Artangel and Financing British Art
Adapting to Social and Economic Change
British Art Series
London: Routledge, 2019
Hardcover. xi-154 p. 35 illustrations. ISBN 978-1138489813. £115
Reviewed by Gabriel N. Gee
Franklin University, Lugano (Switzerland)
Mapping the history of the London-based art agency Artangel immediately comes with a catch, as the organisation officially dates back its genesis to 1991, when curators Michael Morris and James Lingwood started on a journey to deliver ‘extraordinary art in unexpected places’. However, they, at the time, had inherited an existing eponymous Trust, founded in 1985 by the art historian Roger Took and co-directed with curator John Carson till 1991. There are good reasons why the new directors might have wanted to dissociate themselves from the early years of Artangel, and it is also indubitable that Morris and Lingwood had a decisive impact on the orientation and subsequent successes of the agency’s model and achievements. Nonetheless, the re-inscription of the 1980s as part of the organisation’s history is crucial for two reasons: first, because there is a strategical continuity between the two historical phases of Artangel, despite their singularity, in the production of works that are ‘issue-based’ as well as designed for the public sphere; and secondly, as this meticulous historical study particularly emphasises, in the structural model of a ‘contemporary art production company’, whose inception and subsequent development were intrinsically bound to the paradigmatic change in the political and cultural landscape that marked the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Hence the focus on the specific case-study of Artangel enables the author to approach metonymically the significant and cohesive transformations that have shaped the British art world in the past forty years. The attention to financial mechanisms reflects Gould’s long-standing interests in the relation between art and patronage, as exemplified by previous and ongoing research on the young British artists and the British art market. In referring at the outset to Howard S. Becker, and an approach of artistic production where the artist and the artwork are to be understood as operating within chains of cooperation, the historical reflection stresses its goal to place Artangel’s innovative artistic contributions firmly within the framework and determinations of a changing socio-political landscape. The 1980s in Britain were a ‘radical’ decade, characterised by the progressive implantation of ‘Thatcherism’, a cocktail of neoliberal policies advocating the rule of the market, and nationalist postures in the aftermath of imperial dissolution. These led to a rupture of the post-war order in cultural matters – which New Labour did not reverse after its election victory in 1997 – and the inauguration of what has been labelled a 'post-consensus age'. Faced with the privatisation of culture, together with the prime minister’s conviction that there was no need for the state to play the Maecenas, as well as attacks on public bodies exemplified by the abolition of the London Greater Council in 1986, artistic bodies were forced to cooperate, and if possible, to devise their own paths within the new order.
The aim of the study is to explain why Artangel became such a success story, how it was shaped by post-1979 British cultural policies, and the extent to which its solution to art patronage influenced the British art world. While the stated objectives suggest that the study is going to prove a rather technical discussion on the mechanisms of art funding in Britain in the past four decades (and that would be fine), these are elegantly folded in a dialogue with the particular aesthetics served by the agency over the years, as exemplified by the significant array of works produced, mostly in the greater London metropolis. The first part is entitled ‘post-consensus cultural policies and the hybridisation of funding : a British model’; it gives the background in cultural policy that underlay the historical operational conditions of Artangel. Part 2 ‘producing art in the post-consensus age’, traces the inception and development of the agency into an inspirational artistic producer within a new environment. Part 3 reflects on ‘public art’, a key point in the overall discussion and assessment of the organisation, while the final section opens the reflection into questions of artistic ‘dissemination’, tackling recent artistic strategies geared towards ‘the new sites of art’, i.e. soundscapes, radio and television, cinematographic production and internet platforms.
That being said, the study is detailed and precise in its scrutiny of funding mechanisms. It charts the various modes through which a new structure for artistic patronage emerged in the late twentieth century in Britain, from the % for art policies and the launch of the British Sponsorship Incentive Schemes, to New Labour implementation of social engineering through the Department for Culture Media and Sport, right to the funding cuts of 2010 and the hailing of the ‘big society’ under David Cameron. It follows the turn towards the ‘value for money’ principle, the privatisation of culture in the 1980s, the impact of the lottery and the embrace of creative industries by Cool Britannia. It is in face of a systematic implementation of a private-public partnerships model, that Artangel found its unique ‘modus operandi’. In between a vision of art as a social agent, and private funding keen on pure branding, Artangel devised its own hybrid position, that enabled the organisation to benefit from schemes existing on both sides of the equation: on the one hand, private sponsors, from individuals to corporate entities, and on the other public money, made available by the logic of matching schemes, as well as the agency’s vocation to bring art out of the white cube into the public realm. What is particularly striking in this story, as Gould points out, is that Artangel developed as a model that could resist the instrumentalisation of the artist by the forces of capital, or the social interests of the state, and in that respect articulates an effective continuation of the arm’s length principle inherited from the post-war era, guaranteeing the independence of artistic activity, just as this principle was being torn into shred by successive Conservative Party administrators; and simultaneously, could become the poster child of the new era through precisely its acumen in attracting both private and public financial resources. A recurring question in this period has been that of accountability, i.e. how should governmental bodies assess the quality of the contemporary arts? There are different boxes to tick, with slightly different shapes at different moment in time, and Artangel clearly became a connoisseur of the anxious British state machinery, which it used to further its own agenda.
