Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator and writer. His writing has appeared in books on architect Zaha Hadid, and artists Vito Acconci and Paul Thek, and he is a contributor to the British edition of GQ and Swiss money manager Marc Faber’s Gloom Boom & Doom Report. The opinions expressed here are his own.
It was time for Oliver Barker of Sotheby’s to perform, but he wasn’t conducting an auction. “Which artist directed the video for David Bowie’s recent single ‘Where are we now?’” he asked with characteristic panache. DING DING DING! went a bell somewhere in the nightclub in the basement of London’s Dover Street Arts Club, and someone called out “Tony Oursler!” “Which famous rock star’s wardrobe is currently being exhibited at the V&A?” Mr. Barker asked. DING DING DING! David Bowie. Which artist will represent Britain in the British Pavilion in Venice this summer? DING DING DING! Jeremy Deller. Contemporary art collector Abdullah Al Turki charged around the room, occasionally shouting out in Arabic, attempting to determine whose bell rang first.
Welcome to the third annual Art Quiz. “Reputations at stake,” the announcement card for the April 8 event had promised, and, more importantly, “prizes to be won.” The brainchild of three art worlders—Sharifa Al-Sudairi, of Pace Gallery, Alia Al-Senussi, Middle East relations for the Basel Art Fair, and Mr. Al Turki—Art Quiz is the art world’s take on a typical pub quiz night but at an upscale, members-only club, rather than a ratty bar, the usual venue for these occasions. The Quizmasters, the ringleaders charged with crafting the questions and serving as masters of ceremony, were Mr. Barker, Mary Robert of the Royal College of Art and Richmond University and me. Eight teams of six participants engage in a race to slam a tabletop bell for a first shot at answering a series of questions about art, both old and new; if answered incorrectly, the next in line of ringing would follow-up. (That was the concept anyway—the more chaotic things would get, the less it was adhered to.) Contestants got a light meal and Champagne came as part of the £65.00-a-head cover charge —squeezing such a wad from a roomful of art workers is, it’s worth mentioning, no easy feat—and the prize for winning (drum roll, please) was another meal at the Arts Club, this one free.
I’d made my way to the Club straight off an overnight flight, on which I’d gotten little to no sleep—I wondered if I could answer my own questions. It didn’t help matters that I was intimidated by my fellow Quizmasters. Olly Barker is among the world’s foremost auctioneers—in 2004, he cooked up the initial auction of Damien Hirst’s “Pharmacy” works, without which Mr. Hirst’s second one-artist sale, the $200 million one in 2008, would never have happened. Mary Robert is an esteemed art historian, now chair of the Department of Arts & Sciences and Professor of Lens Media at Richmond University after a long stint at the Royal College. Mary had stepped in at the last minute for artist Keith Tyson, who’d decided, perhaps wisely, not to cut his vacation short. I myself had some incredulous reactions from friends and family when I announced I’d be leaving an idyllic island getaway to take part in an art quiz in which neither charity nor fundraising were involved, and which didn’t even have a significant prize. One person called my decision “stupid.” And yet, I found it appealing that passionate people would spend their own money to participate in a superfluous test involving the very subject on which they toil, often frustratedly, every day.
There were teams headed by Christie’s, and the galleries Pace, Thomas Dane, and Hauser & Wirth, a table comprised of artists, and a random table with stuffy members of the private club who knew nothing about art and who later made themselves known by nature of their vociferous complaints about the room’s general behavior. The gallery teams were made up of staff and invited writers and curators, including Gregor Muir, director of the ICA and Chris Dercon, director of Tate Modern. There were artists Shezad Dawood and Idris Khan; Martine d’Anglejean Chatillon, a partner at Thomas Dane Gallery; Victoria Siddall, director of the fair Frieze Masters; Adrian Searle, art critic for The Guardian; Robert Bound, culture editor of Monocle; Georgina Adam, columnist for the Financial Times; and Ed Tang (collector David’s son) of Christie’s. A formidable group—all that was missing was Hans Ulrich Obrist.
