In the first edition of ArtReview’s Power 100, a mere four artists were included on the list of the art world’s most influential actors. That was 2002. By 2012 that number would creep up to 16 artists—nearly all men—after hovering in the single digits for most of the decade.
In 2013 the number of “powerful” artists spiked up to a quarter of ArtReview’s annual selectees, where it has remained ever since. This year’s list, which was released Thursday, has a clean 25 entries, with Ai Weiwei taking the highest ranking artist spot at number 2 (he took the top position in 2011, only the second artist to reach number one, after Damien Hirst in 2005).
Have the ArtReview “deciders” simply seen the errors of their ways, realizing that without artists, of course, all the other big shots with their influencing and money makin’ would have ended up in some other field? Did they institute a quota? Probably. But what is most interesting is that the majority of artists included this year, and for the past few years, have a social slant to their practice. Money has always been a major subtext in this annual exercise, and it’s hardly worth pointing out that many of these artists are themselves multi-millionaires collected and exhibited in the biggest museums and represented by major galleries (we’re talking Koons, Richter, Abramovic, Kusama). Market dominance and personal wealth can’t be ignored, but they don’t appear to be the defining factors in this year’s artist selections.
Number of artists in the Power 100, by year
In addition to Koons et al., this year’s 25 elites include many artists working in social, environmental, and political registers: Hito Steyerl (18), Theaster Gates (30), the e-flux team (Anton Vidokle, Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, collectively ranked 39), Rikrit Tiravanija (42), Olafur Eliasson (64), and Akram Zaatari (80). Ultra-famous Ai Weiwei is tellingly characterized on the list as an “artist and social activist, prominent in reconnecting art with issues of social and cultural value.” 2015’s four new artist entries—ranked between 81 and 89—all work in the political or social arena. These include William Kentridge, best known for his animations responding to South African politics; Trevor Paglen, a geographer whose work opens onto surveillance structures; Bose Krishnamachari & Riyas Komu, founders of the Kochi-Muziris Biennial; and Rick Lowe, founder of Houston’s Project Row Houses.
What is the significance of this increased respect for social, a.k.a. political, art? In the 90s, at least in the United States, a successful war was waged against political art. The activist element in art had to rebrand, and in the following decades two parallel aesthetics emerged: relational aesthetics and social practice. Both stressed the ephemeral connection between individuals as a site ripe for aestheticization. The cynic in us thinks there is a monetary reason for this: the Left is sexy. Difference has become a marker of luxury in its relative innocuousness. The ability for a collector to support a social practice, generally opposed to exploitation, while ignoring the exploitative nature of a market economy is the ultimate luxury. Double speak is mastered and the evils of the market are forgiven in an act aesthetic attrition.
This does not mean socially-engaged art is a practice in futility, but rather has the potential to turn the market on itself.
Indeed, as Ben Davis’ recent artnet critique of Theaster Gates and the Chicago establishment suggested, social practice can be intimately tied to real power and money and it’s at this locus where agency can be attained. In contrast to Davis’ assessment, the fact that a relationship between one of the leading social practice artists and the civic and financial leadership of his locale exists is encouraging. From within the establishment, the practice could do the most damage and be the most helpful.
Number of gallerists/dealers in the Power 100, by year
Turning back to our 100 honorees, lest you get the wrong impression, money is still power. As ever, taste-making is coupled with sales-making, and dealers and gallerists lead the way as art world influencers once again. They claim 27 spots, including the top entry for Iwan and Manuela Wirth, the Swiss duo behind Hauser & Wirth. Despite the prominence of dealers on this year’s list, the Wirths are only the second gallerists to reach number one (Larry Gagosian took the top spot in 2004 and 2010). The loudest and most controversial voices do get some attention, but don’t take up prime real estate; Stefan Simchowitz, who seems to do little other than talk about his influence and power, makes his Power 100 debut this year, eking in at 95.
Behind artists—the second most influential profession in the art world—collectors, curators, and museum directors follow, with 15, 14, and 12 entries respectively.
Number of Entries in 2015 Power 100, by Profession
There are as many metrics—profession, gender, geography, ethnicity—for breaking down the Power 100 as there are entries themselves: How many, how often, how high? It’s a fun little morsel thrown to the art world and its critics to pick apart, prevaricate on. What’s changed? Who was left out? Whose star is rising? Nevertheless—despite the annual spikes, surprises, and anomalies—there is a pretty stable base of top influencers that changes little from year to year. This year’s top 7 have all been in the top 10 for the past 5 years, some since the advent of the Power 100. And it shouldn’t be too surprising that gallerists in the top 15 represent 11 of the artists on the 2015 list.
This incestuous cohort makes it all too easy for us to sigh and turn the page. But the interplay between money, power, and political engagement is something that kept us looking this year, just a little bit longer. Whether social practice is autonomous, or tied to capital or aesthetics, it is a trend that can’t be ignored in the art world right now. And it’s one we can get behind—so long as the gestures aren’t empty ones.
ArtReview’s Power 100 Top Ten 2015:
1. Iwan and Manuela Wirth | gallerists
2. Ai Weiwei | artist
3. David Zwirner | gallerist
4. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones | Curators, Directors of the Serpentine Galleries
5. Nicholas Serota | Director the Tate
6. Larry Gagosian | gallerist
7. Glenn Lowry | Director of the MoMA
8. Marina Abramovic | artist
9. Adam D. Weinberg | Director of the Whitney
10. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev | Curator of the 2015 Istanbul Biennial and dOCUMENTA(13)
(Image at top: Projection onto the front cloth of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden by public artist Martin Firrell. Creative Commons License)