The outcome of this agenda, a series of remarkable artistic interventions in a diverse range of sites and formats across London and beyond are layered throughout the study, with references to an array of theoretical essays and ideas drawn from recent scholarly debates in the British world. Patronage and philanthropy loom large of course, in the age of the collector-dealer, as does the professionalisation of curating, which took place in Britain in the 1990s. The question of Public Art is central to the discussion, only to be deconstructed in more refined categories through the different types of site-specific artworks analysed. For in working beyond the museum walls, but also beyond the recognisable public domain (say the Trafalgar plinth), Artangel is described as operating in an interstice. The choice of sites, often out of the beaten tracks, if not downright remote (Roni Horn Icelandic installation being the archetypal example here), is said to be very much the prerogative of the agency, albeit within a collaborative process. Such spatial choice and ‘location hunting’ in many ways then summons the aesthetic path, in a form of creative resistance eluding top-down efficiency imperatives of the Blockbuster age. The peak of the discussion over the publicness of art leads into a superseding of the public-private and inside-outside binaries, as works such as Artists and writers in Reading Prison (reading Oscar Wilde where he was once jailed) or Ryan Gander’s Locked Room Scenario with an inverted escape room and visitors locked outside of the exhibition space, articulate thresholds, passages, traversing figures and forms, as well as heterotopias where the spaces of the outside are to be found on the inside. The reflection on the sense of place takes another turn with the integration of digital formats. In considering the expanded materiality of projects using radio, television channels or audio walks, Artangel is similarly seen as evolving beyond the material-immaterial dichotomy. Discussion of the organisation’s film collection, formalised as a collaboration with the Tate in 2011, brings a deliberation on the ‘afterlives’ of the artworks. The question of dissemination in the post-internet era unpacks the core notion of ephemerality, a trope of Artangel’s projects throughout the last decades, into its modes of movement and temporal diffusion, in both their frequency, and fluidity.
But most revealingly, following Gould on this panoramic journey through Artangel’s history, one finds an illuminating iconological portrait of the British ‘environment’ at the turn of the 21st century, seen from the underbelly of the capital. There is the weather, mirrored in an Andy Goldsworthy’s Hampstead Heath temporary sculpture, the British climate long seen as Gould reminds us as either an epitome of British aesthetics, or a catalyst of its mediocrity; and there is the home, Victorian and eery in Rachel Whiteread celebrated 1993 cast terraced house in the East End, modern and brutal in Stephen Willats’ Brentford Towers (1985), in a decade that saw the government privatise housing estates all over the country; there is shopping in the city, with a twist in Miranda July’s interfaith Charity shop that ran for two months in Selfridges in 2017, or literally inversed with Breakdown, when Michael Landy turned all his possession into dust through a dramatised process on Oxford Street (2001). Memorials are best seen in old houses and public buildings for local communities, such as the Holborn library where the sculptor Jose Damasceno devised Plot in 2014. Industry is no longer that of the 1960s Artist Placement Group, but the empty shells of disused warehouses, or the object of historical re-enactment in the flagship project of Jeremy Deller The Battle of Orgreave (2001). Similarly, the ships of old that busied the docks of the Thames, now drift virtually from a rooftop in James Bridle A ship adrift, created as part of Fiona Banner’s A room for London during the Olympics in 2012. As for the all-pervasive British media, it is subverted in the 1980s media-orientated billboards of Barbara Kruger (We don’t need another hero) and Conrad Atkinson (Wall Street Journal, Financial Times…), and in later interventions such as the ‘open air’ collaboration with BBC Radio 4, whereby five artists got three minutes of carte blanche just after the Today Programme during one week of 2014.
Navigating between the cultural policy and art theory literatures, Gould’s take on the success story of Artangel adroitly sheds light on the interaction between aesthetic creativity and socio-economic structures at a time of significant changes in the British cultural and socio-political landscape. What we see in action is a paramount capacity of negotiation, through which the organisation was able to manoeuvre the pitfalls of at first hostile then too overtly keen governmental policies. Within the broader scope of Britain, and in the spirit of the study, one might wonder to what extent exactly the trajectory and input of Artangel has been exemplary. This is no idle question, since through its own ingenuity, the agency was made a ‘national portfolio association’ in 2012. As Gould points out, at a time of increased cuts to artistic bodies, the portfolio concentrated funding into the hands of a selected few, hailed as model organisations. One of the major precursors of Artangel, and an organisation which has been running on a parallel course, the Newcastle-based agency Locus +, formerly Projects UK, has not been so favoured in recent times. While boasting a pedigree at least as prestigious as its Southern sibling, Locus + saw its funding cut in 2015, and withdrawn in 2017. Indeed we can be reminded, as this reflection on the financing of British art clearly phrases, that it is the mechanics of the funding processes, be they private or public, together with their negotiation by actors on the ground, that ultimately caution the validation of what is deemed worthy of embodying the national arts.
Working both within and against the political grain, Artangel fused ‘adapting’ with reactivity, a trademark of the most potent aesthetic positions in the United Kingdom at the turn of the 21st century. In particular, this creative reactivity has engaged with the reconfiguration of Britain’s imaginaries, as whole sectors of industrial production were abandoned, colonial dominions vanished, and British society progressively came to grip with the realities of a new world order. These changes did not imply a straightforward conversion to virtual finance, as the material stress and loci of the artistic interventions produced by Artangel repeatedly iterate. The agency’s trajectory, in that respect, must also be seen as part of the broader field of artistic production in the UK, where similar localised and regional strategies have strived to address changing operating circumstances guided by globalised interconnections and patterns. Furthermore, Artangel must also be considered within the changing cosmological horizons of Europe, which has shared with Britain an overturn of its historical global remit in the planetary political, economic and cultural overhaul that has marked the 20th century. Hence Victorian memories, post-War architecture, domestic rituals and military nostalgia, the overlapping of voices and the interlacing of individual and collective stories all take part in an array of significant uncertainty, that characterises a poetics of textures for the 21st century.
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