Collecting the now: inside art’s activist movement

Artists and curators are engaging with causes like never before, says Kasia Maciejowska

Survivor(F)/Algorithmic Interplanetary Séance (2016-19), by Suzanne Treister
Survivor(F)/Algorithmic Interplanetary Séance (2016-19), by Suzanne Treister

If you’re collecting art that’s being made while you’re alive, you have to acquire works that speak to the important issues – otherwise you’re only decorating,” says investor, activist and contemporary art collector Nachson Mimran. Just as the fire of popular protest has taken hold in the streets, so things have become more politicised in art. And some of today’s most powerful collectors are investing in works that speak to global challenges – from climate change to racial inequality.  

Increasingly, collectors who seek to engage with current events are either investing in works that address specific issues through their messaging or creative process, or buying art in support of a cause. Sotheby’s, for example, saw record results of £1.9m at its fundraising sale in aid of the Grenfell Tower fire survivors in October 2017, four months after the London disaster. That same year, the V&A announced the arrival of a significant cultural artefact into its newest department, the Rapid Response Collecting Gallery. The item? A Pussyhat: the pink woolly beanie with cat ears named in reaction to President Trump and worn on Women’s Marches around the world. The collection also includes a photo-taking drone, a 3D-printed gun, an Extinction Rebellion logomark woodblock, a malaria-awareness mosquito emoji, and a Brexit poster from the 2016 Vote Leave campaign. For the V&A’s senior curator of design and digital, Corinna Gardner, these items “reveal truths about how we live today”, while the gallery, which will reopen in June, “invites visitors to think critically about our choices and their impact”. 

The Refugee Nation flag designed by Yara Said
The Refugee Nation flag designed by Yara Said

Gardner represents an ever-growing number of museum keepers who believe that, with the hypervisibility the internet has given rise to, society is more adept at contemplating controversy alongside beauty. Today’s public looks for representations of the world that provoke thinking, talking and – perhaps most of all – feeling. Another V&A acquisition, the Refugee Nation flag, a black stripe on orange designed by Syrian Yara Said in reference to the lifejackets worn by those attempting to cross the Mediterranean, was created in 2016 for the Olympics’ first refugee team. The museum was not alone in adopting it – institutions including MoMA New York and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam also added it to their collections. Miniature flags, upcycled from lifejackets piling up in the Mediterranean, sold out in the V&A shop as demand outpaced the speed with which the refugees of Makers Unite, an Amsterdam social enterprise, could produce them. One of the project’s creative leads, advertising art director Belén Márquez, says they’re now developing a full-sized flag for collectors. Hanging one at home acts as a poignant reminder of human resilience, a precious sensation in today’s political mood. 

Beyond public institutions, private collectors are also tapping into the approach. Mimran, who is CEO of To, an investment fund and activism platform that has supported innovations including futuristic protein providers Beyond Meat and eco-tech menswear startup Vollebak, says human migration is among the subjects he wanted to prioritise when buying art for The Alpina Gstaad hotel, majority-owned by his father. Pierre Huyghe’s aquarium – a living sculpture that prompts awareness about our role in nature – sits in the lobby; a dystopian landscape by Nicole Eisenman tops the fireplace; and Thomas Schütte’s monumental bronze Third Animal, a hybrid creature that looks alien yet endearing, presides over the garden. 

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Parked outside is Shadowman Van by Richard Hambleton. Mimran has fitted the 1977 Chevrolet ice cream truck – a piece of first-wave street art representing inner city life and bought at a benefit for Amfar (the foundation for Aids research) – with benches and tables to host discussions on art, sustainability and activism. Mimran literally uses the work as a conversation starter. 

He believes it’s possible to collect works that both engage with today’s issues and appreciate in value: “The challenge is figuring out what will resonate in enduring ways.” He highlights Wade Guyton’s paintings about (and made using) digital tech, some of which are in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection. “These couldn’t have been produced at any time but now. They build on the evolving trajectory of painting while taking into account the advent of new technology.”

T.B.T. (Headed Down River…) by Nicole Eisenman
T.B.T. (Headed Down River…) by Nicole Eisenman

Art about innovations with complex implications such as artificial intelligence and astrophysics is also exciting collectors and curators. Take Suzanne Treister’s series of paintings inspired by cosmology and theoretical physics, exhibited at Annely Juda Fine Art in Mayfair last autumn and at the Serpentine Gallery’s online exhibition space. Treister’s experiential project depicts imaginary scenarios of techno-human evolution. To look at the world through her augmented-reality app is to experience the artist’s interpretation of unknowns such as black holes. These works are paired with the diagrammatic and text-based paintings (from £3,000 to £36,000) shown at Annely Juda, which mesh aspects of tech culture, futuristic conjecture and alternative spirituality in the popular new-age style. In the vastness of their subject matter, they acknowledge the world as we understand it today, with AI, big tech and scientific research – while simultaneously enjoying their inherent surrealism. Each piece lightly critiques its context in a knowing way. 

