How Saatchi Orchestrated Brooklyn Museum Frenzy … Money–Not Art–Rules Show

How Saatchi Orchestrated Brooklyn Museum Frenzy

For two weeks in September, Charles Saatchi showed up at the Brooklyn Museum of Art every day to install his art collection for a show that will occupy the entire museum for more than three months. Mr. Saatchi, who runs the advertising firm C&M Saatchi from London, has over the last two decades become the most prominent patron of contemporary art–amassing works by young Americans in the 80′s and young Britons in the 90′s. With the Brooklyn show–imported from the Royal Academy of Arts in London–he has turned the tables on the second-largest museum in New York City, using it to give himself unprecedented leverage as a collector.

“Saatchi creates his own reality,” said Bruce Wolmer, editor of Art & Auction magazine. “First he goes around and buys up enough young artists’ works to create his own movement. Then he gets the Royal Academy to show it, and then he holds an auction to test out the market on these artworks, donating the proceeds to charity to drive up the prices. Now he gets to have another show–in New York–that will expose the work to another group and get more buzz because of the controversy.”

So far, the controversy surrounding the show–called Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection and expected to open on Oct. 2–has been about politics more than art. Mayor Rudolf Giuliani declared at least one work, a Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung and plastered with bits of pornography, “sick” and said he would withdraw city funding. The museum fired back with a First Amendment lawsuit. But in the New York art community, the issue is about the dissolving barriers between art and commerce. Exhibitions are supposed to be conceived by museum directors, organized by curators, and funded by wealthy individuals or organizations without an economic interest in them. Sensation is the brainchild of a collector with his own dealer’s license and gallery, and it is sponsored mainly by Christie’s, an auction house that has dominated the recent sales of the artists featured in the show.

In 1990, Mr. Saatchi purchased the very assemblage that’s in the Brooklyn show. He and his brother Maurice Saatchi, a couple of Iraqis who created Margaret Thatcher’s ad campaign when she was elected Prime Minister, had already bought up the works of the Young Americans–David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl–and Charles Saatchi had opened his own 30,000-square-foot gallery in London, designed by the late Max Gordon, in 1985. His first discovery was Damien Hirst. He reportedly underwrote Mr. Hirst’s first forays into fish and animal life, including the notorious killer shark and the cow and sheep parts suspended in formaldehyde in tanks. Then came Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Rachel Whiteread; he gave the group the nickname the Young British Artists.

In 1997, he took his show to the big stage: the Royal Academy, an institution reported to be in debt. About 120 works from his private collection went into Sensation . Christie’s in London, an auction house that was just beginning to sell newly minted contemporary art and had never sponsored an exhibition of this scale, signed on as the sponsor. (Mr. Saatchi had just dumped Sotheby’s as his preferred venue for art sales.) Record-breaking numbers of museumgoers came to be appalled–rescuing the Academy financially–and the art world was infuriated. The show was criticized because it reflected the strange taste of Mr. Saatchi, not a trained art historian, but a very active player in the art market. The show traveled next to the Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin, where it also broke attendance records.

After the first two legs of the Sensation tour, Mr. Saatchi sold 128 works, many by the artists in the show, at a Christie’s auction in December 1998, and pledged the proceeds to four London art schools–the same schools that produced many of the Sensation stars. The works sold for $2.6 million, at least $260,000 of that sum going to Christie’s in commissions. Immediately after the auction, it was reported that only $65,000 would be spent per year on art-student scholarships–a commitment scheduled for review at the end of this year–and the balance of the proceeds was to be used to commission new art exclusively for Mr. Saatchi’s London gallery.

With the show set to open in New York, the art community has realized that one of its largest public institutions has become a tool of a private collector, an issue that has only been debated on a much smaller scale. The Guggenheim has been criticized for mounting the Hugo Boss Prize, which gives money annually to an artist in exchange for creating artwork for the client. Hugo Boss also sponsors many of the museum’s shows. The Guggenheim SoHo also came under fire earlier this year when it agreed to exhibit several Warhols owned by its landlord, Peter Brandt; the pictures were widely known to be up for sale.

Christie’s in London denied that the two European shows were a way to prime the market for the work of the artists on exhibit. “I am not sure at that time whether we knew the sale was going to be taking place,” said Fred Goetzen. But many in the art world are certain that the Brooklyn show will be bookended by the London auction and a second taking place in New York after the show closes in January.

