Interview by Krizette Chu
Portrait by Margo Moritz
Very few authors have demystified for the common man the oftentimes confusing, impenetrable, elitist world of art like ethnographer, sociologist, and writer Sarah Thornton, whose book Seven Days In the Art World is a seminal, outsider-who-wants-to-be-insider’s guide. She is scheduled to visit the Art Fair event, slated from Feb. 16 to 19, and with a talk on Feb. 17. Manila Bulletin Lifestyle chats with “Britain’s hippest academic.”
Were you always interested in art? What was your first memory of being interested in art?
Art has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother took us to museums on rainy days. Museums were like a playground to me. I have no first memory of art, just vague recollections of well-painted horses, dogs, and naked ladies.
You are scheduled to visit the Philippines soon. What have you read about Filipino art and what are you most excited to see?
I am genuinely excited to see Art Fair Philippines. I hope to obtain an overview of recent works by Filipino artists. I’ve never been to the Philippines before, my knowledge is currently limited.
Do you have any places you want to visit, people you want to meet, or art you want to check out when you arrive in the Philippines?
I am friends with Isa Lorenzo and Rachel Rillo who run Silverlens gallery, so I am keen to see their space and meet their artists. Also, I am excited to meet Anton and Xandra Ramos as the National Book Store is a good supporter and will host a book signing. Plus, I very much look forward to reuniting with my esteemed colleague Alexandra Seno (with whom I will have a conversation on stage at the fair).
Your books are very incisive and revealing! We see a work of art, and take it for what it is, and now a lot of us who read the book are shocked at the amount of wheeling and dealing that needs to happen before art is even displayed or shown. Do you think what you have found out about the insular world of art applies to most markets nationwide? Are the principles the same? Are the major players all just variations of each other?
Thanks for the kind words. There are regional variations in the way the art market works, but when a gallery or artist gets to a certain international echelon, the dynamics become similar. Showing at Art Basel or the Venice Biennale become important means of validation. The international art world is a sort of club, which bestows legitimacy. This irritates a lot of people who are not in the club. I try not to pass judgment, but just tell it like it is, so more people can figure out their strategies for accessing it, if they want to.
In this day and age of social media, where artists can put themselves forward, market themselves, how do you think this changes the dynamics of the art market?
It is hard to say. Having many Instagram followers does seem to have become a form of endorsement, but many of the people who have the highest numbers of followers are excluded from the art world because they are perceived as commercial designers, rather than artists per se. Instagram has become the key social media vehicle in the US and Europe. It is an important means by which museums and galleries promote what they do.
You are a scholar and have spent a lot of time scrutinizing art. What else confounds you about it? What are some questions you still want to see answered?
Having written extensively about artists’ lives, identities, and strategies as well as the art market (particularly auctions and art fairs), I am now doing further research into museums. I am particularly interested in how private museums can serve the public in profound ways. I moved from London to San Francisco in 2015. American museums are generally private; their interpretations of public service diverge drastically.
What do you think of the Asian art market in general? If you can discuss about Singapore positioning itself as the art hub of the region, please do so, with an eye toward it being an economic power that has sort of volunteered to house Asia’s best works.
I am not an authority on the Asian art market, but from my position in America, I am under the impression that Hong Kong is the hub of the Asian art world more than Singapore. Singapore has a freeport and an art fair, but HK has more artists, dealers, curators, and collectors coming through it. It also has major players holding big events, such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Art Basel. When the M+ museum opens in the West Kowloon cultural district in 2019, the status of HK will likely be affirmed.
Which artist do you personally admire? Can you tell us a little about your own collection?
Two artists who I find fascinating to observe are: Takashi Murakami, who is the protagonist of Chapter 6 in Seven Days in the Art World, and Ai Weiwei, who is a recurring character in 33 Artists in 3 Acts. They are spectacular risk takers. They have made both masterpieces and some less thoughtful work. They experiment and they continue to break the mold of what artists are expected to be.
My collection is small and principally photographic (due to the lower price point). It consists of works that help me think through my writing.
Art appreciation is very subjective. What works for some may not work for others. So what do you think—and we are sure you get asked this a lot—is the one common denominator among the art world’s brightest superstars? If you can attribute it to one factor, what is it that makes artist sellable and/or famous?
Can you spare any advice to struggling, young artists trying to make it? What have you seen or observed that may of help to them?
My advice to young artists: Live outside your mother country for a while in order to think outside the box of your culture and find alternative networks. Choose a smart art school. Consider an MFA. If money is your first goal, choose another profession.
What book/project are you currently working on?
I am working on a non-art book about tech culture, tentatively titled Seven Days in Silicon Valley.