. Flourishing in strategic geographical locations (often with favorable tax rates), they can act as catalysts, attracting buyers from an entire region and beyond. As far as art fairs are concerned, Hong Kong is a case in point here. The role it has played as champion for art in the city as a whole cannot be underestimated.

4. Local and international collectors and patrons
From the Medicis to the Guggenheims, collectors and patrons have played a key role in supporting artistic creation. They commissioned, collected, endowed public institutions. For Craig-Martin, it was the beginning of a culture of collecting in the 1980s that turned London from the art backwater it was, to the global city it has become. With circulation becoming a must in the art world’s global reality, regular visits from foreign collectors is also crucial, as they spread kudos of a city and its artists far and wide.

Here a note should be included on the countless private foundations mushrooming from Turkey to China. These could be easily dismissed as “vanity projects” (and many of them are precisely that) but as Savita Apte pointed out, several public museums in the West began either as or with private collections. In certain contexts such as India, private museums are also the only institutions available. “You have to start somewhere,” she said.

5. A broad spectrum of public institutions
While commercial galleries are critical in getting new art out of the studio and in the public eye, the task of writing history falls largely onto nonprofit institutions. A first solo show in a major museum remains a landmark in any artist’s career, and institutional exhibitions make an artist’s pedigree more than any gallery show, no matter how prestigious. Museums are also the guardians of memory, revisiting art history: They give it a new relevance, which in turns feeds contemporary culture.

6. An engaged audience (otherwise, what’s the point?)
It’s all very well to have art shows and art fairs, but that does little good if no one is interested. The question of audiences is at the heart of any debate on art capitals. This often means art education: at school, as part of the curriculum (although leading British politicians would disagree), and more generally as part of the mainstream media. Art has to exist within a discursive environment, otherwise it remains marginalized amid the rarefied atmosphere of a self-appointed cultural elite.

7. A strategic spot (to exist, you need space!)
There’s no point trying to kickstart an art capital half an hour from an existing cultural hub. Existing art centres have a tendency to attract anyone from hundreds of miles around—and are so self-centred that they ignore anything that’s happening elsewhere. Distance breeds difference, which in turn can be a selling point. For an artist to settle in Los Angeles rather than New York is almost a statement of intent. Glasgow has taken full advantage from distinguishing itself from London. Art hubs don’t grow in the shadow of bigger art hubs.

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