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Arts feature

Revolting teenagers

As 200 children descend on the Savoy, Niru Ratnam asks why corporations sponsor works of art

26 May 2012

11:00 AM

26 May 2012

11:00 AM

As 200 children descend on the Savoy, Niru Ratnam asks why corporations sponsor works of art

In July, 200 teenagers from east London will head to the Savoy where they will take over the Lancaster Ballroom for the day. There they will be given the freedom to create a large-scale event — food and performances included. In the weeks leading up to it, they will have been prepped by Ruth Ewan, the artist behind the project, on the history of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.

The preparation and the event itself will revolve around the teenagers’ interpretation of that historical moment when Wat Tyler led calls for the redistribution of wealth and was subsequently put to death in Smithfield by London’s mayor for his troubles. Before Tyler’s revolt was quashed, his peasants had stormed west London and burnt the Savoy Palace to the ground — hence Ewan’s choice of the modern-day hotel.

‘Liberties of the Savoy’ is the winner of the four-year-old CREATE Art Award, which is given to works of participatory art, a particularly popular form of contemporary art at the moment (its high priest, Jeremy Deller, has just been chosen to represent Britain at the 2013 Venice Biennale). Participatory art falls somewhere between visual art, street theatre and group performance and this particular work is one of the more edgy examples to emerge because of its potential to be read from a politically inflected viewpoint.

For while it is rooted in the Peasant’s Revolt, it seems clear that the work is also inviting viewers to make links with the events of last summer, when teenagers across London went on their own revolt of the dispossessed. Ewan’s description of her project seems, in part at least, to reference those events: ‘I want the “Liberties of the Savoy” to create a unique situation, albeit for one afternoon, in which the participants are unrestricted in their desire and ambition, where they can temporarily experience liberty of sorts.’

Part of the Cultural Olympiad, the CREATE Art Award is sponsored by Bank of America — in fact, up until last year, the award was known by the more cumbersome title of the Bank of America Merrill Lynch CREATE Art Award. Corporate sponsorship of contemporary art has often resulted in odd bedfellows, and there is a certain irony that Bank of America is championing a work that references not just a historical revolt that was based on the call for wealth redistribution, but also on last year’s London riots. A cynical interpretation might see this as another example of a large corporation indulging in some reputation building through association with the cultural sector — an increasingly mainstream tactic used by large corporations that is coming under scrutiny from anti-capitalist activists. Bank of America’s reputation took significant body blows during the subprime scandal and making amends through supporting cultural projects would make sense.

Yet this form of reputation management seems to backfire in many cases. In 2009, while a scandal was brewing around dumping toxic waste in Africa, Trafigura, a multinational that trades in base metals and energy, put a rather paltry £4,000 into sponsoring the Trafigura Art Prize. Instead of this helping the company, activists got wind of it and protested, the art-prize judges condemned Trafigura’s involvement and it was removed as sponsor. More recently BP’s activities in art sponsorship have come under the spotlight, particularly after the announcement last December that the company would continue to sponsor the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate for five more years. Since then — for Tate at least — the relationship seems to have backfired, with protestors regularly popping up at Tate Modern and Tate Britain to carry out stunts such as pouring molasses on the gallery floors, doing naked performances, defacing BP flags and attaching dead fish to black helium-filled balloons.

Indeed, if anything, corporate sponsorship seems to have acted as one of the catalysts behind the revival of activist performance art. Last month saw an unexpected two-person prelude to the RSC’s performance of The Tempest that complained about BP in perfect verse. A significant minority of the audience clapped the dissident duo and followed their entreaty to tear the BP logo out of their programmes.

However, to attribute Bank of America’s sponsorship of Ewan’s project to reputation management is to miss a point. It’s clear that reputation management through arts sponsorship is a hit-and-miss affair, and it is unlikely that many corporations are now unaware of the potential pitfalls. Instead, this rather surprising conjunction of the Bank and a piece of anti-capitalist performance is more likely down to the fact that major banks have recently become very interested in contemporary art with an emphasis on its more avant-garde reaches.

As Anders Peterson, director of ArtTactic, a London-based art market research firm, puts it, ‘Most banks realise that many of their wealthy clients have or could have an interest in art. And these sponsorships are effective ways of nurturing those interests to build a stronger and more personal relationship with their clients.’ Their clients’ interest in art is occasionally a long-standing passion but is usually a newly found interest rooted in the idea of contemporary art as an asset. Contemporary art is one of the few markets that is loudly and visibly booming at an international level. High-net-worth clients are taking notice and banks, in turn, are taking notice of those clients’ new interests.

The idea that contemporary art might soon become an asset that banks themselves directly invest in is taking form. ‘I believe we will see more and more that banks take a strategic interest in art as an asset class,’ says Peterson. ‘I believe it is secondary at the moment, although with the art-market prices going the way they are going, I’m sure this will increasingly become of importance to banks in terms of an alternative asset class.’ As Peterson points out, though, there are still several hurdles to overcome before this can happen: ‘The art market is unregulated and not transparent. There are no set standards in valuing art. And finally there is often a lack of expertise and knowledge internally in the banks.’ This last factor is crucial — contemporary art is esoteric, so why would a client trust a bank to invest their money in a field where it could not demonstrate expert knowledge? One way to do this is to sponsor, and be associated with, particularly difficult art — a large-scale performance about anti-capitalism, for example. Canapés while viewing Lucian Freud no longer cuts the mustard.

There is a way to go before banks take the plunge and invest in art on behalf of their clients, and until this happens these institutions will continue to find ways to signal their growing expertise. As Peterson says, perhaps understatedly, ‘It’s not an uncomplicated relationship, but I believe the interest of the two sectors could be aligned.’ While this alignment is happening, expect mainstream banks to support increasingly avant-garde art. Showing off expert knowledge is the prelude to inviting investment.

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