It was a scenario ripe for a rumble: underpaid journalists, frustrated worker-bees from galleries and auction houses (also poorly remunerated) and a few artists thrown in for good measure. Fuel them all with some angst and some alcohol, and you have a recipe for disaster, or at the very least unruliness. Nothing could have prepared me for this seemingly cordial art world gathering morphing into a scorpion pit.
The first round of questions, Oliver’s, were a little too easy for this hungry crowd, and a cacophony of bleating bells went off simultaneously, sounding like an abstract composition by Philip Glass.
Jet-lagged and exhausted and wondering how to follow up Mr. Barker, with his television actor’s flair for performing (imagine the breakfast table with his kids, and his launching into a full-throttled auction rant: “Will it be Frosted Flakes! Coco Puffs! Pancakes! Do I have any takers for orange juice!”), I launched into my questions. I’d been asked to give them a contemporary focus, and, being American, I mainly stuck with American artists—you can’t teach an old dog new anything, especially this motley mutt. Some examples: Q: This artist of the same generation as Alex Katz is unfortunately only seen in context of American art. A: Fairfield Porter. Q: Her work can resemble the love child of Franz West and Paul McCarthy. A: Rachel Harrison. Q: His TV show is vicious and his paintings made by Hollywood set makers. A: Alex Israel.
These weren’t by any means the most erudite questions, but surely they didn’t call for bullying. And yet, that is precisely what ensued. Esteemed critic Adrian Searle jumped from his seat and heckled me with a rude outburst, the content of which I swiftly repressed for the purpose of self-preservation.
Next up was the scholarly and demure Mary Robert, who seemed ill prepared for the impending onslaught. A sampling of her questions: Q: Alan Measles appears in this artist’s work. Who is the artist and who is Alan Measles? A: Grayson Perry, and his teddy bear from childhood. (Ugh!) Q: Who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911? A: Vicenzo Peruggia. Q: Donatello produced his revolutionary relief sculpture, The Feast of Herod, a k a The Dance of Salome (c. 1427) for the Baptistery of Siena Cathedral, but he only got the commission because the artist originally commissioned was too slow. Who was that artist? A: Jacopo della Quercia.
The degree of difficulty only served to further stir the crowd’s aggression, the crashing of the bells growing more intense with each stumper of a question.
When did the art world turn into a cult and the Arts Club into some kind of Masonic temple? As the commotion grew, I wondered, was I Piggy, the hapless character in Lord of the Flies, and similarly doomed? Martine, the impossibly skinny gallerista from Thomas Dane, was seeming increasingly like the menacing Jack Merridew. And here we were in a room filled with Jack-like antagonists.
With Mary’s questions complete, Art Quiz should have been over, but it wasn’t. Exactly who’d racked up the most points was hotly contested by just about all of the eight teams, except for the Arts Club members’ table who seemed annoyed, and possibly a little frightened, by the whole thing. Martine, in a move reminiscent of Kanye West seizing the mike from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards, leapt from her chair, bounded on stage, grabbed the mike and began trying to determine the outcome herself.
This was not just a peek into the dark side of art, but of human nature itself. I shouted to the crowd, “Does it really matter who wins? We’ve all won just by showing up and participating!” That sentiment met with a loud chorus of shrieking boos, and I had the queasy impression of being surrounded by a hundred Charlie Sheens hell-bent on winning at any cost. Indeed, it was unclear who ultimately won this contest, and I never bothered to find out—I’d bet it was Thomas Dane by dint of sheer force.
With the quiz over, the less haughty made their way to the top-floor lounge for more drinks, like a reverse Dante’s Inferno. Somehow, the booze-fueled bacchanalian hate-fest ended up being one of the highlights of my art career. There was a whiff of Wall Street in this wild and woolly art world group that readily sacrificed any sense of civility. This is to say nothing of the debauchery of the after party. Leave it at that Allan McCollum piece—a piece made up of a collection of the near-identical objects Mr. McCollum refers to as “surrogates”—smashed at the hands of over zealous club patrons. I can imagine the conversation at the time of acquisition: “Mr. McCollum, this is not a bar, it’s a members-only private arts club, your Surrogates will be safe with us.” Sure they will.