But for those who feel that art can inspire real change, a knowing nod is not enough. Maria Brito is a New York‑based art adviser of Venezuelan origin whose client list includes Gwyneth Paltrow and rapper Sean Combs, known as Diddy. Brito recently launched a culture show, The C Files, on US PBS’s arts channel and streaming platform All Arts, where she interviews figures about the intersection of art and social issues – from Harlem-based artist and Columbia associate professor Sanford Biggers to trans arts-and-nightlife sensation Juliana Huxtable. “My clients believe in advancing society through art,” says Brito. This amounts to progressing discourse through politicised patronage, while also appreciating the pieces aesthetically.

Absolut Power (2003) by Hank Willis Thomas
Absolut Power (2003) by Hank Willis Thomas

When actor Ami Sheth and her husband, hedgefund analyst Miraj Patel, enlisted Brito’s help to build their collection, she fostered their commission of a painting by leading African-American artist Nina Chanel Abney called Untitled (We March) about the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in 2016. Abney’s paintings are disarmingly joyful at first glance, crammed with bright colours, dynamic figures and graphic shapes. But on closer reading, they convey complex stories about gender, race and society. This commission was particularly personal as it uses phrases from an essay about the tragedy written by the couple’s friend.

“Nina Chanel Abney is a truly groundbreaking artist changing the conversation in society,” says Patel. Sheth adds: “To have that kind of personal access with Nina was a remarkable moment and resulted in a stunning piece about hope and humanity in the face of injustice.”

The Young Susi Korihana Thëri Swimming (1972) by Claudia Andujar
The Young Susi Korihana Thëri Swimming (1972) by Claudia Andujar | Image: Claudia Andujar

The key purpose of this kind of commissioning is that it stimulates debate around specific problems while supporting artists living at the heart of them. Elliot Perry, a retired NBA player and part-owner of the Memphis Grizzlies, has, with his wife Kimberly, amassed a renowned collection of African-American art, some of which tours to US museums. “We’ve taken great pride in building a collection that’s not ‘safe’,” says Perry. 

Perry spotlights several of his pieces that illuminate race-related issues: Glenn Ligon’s wall-mounted neon text Warm Broad Glow, which reads “negro sunshine” and radiates a positive message of complex linguistic reclamation; and Hank Willis Thomas’s lightbox Absolut Power, depicting an Absolut vodka bottle as a slave ship crowded with black figures, which plays with the iconography of advertising and the history of capitalism. Perhaps most challenging is photographer D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ Face Down, Ass Up, a comment on unspoken sexual violence in the African-American community. “We feel we have a certain obligation to build a collection that’s not only informative but also transformative,” says Perry.

The mosquito emoji at the V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting Gallery
The mosquito emoji at the V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting Gallery

“It’s one thing to buy something for your wall, and another to support new projects because you believe in their message,” says Sophie Wright, global cultural director at Magnum Photos. “The community for the latter has definitely grown.” She highlights an expanding appetite for collecting photojournalism as art, thanks in part to museums such as Tate curating shows by photographers including Don McCullin. But she’s also noticed that the documentary photographers that Magnum represents are exploring collectable formats for their work beyond simple prints. Moises Saman’s 2016 art book Discordia, a personal archive of the Arab Spring, was supported by private patronage. And during last November’s Paris Photo Fair, Magnum presented a timely exhibit-book by 15 photographers called Linea, a privately funded group documentary project made on the US border with Mexico. The resulting collection will comprise 16 limited-edition books, which will be sold with 15 per cent of sales going to Human Rights Watch.

At the Fondation Cartier Pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris, the collection’s raison d’être is to generate conversation – especially about the environment – through commissioning. The current exhibition, running until 10 May, is of vivid photographs by 88-year-old Swiss-born Brazilian artist Claudia Andujar, which depict the lives of the Amazonian Yanomami people. The local fight to save the forest is longstanding, but when news screens first broadcast footage of swaths of burning trees in August last year (it is still burning), the eyes of the world turned to the ecological catastrophe. Cartier seized the moment to tap into the wellspring of feeling that followed – although its links with the artist run deep, having first shown her work 17 years ago. “This show makes the relationship between Andujar’s aesthetic and the activist part of her life very clear,” says Hervé Chandes, director of the Fondation. “I’ve noticed much greater curiosity around her subject.” 

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The Fondation is a role model for the luxury-brand art foundations that have proliferated over the past decade, and it has particularly excelled with installations that envelop audiences – such as the immersive video and soundscape commissioned from United Visual Artists, using ecologist Bernie Krause’s recordings of animal sounds. Celebratory responses swept social and print media when it was shown at 180 The Strand in October 2019. For Chandes, such an interactive amplification of an artwork’s meaning fulfils Cartier’s motivation for collecting: “For us, a collection has to be alive.” And with this comes a degree of power to drive change. “We pay attention to the news to pay attention to the world,” he adds. “But we also see ourselves playing a role in creating the news through the art we commission.” 

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