Art: The taste dictators

Why women are ruling British art
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Who wears the trousers in the art world? The dictators of taste, you might assume, are all male. There's Charles Saatchi and his collection; Jay Jopling, Damien Hirst's agent; and Nicholas Serota at the Tate. There are one or two new-style gallery owners, such as Harry Blain, and no end of clubbable male wrinklies in Cork Street, still trying to convince us that British landscape is something new, while hard-peddling pre-recession stock.

But who else? Today's most powerful taste-makers are women. Women curators. Almost unnoticed, they choose what they know we will buy next. Funny word, curator. It conjures a cobwebbed male museum employee caring for dusty fossils, but these women do more than merely care, they make influential choices. The curators of the London auctioneers' most prestigious selling exhibitions of contemporary design are women. Women curators are dominant in the corporate art-buying market. And curators of corporate art collections are most likely to be women.

Esther Windsor (left) Street attitude in the Midlands

Immured in a provincial art school, students may encounter the buzz of the London contemporary art scene only occasionally - when, say, they visit the "Sensation" show, or view the Turner Prize nominees.

The solution is to appoint an in-the-know exhibitions curator such as Esther Windsor, 31, who lures work by the country's most exciting young artists into "the waiting room", the new exhibition space at the University of Wolverhampton's School of Art and Design.

Her first sally, after her appointment in November, was to co-curate "Double Life", a show she described as "a mix of trashed-out, jet-lagged, bad techno, schiz-analysis that is the British art of the late Nineties". There were porn vids, snuff comics and "bad" painting. The Flag Organisation's Sad Bastard, a floating pink electric blanket, hinted furtively at the desire to be grown up yet still to get into mum and dad's bed.

Since then she has devoted a show to the ubiquitous Gillian Wearing's videos, 60 Minute Silence (the Turner Prize winner) and Confess All. The current show, her fourth, is titled "Heatwave", the name of the British SI movement. That's Situationist International to ignoramuses - the late- Sixties Paris agit-prop movement that inspired Malcolm McLaren to formulate Punk.

"The aim is to represent contemporary visual art practice as it's happening throughout the country," says Windsor, "in order to stimulate critical academic debate in the university."

She is strongly influenced by film, fashion and advertising, and keen to profile new work in video and photography - such as RCA graduate Hannah Starkey's photograph Untitled, shown here, which will be in her first solo show, at the Maureen Paley Gallery, east London, in the autumn.

'Heatwave' is until 16 June at the waiting room, Molineux Street, Wolverhampton (01902-321941).

Rosemary Harris (right) Sensation at NatWest

Rosemary Harris quit her job at the Tate Gallery, where she was a curator of modern art, to become the first curator of NatWest's sprawling and virtually unknown collection of 1,500 mainly post-war British artworks. Her choice of 50 of them, revealed to the public at the bank's refurbished Lothbury Gallery in the City last year, caused a sensation.

Since the Sixties, whenever it moved into a new building, the bank had been accumulating artworks to fill blank walls, relying on the advice of local art experts. For example, the Whitworth Art Gallery chose the art for the Manchester headquarters.

Harris's brief, besides plugging gaps in the post-war collection - already strong on Herons and Frosts - is to snap up signature works by just-arrived young artists. And last year, she consigned a pair of panoramas of 18th- century London, by the Italian Antonio Joli, to Sotheby's, raising pounds 1,796,000 to spend on contemporary works.

Among purchases from the proceeds, are Grid, a painting by 34-year-old Mark Francis, whose work is in the Saatchi Collection, showing microscopic cellular structures re-magnified to reveal the processes of growth, and Nimbus, by 28-year-old Goldsmiths graduate Jason Martin, a "Sensation" artist, which is oil on aluminium, showing the dance-like rhythms of body movement.

Martin is among 11 artists aged under 35 shortlisted for this year's NatWest Art Prize, worth pounds 36,000 - Britain's biggest. Nicky Hoberman, who paints over-sweet, slightly distorted children, is also shortlisted.

