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Privatizing the Institution

Illustrations by Berke Yazicioglu
Text by Àngels Miralda Tena
Àngels is a writer and curator based in Berlin and Barcelona. Her curatorial research interests are in the materiality of art objects and how matter relates to global social and economic environments relative to artistic production. Recent exhibitions have taken place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Santiago de Chile; video project-room LS43, and Horse and Pony Fine Arts, Berlin. She is a co-curator of Survival Kit 10 at the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art.

In 2015, I attended an event in Sheffield called Going Public.1 Organized by the Arts Council England, international collections were invited to showcase works in public spaces around the city. These included displays from the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo collection in the Sheffield Cathedral, a large contribution from the legendary Marzona Collection visible in the Graves gallery, and an exhibition of Chinese contemporary artists from the DSL Collection across both Site Gallery and Sheffield Institute of Arts. The stated aim of the project was to show how patrons could activate a city and create passion for art, or a patron’s “mindset” as described in the event catalogue.2 However, the real intention of the program was for the Arts Council England to shake off responsibility for the upkeep and preservation of England’s public institutions, and put them into the hands of charitable trusts and private collectors. As the manual slips in about ¾ into the booklet it reads: “The relationship between art and money dates back to the beginnings of art history, and public institutions should not be squeamish — or snooty — about seeking support from commercial galleries and their owners.”3 This is a contentious phrase to include in a public event handbook.

Three years on, it is important to assess the social and institutional changes which have appeared since this conference in a rapidly changing financial environment. During the past year initiatives such as the new Riga Biennial (RIBOCA) and the plethora of private museums opening up have endured criticism for their structure. Critique has come to necessitate its own gossip-columns rather than speaking about artworks.4 While some might reject this move, it is important to see why this shift is occurring in an increasingly privatized and nepotistic world in which social connections and financial power are more important than ever. This article attempts to use a few examples in order to address the problems of aggressive privatization and offer a few ideas of overcoming this condition.

  1. When private funding is involved in a large exhibition, there are always doubts and suspicions about its origin and intention. Is this suspicion justified, and what is the concern?

  2. What does a future look like in which the most consistent trend or “change” is the privatization of public goods? What might a future scenario look like in which art is entirely flung into market control as desired by neoliberal thinkers?

In a landscape of increased privatization, what is apparent is that art and culture as a social and publicly funded service is under threat. While social governments in the post-war era structured culture into its fabric of supporting society and the public good, the way in which populations are voting show the diminishing belief that culture is public. In our current reality in which diminishing budgets after austerity – institutions are left with no option than to turn to commercial galleries and private patrons if they want to compete with the new flurry of private museums to create a relevant program. This is precisely what creates the flattening of culture as public institutions privatize in order to keep up with the well-funded private initiatives that label themselves “museums” and “biennials” in order to borrow institutional legitimization.

RIBOCA’s first edition and Manifesta’s most recent iteration show two trajectories following a similar path. Whereas RIBOCA opened into a hostile territory as evidenced by art criticism, Manifesta veered towards privatization without major opposition. The image of their founders might explain this difference as well as the urban contexts in which they are situated: Manifesta founder and curator Hedwig Fijen is an established figure, having managed Manifesta for 24 years, therefore the biennial’s incoming support from Sisal Group (Italy’s largest betting and gambling corporation)5 might be seen as a necessary cooperation. On the other hand, RIBOCA’s founder Agniya Mirgorodskaya set up the Biennial foundation only one year after graduating as a student from Sotheby’s – without relevant experience or recognition by peers, this might have been interpreted as the sheer nepotism of wealth and power that put her in the position to found a biennial. These two events are symbols of our time — one in which private and public are no longer parallel endeavors, but a tightly intertwined reality.

> “Private and public are no longer parallel endeavors, but a tightly intertwined reality”

To further complicate the scene, news of the Riga Biennial was a complete surprise to museum directors and established curators from Riga’s pre-existing institutional scene. While reactions ranged from excitement about this new venture to resentment about the fate of Riga’s planned (but still non-existent) Contemporary Art Museum,6 most of the frustration was directed towards the entirely private structure of the Riga Biennial. Although the founder’s good intentions are derived from passion for art and willingness to support production – the caveat is that the privatization of culture is now the undeniable reality in the Riga art scene and increasingly throughout the Baltic region.

Manifesta opened in Palermo and, while they received a large amount of funding from the city itself, the largest sponsor was the Sisal Group.7 Local reactions in Palermo were mainly positive without delving much into the private infrastructure or gambling products of the funder’s company. To explain the discrepancy in reactions both from local and international audiences we must turn to the traditional values of arts funding and biennials. In Riga, critics were quick to point out essential flaws in the character of the wealthy, private, and foreign biennial – but this was in a context of a city and region which already hosts multiple biennials as well as a rich (albeit incomplete) ecology of public and independent spaces.8 Palermo’s lack of institutional support for arts contributed to the residents’ welcoming stance to the foreign biennial. However the main question remains, aside from an obvious interest in brand recognition among high-net-worth individuals, why is a gambling company interested in funding a major art event?

Meanwhile, the established Berlin Biennial continued receiving support from the German Federal Cultural Foundation, which provided 3 million Euros towards the project while being located within KW — an institution funded by Berlin’s public senate, but also relying heavily on partnerships with collections and donations from private collectors.9 Glasgow International received support from Scotland’s Festival Expo Fund.10 Liverpool Biennial continues to be mainly backed by Arts Council England and Liverpool City Council along with a mixture of other private and public funding bodies, including a list of individual patrons as well as a “gallery circle” which still lacks definition.

All of these cases show the trend towards privatization. But does the source of cultural funding matter as long as culture continues to be produced? I would argue that the answer is certainly yes – for the simple fact that the privatization of culture in itself is the most symbolic producer of alienation and elitism within the art world. It is also a uniquely European phenomenon.

> “Does the source of cultural funding matter as long as culture continues to be produced?”

Other geographical contexts have not had the privilege to rely on stable state structures of cultural funding for longer periods of time. Organizations in the United States rely on private donations as a norm, and organizations such as Istanbul Biennial, supported by the Koç Family, have signed long-term agreements to continue private funding commitments.11 In these circumstances, private patronage is not only necessary but admirable in that it notices and fills a void which is simply not provided by the state. Yet, in all of these private endeavors, transparency remains the key to ethical patronage in a privatized society.

Once we have established why private patronage is scrutinized and critiqued, we can productively attempt to think how patrons can ethically interact with culture and production. With a disappearing boundary between the private and public we all need to confront the question of how to promote social values in a world in which they are on the point of extinction. The role of the patron should not encourage this situation, but fight together with cultural actors against the elimination of public institutions.

> “Once we have established why private patronage is scrutinized and critiqued, we can attempt to think how patrons can ethically interact with culture and production.”

The conflation of private and public museum or biennial is one that aligns itself with austerity measures and the expanding influence of globalized capital. It replaces the public institution by taking advantage of crisis and debilitation. Receiving private funding is currently necessary for institutions to survive – but in an ideal world this would not be the case. Cultural producers should not be without criticism for this current worst-case-scenario and should rather, be thinking of strategies for the active return of culture into public policy.

In 4 years, a new Documenta will open under a new, more heavily privatized organization, carefully examined by Sony Music’s former executive Wolfgang Orthmayer.12 After the bankruptcy of the 14th edition,13 it’s likely that funds will be carefully followed and allotted to future production teams. What this means in terms of infrastructure, is that the new curatorial team will increasingly need to respond and interact with a corporate structure. If we consider the speed at which privatization in the art world occurs, by the time the next Documenta opens, we must imagine a different landscape — one in which global museum brands such as Tate and Pompidou are indistinguishable from the Pinault Collection or the Hauser & Wirth space in Los Angeles.

If we need to compare this situation to the scandals associated with the monopoly and price-rigging in the pharmaceutical industry, which develops products not to cure patients but to make them dependent on medication, the instrumentalization of contemporary art through “artwashing” serving as tax loopholes would be some of the outcomes. Might art simply become another tool serving increased inequality and accumulation of capital? Similarly, the biennial, dependent on private money and support from commercial galleries, might become a new type of art fair in 2022 – indistinguishable from a commercial gallery exhibition. Extrapolating the concept of curated sections of fairs, paid by galleries and collectors, the biennial gives an opportunity to create large-scale projects in institutions and public spaces while also giving the funders a chance to reclaim their investment through sales. A model has already been developed by Art Basel Unlimited – it needs only export into public space. Art fairs clearly designate the space of a marketplace which has increasingly relied on professional talks and curated sections to legitimize themselves on a professional level. On the other hand, the biennial is already outside of the marketplace context and the legitimization of artworks is already in place via the supposed academic credentials of international curators. Labels of artworks will be accompanied by a direct phone number to the sales representative so that viewers can purchase derivative editions, or even the work itself. Meanwhile, travel packages (including transport and accommodation) separate the international visitors from the reality of the city’s context, faking an immersion of the site-specific curatorial discourse.

Three years on from Going Public we are closer to this dystopian scenario than ever. Private foundations have been part of a stable art ecosystem for a long time – their continuation is vital for supporting production and young artists but we must also be acutely aware of political consequences.

Part of Going Public, the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Foundation, which is mentioned at the beginning of this article, has been very well regarded by an international community for its programming and educational facilities. Founded by Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s self-made fortune in renewable energy and management, the source of funding remains compatible with the values of many artists.14 The foundation has also always clearly separated itself from the definition of museum by pronouncing that it is a private foundation and attaching the family’s name to the space ensuring transparency. Other museums and foundations are described and collected in a new volume titled The Private Museum of the Future published by JPR Ringier.15 What connects the collectors in this book is their genuine desire to share their collections with the public and open visibility of new acquisitions. As museums’ acquisition budgets are increasingly restricted, this task is given to private individuals who can still afford these works. Yet, the collectors themselves are also highly aware of the confusions of language between “collection” and “museum” and the roles that these different organs play. Christian Boros responds to a question about his “private museum” that “First of all we should define what exactly is understood as a private museum. We run a collection that is neither a museum nor a private museum. I see us as a private space that can be visited by appointment, and that shows fragments of our collection. A museum has very different tasks.”16 With this statement, Boros defines the possibilities of the private collection and its own value when opened to the public. “Public” — meaning audience — should not be confused with “public” that is property and programs that belong to the state and is funded by the people. This separation and double-meaning of a word can be a dangerous miscommunication when states feel that they no longer have the duty to support public culture, because private collections are open to the “public.”

Only 3 years since the Art Council England’s conference and exhibition on the future of philanthropy Going Public, the artistic landscape has changed dramatically. Increasingly privatized, the art world is no different than any other sector such as health care or education. The title Going Public is a wonderfully descriptive antidote to the title of this article. The points of view could not be further away, one focusing on “public” while addressing the private, and this article focusing on privatization while addressing an abstract public of online readers. In a planetary pull in which no individual sees influence in their own actions, every player in the arts is forced to accept our rapidly changing conditions. The fact remains, that even artists who are conscious of the sketchy provenance of their arts’ funding, are in a position where a rejection of this funding would make them lose valuable opportunities.

> “Increasingly privatized, the art world is no different than any other sector such as health care or education.”

It takes strength and courage to criticize the functions of a system on which one personally relies for career and income. While artists and curators are vocally opposed to the privatization of healthcare and social services, the same standards are not systematically imposed on the art system. For this reason, during this turbulent political time, Andrea Fraser’s 2017 condemnation of Steve Mnuchin’s position on the board of MOCA after his support for Trump continues its relevance long after the election; she insists that the structure is plutocratic and thus mimics the anti-democratic formulas embodied by Trump’s success.

_“These organizations are plutocratic in the most basic sense of the word: institutions that are considered public and provide basic social functions, but are governed by a minority of the wealthiest citizens according to their own interests, with little or no democratic input or oversight….We must send the message to art collectors and museum trustees that supporting modern and contemporary art and its institutions must mean more than giving donations of money or art. It must also mean defending the values and structures that enabled modernist and avant-garde culture to develop and thrive . . .”_17

To end, Fraser’s demand made in “Trusteeship in the Age of Trump” serves as a powerful reminder on the Collecteurs platform and beyond to what we should be speaking about as artists, curators and collectors. How to form a unified front against right-wing populism without mirroring its plutocratic structure. How to create art and exhibitions inside a hopeful ecosystem that promotes the values of equality, fair pay and transparency. Opening up collections in today’s environment is necessary, but always in keeping with ethical conditions and wages of cultural practitioners. In this area, RIBOCA did manage to send a strong message to other private institutions in the Baltic area by raising fees of curators, artists, production managers, and PR agents which in turn, held immediate ramifications for respectable due wages. How do we continue this battle without economically afflicting the struggling public institutions who cannot afford to raise wages for their employees?

> “Even artists who are conscious of the sketchy provenance of their arts’ funding, are in a position where a rejection of this funding would make them lose valuable opportunities.”

The duty now is to advocate strictly for fair-pay, equality, and transparency in the art world while keeping in mind the separate tasks of private and public initiatives. How can a sustainable ecology be created to support existing institutions rather than feverishly opening new private replacements? To create a viable and sustainable structure, collectors need to open their collections and support in a fair and transparent manner while advocating for the support of existing infrastructure. Otherwise, we are complicit in the disintegration and decline of public collections in favor of new, well-funded private initiatives just next door.


  1. Going Public: International Collectors in Sheffield. (
  3. Ibid. (pg. 49)
  4. Many examples of articles that came out before RIBOCA opened are directly pointed at the structure of the biennial and the source of funding. Important to note is that this trend should be examined as a necessity of lacking transparency as we adjust to models of privatisation. For example, The White Pube on Liverpool Biennial and the importance of rumour (; Inga Lace, “Inga Lace in conversation with Katerina Gregos”, (; Rebeja Poldsam, “Roosa müts – Ebaoigluse pühad Riis”, (
  5. (
  6. “the US government accused Latvian bank ABLV, a major backer of the museum, of money laundering and breaking sanctions against North Korea.” (
  7. (
  8. See for instance, Riga Photography Biennial (, Baltic Triennial ( , ARS BALTICA Triennial for Photography (, Art Festival Cesis (, and Survival Kit Festival ( Disclaimer: the writer is a curator for Survival Kit 10.Hanno Rauterberg, Die Zeit
  9. (
  10. (\_of\_Glasgow\_International\_art\_festival\_boosted\_by\_public\_fund/)
  11. (
  12. (
  13. Artnet, “Documenta Rescued from Bankruptcy” (\_13\_sept\_2017\_documenta\_rescued\_from\_bankruptcy/)
  14. (
  15. Cristina Bechtler & Dora Imhof eds., The Private Museum of the Future, JPR Ringier & Les Presses du réel, 2018.
  16. Cristina Bechtler & Dora Imhof, The Private Museum of the Future, JPR Ringier & Les Presses du Réel, 2018. (pg- 29)
  17. Andrea Fraser, “Philanthropy and Plutocracy” reprint “Trusteeship in the Age of Trump”, October Magazine, February 2018.
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