A spokesman for Christie’s in New York would not say whether an auction was already scheduled: “We do not discuss our relationships with our clients.”

Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told The Observer that the Met has a policy against shows like Sensation . “We have a stated policy against exhibiting works of art that are for sale at the moment,” he said. “There are occasions when an exhibition is in need of a work of art that is for sale to fill out a show, and we will allow that one work into the show if they agree to not sell it during the course of the show.”

That used to be the unwritten policy at the Brooklyn Museum. Charlotta Kotik, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, said that she and director Arnold Lehman debated the topic of allowing a company that sells art to act as a source for an exhibition. “We decided that in the contemporary field there are so many collectors who have things to say like Charles that it was no different than showing the collection of Leopold II of Sweden,” she said, referring to the 18th-century King of Sweden.

She said having Christie’s as the show’s main sponsor was not ideal. “It was not easy finding a sponsor for this show.”

In the case of Sensation , said Randy Bourscheidt, director of the Alliance for the Arts, a nonprofit federation of arts organizations, the connection between the market and the museum has people in the arts very concerned. “It may be a major problem in the case of this one show…. Saatchi is a special case.”

The Mayor’s office did not return calls about the issue of a public institution accepting sponsorship from such an interested party as Christie’s, but Schuyler Chapin, the city’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, said the whole situation reeked of profits. “Mr. Saatchi is the one who must be licking his lips with pleasure at all this,” Mr. Chapin said. “Obviously, all this attention, all this publicity, all this business, is going to drive up the value of the particular exhibition and its pictures, and he will be the ultimate beneficiary.… Mr. Saatchi will undoubtedly take it to an auction gallery and sit back and rake in the results.”

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said “Frankly, everyone does it.”

“Museums have been more and more forced to seek funding any way they can,” said New York University art department chairman Carlo Lamagna. “Whatever outside support they can get is welcome. Despite all the funding that the city gives to the Brooklyn Art Museum, it certainly does not cover their bills.”

Observers say Mr. Lehman’s motives are to increase the museum’s profile and its attendance. In the two years since he has taken over as director, he has initiated activities like free concerts and disco dancing on Saturday nights. According to the museum, attendance has already doubled during his tenure. According to press materials, in addition to the ground-floor museum shop there will be a 1,200-square-foot shop on the fourth floor selling items related to Sensation : temporary tattoos, a T-shirt that comes with a condom (available in “Safe or “Unsafe”); baby-doll T-shirts with “Danger Art” written on them; and toilet paper “wrapped in yellow ‘Caution’ tape.”

Before the Mayor got hold of the show’s catalogue and gave Mr. Saatchi a week’s worth of free advance publicity, all the hype was supposed to kick off with a gala party, scheduled for Sept. 30, at which David Bowie (who recorded an album in 1985 called Young Americans ) is scheduled to perform. Mr. Bowie, a friend of the collector’s who has hitched his star to the art world, also narrates the audio guide for the Sensations show and gave some money to help pay for it. A letter sent to Mayor Giuliani on Sept. 28 from 25 leaders of the city’s cultural institutions damning the Mayor’s reaction to the show, seemed to hint that the audience Mr. Saatchi and Mr. Lehman are seeking will indeed start crossing the East River.

Additional reporting by Josh Benson and Gabriel Snyder.

–Jeffrey Hogrefe

Money–Not Art–Rules Show

Well, I’ve been over to Brooklyn to see the Sensation show and–guess what?–it’s a lousy exhibition. It’s an appallingly witless and stupid exhibition. But that’s what it was expected to be, wasn’t it? If it wasn’t guaranteed to be stupidly offensive, it wouldn’t be getting all this attention, would it? If it wasn’t guaranteed to be stupidly offensive, the hapless director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art would never have brought the show over from Europe, as everybody now knows. He saw the long lines of sensation-seekers waiting to get into the Sensation show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and that settled the matter for him. Of such appallingly stupid stuff are museum careers now made.

What is essential to understand about this exhibition, the full name of which is Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection , is that it is first of all about money–or, to put the matter more delicately, about the vicissitudes of art commerce in the 1990′s. That Charles Saatchi is an advertising genius is beyond doubt. That he is also one of the shrewdest traders on the international art bourse is also well known. He buys and sells art futures the way other traders buy and sell pork bellies. It’s not as if he is entirely indifferent to quality in art, either. The fact is, he has acquired the work of some very fine artists.

