Shifting Focus: From Japan to The Middle East with Judith Greer, Collector and Patron

As soon as I arrived at Asia House I felt completely out of place. It was the day of the tube strikes and I had weaved my way through Soho on my bike and arrived hot and sticky in my chinos and sandals. Once I had entered the air-conditioned and carpeted building I immediately felt inappropriately dressed for my surroundings.

I was just in time and Greer began speaking right away while I self-consciously tried to create as little noise as possible whilst searching through my bike pannier filled with lunch Tupperware and bike accessories for my note book.

First of all Greer opened by describing the manic, jet setting life style of her assumed audience, zipping from city to city trying to catch the hottest, new, most talked about art shows, always feeling like they as though they have missed out on the one exhibition they couldn’t cram in to their hectic schedules. As an artist studying an MA, I couldn’t relate at all. For me, it’s far more likely that I’ve not had time to see any art in weeks and haven’t left London in months as I juggle the course with part-time work. Throughout the talk she continued to reference this kind of lifestyle, making assumptions like “I’m sure you all remember….” – this show or that show in the 80’s and 90’s. I was born in the 80’s so once again, I felt like an outsider.

From what I could gather we were all supposed to be above middle aged, wealthy art collectors.

I must admit, once it was completely confirmed that I was not part of the target audience for this event I found it difficult to engage.

The talk was about Greer’s experience in Japan in the 80’s during the so called ‘Japanese Miracle’ a time when Japan’s economy was booming and the focus in the western centric Art market started to shift to Japan, then China which led to art markets opening up in places across the world and then on to the Middle East where Greer was based, now working on the Sharjah Biennial.

There were many questions posed by Greer, which she by no means claimed to be able to answer. She questioned what drove the art market? Why do regional shifts in focus occur? And whether huge events like The Venice Biennale, Art Dubai etc are a good way for collectors and curators to discover new talent and whether they are beneficial to the artists.

In Greer’s opinion events like the Sharjah Biennale and the projects commissioned by them were a good way for artists to meet and engage with other artists and curators that they may not have met otherwise. As an early career artist when I hear things like this I always wonder how artists get to the stage where they can participate in international art events on this scale which is a huge achievement in itself. If collectors and curators are going to these events to talent scout rather than look locally then how do artists meet collectors and curators that will facilitate them to be in these kinds of international events in the first place? At art school we’re constantly being told that the days when students can expect to gain gallery representation from their degree shows are long gone, but no one seems to know what has replaced that route to being able to make a living from our work.

At the end of the talk a man asked a question about how the Sharjah Biennale failed to represent Emirati life. In her answer Greer mentioned a lack of talent, a lack of university educated artists and said that the privilege couldn’t be given to Emirati’s because due to these problems the work wouldn’t be good enough. I found this question and answer very worrying indeed because it highlights exactly the problem with art right now, not only in The Middle East but in this country too.

Here in the UK grants have gone, fees have been introduced and then put up and raised again, now maintenance grants are due to be cut, funding has been cut from arts education in schools, university maintenance grants are due to be cut and MP’s are telling children that taking arts subjects will be detrimental to their future careers. Housing in London (which happens to be home to some of the best art schools in the UK) is barely even affordable even for middle class working couples, so where does that leave our future artists? Now that we’ve almost – if not already – arrived at a point when only the privileged and wealthy can afford to go to art school, who will be able to relate to their work? Will they have anything remotely interesting to say?

And if, like Greer said we can’t just ‘give’ the privilege to poor uneducated artists then surely we need to be investing a lot more in art education right from school age so that students from low income families actually have a chance.

In her talk Greer mentioned how international artists used to have to go to New York to ‘make it’ and how this is changing. One suggested reason for this was because of border control tightening in The US but I wonder how much the fact that artists can no longer afford accommodation in cities like New York will play as a factor in the art markets shifting focus. Greer said that artists can now make it in cities like London and Paris – but for how much longer is this likely when no one can actually afford to live in cities like this?

While I did find parts of this talk interesting, I haven’t shared those parts here as the whole experience mostly reminded me of the huge gulf between artists and the people who buy and collect art. What I find really strange is the fact that I feel so out of place and irrelevant as an artist in a room full of art enthusiasts.