An introduction to the 2014 ArtReview Power 100

After 13 years, the power-ranking business isn’t getting any easier

That's partly because there’s so much of this contemporary art stuff around. And most of it is no longer only in New York, London and Paris. Is one of the consequences of the much-vaunted ‘globalisation’ of contemporary art that no one person can be globally influential? Do disparate art scenes mean that art works in different ways in different places? When we talk about the ‘artworld’, are we talking about a system of distribution rather than anything to do with the production of art? Does a gallerist flapping its wings in New York cause a tidal wave in Tasmania? And isn’t the control of distribution the contemporary Western power paradigm anyway? 

Over the past year, ArtReview has been doing a lot of travelling, mostly on passenger jets, and mostly in economy, from where it leans out of its aisle seat to catch glimpses of important international artists, gallerists, collectors and curators, way up ahead in business class, being poured glasses of champagne, given neck massages and laughing. ArtReview is reconciled to this injustice. But what ArtReview’s incessant globetrotting has taught it is that the artworld is a surprisingly big place, and that each time it touches down, it finds itself in one or other locality where art has become a very big deal, and which has its own local power hierarchy. And each time ArtReview has met with its Power 100 contact for that particular region (involving coded handshakes in a designated basement bar, although the power panel is in no way a mysterious cult), it has received a very different report about who should be number one.

So, whenever ArtReview meets one of its New York operatives, for example, the conversation is always prefaced by the operative whispering, “Just remember: if it didn’t happen in New York, it didn’t happen”, before a photograph of a certain Canadian curator is ritually stuffed into the shredder. Similarly, whenever it’s in Shanghai, the operative keeps jabbing a finger at a photograph of a certain American gallerist and screeching, “Who the hell is he? I’ve never seen him in China.” For all you hear (in the pages of this magazine as much as anywhere else) that contemporary art has ‘gone global’, regional differences haven’t been entirely erased, nor do ideas and concepts in contemporary art travel at the speed of light, to be held up as universally true. Just as any one person who tells you that he is totally in touch with everything that’s going on in contemporary art everywhere in the world is a liar. And gazing at the Internet 24 hours a day doesn’t really amount to knowing everything.

Any one person who tells you that he is totally in touch with everything that’s going on in contemporary art everywhere in the world is a liar

By way of explanation, ArtReview’s power list is now distilled through a series of panels numbering 26 people in total. Who are they? ArtReview can’t tell you, again not because it masterminds some shadowy coven, but only to ensure that its panellists can go about their daily lives unmolested by any power-peddlers other than ArtReview. What ArtReview can tell you is that the panel is made up of operatives based in Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, São Paulo, Dubai, Paris, Berlin, Milan and London. And for the observant among you, that there is occasionally more than one agent in each of those cities (though they are never allowed to meet). It can also tell you that all the operatives on the panel – all of whom work in the artworld in a variety of ways, and not only for ArtReview – are necessarily excluded from the power list, though some of them may, at one time or another, have been included in one of its previous editions.

Right. Pulling together these increasingly disparate perspectives, ArtReview readily admits, can sometimes test its patience. Such is the price ArtReview pays in its quest for the truth. But when it regains its composure, ArtReview sees a big picture emerging. And what it sees is an artworld in which, as particular regions have assumed greater importance, the old centres of the artworld – the US and Western Europe – now appear more regional themselves.

In the context of all this, you might have gathered that for the purposes of this list, distribution and circulation are more important than the production of art. ArtReview has met collectors who talk about their ‘practice’ (in the way that artists have for the past few years and that Buddhist monks have for centuries), and it visited this year’s Whitney Biennial, where it found critics and publishers included in an exhibition that notionally attempts to tell you something about the current state of art (in the US, that is; it means nothing to the Shanghai operative). And if there is such a thing as a global entity in the artworld these days, ArtReview’s panel has decided it is much more a system than a person, and that the current chief proclaimer of this system is London’s Tate. Which, incidentally, makes the latter the first institution to climb to the top of ArtReview’s greasy power pole since the list began, in 2002.

There are a number of reasons for this. Museums in general are getting more important these days. Attendance figures have more than doubled worldwide over the past 20 years. According to The Economist, more Americans visit museums than themeparks and ballparks combined, and half of all English adults visited a museum or gallery during the past year. And in Sweden three out of four adults visit a museum once a year, because they are better and more culturally sophisticated than English people, who are in turn better and more sophisticated than Americans. China opened 450 new museums in 2012 and at the current rate will rapidly overtake the Americans, the English and the Swedes in the culture and sophistication stakes. According to The Economist, people go to museums because ‘they want to see for themselves where they fit in the wider world and look to museums for guidance’. Which seems a lot of pressure to put on someone like Richard Tuttle prior to the launch of his installation at Tate Modern and exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (even if ArtReview does believe that art has an important role to play in reflecting the society around it and suggesting alternatives to the status quo). But perhaps that kind of expectation does explain why Tate Britain showed ‘the first major exhibition of British folk art’ earlier this year. Oh, yes, the people who don’t go to museums tend to be among the less wealthy and less well educated parts of society. So let’s not pretend it’s all good.

Museums are getting more important

But back to Tate. Which is getting a new extension. So it can compete. Firstly, like most of the big art institutions, Tate is no longer really a national museum, but rather a sifter and collector of art from around the world (which Tate bosses will occasionally suggest is somehow reflecting the many diasporic communities that make up London, but ArtReview would caution you not to believe that hype). And Tate both practises and represents a system that is increasingly ‘the norm’ for contemporary art structures everywhere. And like any system, it offers all those who take part in it a sought-after validation: the collectors who make up its various committees; the artists whom it approves for exhibitions; the critics who write its catalogues and so on. It’s also a consultant to property developers in Australia, governments in Asia and institutions in the Middle East. It actively spreads its message. And in less obvious ways, too. Further down the list, you’ll find galleries who operate along the model of a museum, and even art fairs who, via their own selection committees, attempt to perform a similar function of validation – approving the ‘right’ kind of gallery, and at the same time disapproving of the wrong kind of gallery. (Yes, socialists and republicans should weep: currently the artworld is a bit like the court of Louis XIV, operating a hierarchy based on levels of access and on who knows whom, one in which various gatekeepers are almost as important as the king. And while we’re here, let’s make it clear, as everyone does at those art receptions and dinners, that art in the end is king and all should hail it as such.)

The power list is judged according to a few core criteria

All of which reminds ArtReview to remind you of the basis on which it makes its own distinctions. The power list is judged according to a few core criteria: the ability to influence the type of art that is being produced today; having been active during the past 12 months; having an international rather than an exclusively domestic influence; and playing a role in shaping the public perception of art.

Finally, although for most of the year ArtReview is a magazine that is all about expressing personal opinions, likes and dislikes, the Power 100 is an exception to that rule. And it’s not about which artists are the best (or worst), merely a guide to those individuals who are influencing what art gets circulated and what art gets produced. Artists don’t necessarily get shown because they produce the best or most incisive work, just as curators don’t get neck massages because they’re nice people. Which they are. No, they get shown because of the network of interests and influence that this list attempts to lay bare.

So for another year, ArtReview’s work is done. Which is lucky, because its kosher/halal/nut-free/vegan meal option has arrived, and the only cutlery ArtReview can find in the cellophane sleeve is a spork.

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue