When you walk onto Basel’s Messeplatz this week you can’t miss it: the temporary Gesamtkunstwerk with the rhetorical title Do We Dream Under The Same Sky. It consists of a bamboo structure designed by architects Nicholaus Hirsch and Michel Müller. Inside, chef Antto Melasniemi manages his personally designed solar kitchen, working with locally grown spices and herbs. Besides unusual fusion snacks such as fish ice cream and "bastard pad Thai," invented by Melasniemi and artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, the menu contains discussions on sustainability, social design, and the geopolitics of food production. Do We Dream Under The Same Sky is a pilot for a long-term project Tiravanija and fellow artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert are planning to realize in Thailand: an artistic utopia, presenting an ecologically and socially sustainable model for future artistic practice.
Social engagement is back on the artistic agenda in a big way. Either triggered by the necessity to prove their worth in a world of diminishing subsidies or a genuinely felt need to do good—it doesn’t matter, really—artists have stepped out of their studios and into the world, armed with the conviction and alternative ways to improve it. Do We Dream Under The Same Sky is only the latest project on an ever-expanding list. As long ago as 1993 Rick Lowe started Project Row Houses, in 15 years transforming run-down shotgun houses in a poor African American neighborhood in Houston by starting an artist residency and an educational program that continues today. Photographer David Goldblatt’s Market Photo Workshop offers down and out kids in Johannesburg a way out of economic and educational poverty by teaching them visual literacy. And Renzo Martens runs a "gentrification project" in the heartland of the Democratic Republic of Congo, aimed at raising the local standard of living through artistic production.
Rirkrit Tiravanija preparing food in Do We Dream Under the Same Sky, 2015, Art Basel in Basel. © Art Basel
With so many artists taking their social responsibility and acting upon it in concrete ways, the question imposes itself: shouldn’t the commercial side of the art world as well? In the corporate world putting on a humane face has become second nature. You’ll be hard pressed to find a company without an explicit Corporate Social Responsibility clause in its mission statement. Any commercial enterprise, especially those in the business-to-consumer bracket, that would blatantly state its business aims as just making a profit, would be publicly burned at the stake and blackballed by consumers. So annual reports are enlivened with phrases like "strengthening the community," "nurturing talent," and "improving quality of life." Considerable sums of money are pumped into programs for sports, health, education and—of course—the arts.
And that’s perhaps the most obvious reason why the question of CSR policy in the art market rarely comes up: the arts traditionally stand on the receiving end of the equation. The status of artists as needy and worthy of financial support has somehow rubbed off on the entire commercial structure around them. For smaller art fairs this might not even be that far off the mark. They have substantial overheads that have to be covered with ever more competitive rates, resulting in slim profit margins, often barely enough to keep on going. But for a giant like Art Basel it’s a completely different story. With operations on three continents it’s a true multinational, catering to the top-end of the market and in a position to impose hefty rates per square meter and other services. The Art Basel organization isn’t exactly strapped for cash.
Via Art Basel
A feeling of unease about CSR must have trickled down into the institutional consciousness, though, since last year Art Basel announced that its launch of a crowdfunding program to benefit non-profit art projects. The fair teamed up with platform Kickstarter to promote candidates throughout the year, ranging from residencies and bookstores to a mobile app and a digital archive. And the Art Basel endorsement works: as of this moment all but five of the proposed good causes have been successfully funded. It’s doubtful whether these projects would have been able to attract this much public attention and funds without the fair’s PR-clout. For Art Basel it’s a cheap way to improve its image, an indulgence that doesn’t cost a penny. Cheap and risk-free, since the protégés have been carefully selected to fit the fair’s aura, resulting in a rather partial composition with American initiatives overrepresented and Rirkrit Taravanija’s artistic utopia in Thailand being one of only four non-Western projects.
Rendering of Nicholaus Hirsch and Michel Müller's Studio Building for the land foundation. Rirkrit Tiravanija and Kamin Lertchaiprasert. Via Kickstarter
Maybe Art Basel should put its money where its mouth is and fund some worthy causes itself instead of asking its visitors to do so. The fair could take its cue from the short-lived Overture, the event that styled itself as "the only art fair during Art Basel Miami Beach with a truly socially responsible mission," including supporting a school art program. But it’s unlikely that Art Basel will. The moment the press release about the fair supporting a festival in Nigeria or residency in Uppsala would become public, a storm of protest would arise. Protest by the fair’s participants, that is. Gallerists would argue that indirectly it’s them footing the bill. Of course, they are paying the bills for fair managers’ bonuses, for example, but such expenses are much less visible. If the fair has excess funds, gallerists would argue, it should give them a discount on their booths instead of squandering it on pet projects. They are a good cause themselves, after all.
This attitude is part of a larger system of norms and beliefs, placing the art market outside the realm of regular economics. In the art market the rules of supply and demand don’t apply: works are carefully placed and not sold but granted to a lucky collector. The pricing mechanism is not transparent and often appears downright arbitrary. But most of all, the money side of things is only talked about in hushed voices, as if it doesn’t exist (though this week artworks at Art Basel have cumulatively been valued at $3.4 billion, with galleries seeing millions of dollars' worth of sales before the fair had even opened to the general public). Most gallerists present their work not as a commercial enterprise but as a noble cause. Different rules and truths apply to them than to those who sell paint, car batteries, insurance policies, or mortgages. And as long as this extra-economic, holier-than-thou self-image remains in place, crowdfunding at a distance is likely the most Art Basel can do in terms of social responsibility.
(Image at top: Do We Dream Under the Same Sky, Art Basel in Basel. © Art Basel)