But it is also a fact that he isn’t exactly inhibited by the total absence of quality. He is the Andy Warhol of art traders. He knows he has the power to make an unknown artist famous for 15 minutes–or as long as it takes to create a lucrative market for his work. He knows how to play the media for maximum effect. He made his fortune in the advertising business, after all. He also knows that in the market for contemporary art today, quality is an alien concept.

Another thing that Mr. Saatchi knows is that the facilities of museums that traffic in contemporary-art reputations are nowadays more or less for hire. Not for everyone, of course, but for certain influential traders on the international art bourse. It was therefore a cinch for Mr. Saatchi to get his latest collection of young British artists into the Royal Academy. The Academy jumped at the opportunity to bask in the limelight of Mr. Saatchi’s controversial reputation. Whatever he offered the Academy was bound to be great box-office. It could have been elephant dung–or, for that matter, yours or mine–without paint or canvas, and the lines at the box office would have been equally long.

The title of the show, by the way, was not Mr. Saatchi’s idea. In the acknowledgements in the catalogue for the London show, the well-known American art trader–sorry, consultant–Jeffrey Deitch is thanked for coming up with Sensation . The Brooklyn Museum hasn’t bothered to produce a catalogue of its own for the show; it simply recycles the London catalogue, which is not an entirely reliable guide to what you actually find on view in Brooklyn. Not that it matters much with art products of this type.

As for what you do find in the show, be warned that quite a lot of the Sensation exhibition is fairly boring. What look to me like examples of slick art-school abstraction are particularly pathetic. Their only merit is to provide the eye with rest stops, so to speak, between our encounters with some of the nastier stuff on view. One of the nastiest objects in the show is indeed Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), which has already caused so much uproar. It turns out, however, that the elephant dung that is attached to this canvas is by no means the most offensive thing about this disgusting picture. Attached to its surface are myriad little cutouts from porno magazines depicting assholes and vaginas in graphic detail.

Who was it who said that anti-Catholicism was now the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals? I have no reason to suspect that Mr. Ofili is any sort of intellectual, but he seems to have understood that it is O.K. now to engage in this kind of public ridicule of sacred subjects–and win a little art-world fame in the bargain. Had he attempted something similar in mocking the sacred tenets of Islam, Mr. Ofili would probably now require the protection of Scotland Yard, and the Brooklyn Museum would probably have some security problems, too. But it seems to be O.K. to engage in this kind of lewd anti-Catholic expression in public places so long as it passes for serious art.

But the nastiest stuff of all in the Sensation show are works of Jake and Dinos Chapman, who specialize in doll-like mannequins of naked little girls amply equipped with erect penises for noses and more numerous vaginas than nature normally provides. The Chapman brothers served an apprenticeship as studio assistants to Gilbert and George, who, it will be recalled, made a sensational success of exhibiting pictures of their own assholes and penises–and even their own excrement. It was a hard act to follow, but the Chapman brothers have managed to score with their little-girl porno figures.

As for the Damien Hirst animal stuff, it would make me ill to talk about it.

As you might expect on an occasion of this sort, the catalogue for the Sensation show attempts to provide the exhibition with a very prestigious historical lineage, citing paintings by Géricault, Courbet, Manet and Hieronymus Bosch and the graphic art of Goya as precedents. All nonsense, of course, but a vivid reminder of what now passes for serious thought at the Royal Academy. I would suggest a more recent historical development as a likely precedent for the Sensation mentality: the early work of Salvador Dalí and the decadent milieu that nourished it in the period between the two world wars.

Writing in 1944 about Dalí and the perverse tastes of the European haut monde in that period, George Orwell gave us what now reads like a prophecy of this Sensation mentality. “If you threw dead donkeys at people,” he wrote, “they threw money back. A phobia for grasshoppers–which a few decades back would merely have provoked a snigger–was now an interesting ‘complex’ which could be profitably exploited. And when that particular world collapsed before the German army, America was waiting. You could even top it all up with religious conversion.”

As Orwell also wrote: “Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.”

Sensation opens on Oct. 2 and remains on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Jan. 9.

–Hilton Kramer