Most recent NatWest purchase, shown here, is 32-year-old Dan Hays' s diptych in oils, Negative Capability, and Harmony in Pink, inspired by the out-of-register colour printing of trade catalogues. Two years ago, Hays was showing small portraits of guinea pigs in obscure artists' spaces. Last year, he won the prestigious John Moores prize with a similar "cage" painting. The purchase is good for NatWest and good for Hays - and a good example of how the art world's reputation-making machinery works.

Andree Cooke (above) Taking Brit Art to the Czechs

Who commissioned and gave a first showing to Gillian Wearing's Sasha and Mum, the love-hate video that, together with her posed policemen, won her last year's Turner Prize? And who did the same for Carina Weidle's photographs of Olympic Chickens - those plump, oven- ready carcases shown throwing the javelin and riding bicycles? Answer: Andree Cooke, curator of the British Council's Window Gallery - in Prague.

Nowhere in the world is there anything quite like Prague's Window Gallery. While the British Council places an annual 60 exhibitions of BritArt in important public museums and galleries abroad - that's policy - Cooke has been allotted Prague's roomy ground- floor window space of the British Council itself.

Now 31, she was 24 when she founded the gallery, after winning a British Council scholarship to Prague's Academy of Fine Art. Two enlightened British Council members in Prague took a gamble on her. She is given funds to commission works which, having gained the backing of the Window Gallery's extraordinary international reputation, are given back to the artists, who exhibit them elsewhere. Both Lawrence Weiner, the Sixties lettering artist, and Mark Wallinger, the live-horse-as-artwork artist, showed at the Window Gallery before being curated by Cooke at Canary Wharf, London, last year.

Watch out over here for her latest Window Gallery artists, the "Garden Guerillas" - RCA research fellows Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby, and industrial designer Michael Anastassiades. Big-type dual-language captions in the Window attempted to explain their bizarre garden furniture, Weeds, Aliens and Other Stories - including a "garden horn" for speaking to plants and "talking tabs" which torment plants by reciting vegetarian recipes. The trio's book of drawings for the project is available from the ICA.

Cooke is shown here with Edward Lipski's Tattoo, a sculpture of a man's back covered in tattooed pigskin. She says: "It has the kind of energy which, for me, makes a strong work that will be of importance in the future."

Peta Levi (below right) Designers' idol

When it comes to promoting her discoveries, Peta Levi has more clout than any other woman curator. A former House & Garden design correspondent, she raises money from sponsors and packs her young designers and their wares off to international furniture and fashion fairs in Cologne, Paris and New York. So far, she has set up 300 of them in business.

Design students idolise her, but, despite her MBE, she is hardly recognised by the Government and the media. Perhaps the plethora of institutional names obscures what she does. There was the "New Designers" exhibition, which she pioneered and ran for eight years. Then there's her charity, the Design Trust, and its trading subsidiary, New Designers in Business, which she founded after handing over the "New Designers" exhibition to the Business Design Centre in Islington in 1991.

The showcase of hers that is best known to contemporary design buyers is Bonhams' annual selling exhibition, "Decorative Arts Today", which she helped to launch in 1992, five years before Sotheby's followed suit. Pop stars and other design trendies flocked to it from the start. American buyers fly over specially. Among young designers who owe their first leg- up to her are the Jam group, whose lamps made from washing-machine drums are now famous, the folding furniture designers Tomoko and Shin Azumi, plucked fresh from the RCA, and Neil Bottle, whose hand-painted printed silks made their debut in the 1989 New Designers Exhibition.

But her biggest project is being stymied by government indecision. She wants pounds 450,000 for a design "hothouse" in London - a combined retail showcase and training centre. The DTI has spent pounds 20,000 on a feasibility study - which reported favourably - but since the change of government, the line seems to have gone dead.

"What I'm asking for is peanuts," says Levi. Meanwhile, she continues to raise sponsorship money from an office in her north London semi.

Gill Hedley (above) The curator's curator

Gill Hedley directs that extraordinary organisation, the Contemporary Art Society, which buys and sells contemporary art - in order to raise funds to give art away. The beneficiaries are public museums and galleries throughout the country.

Although she is a veteran degree-show scout and popper-in at studios, she now appoints her own curators, so big has the CAS's operation grown. This year, Janice Blackburn is hunting out decorative arts for her, and Jenni Lomax, Director of the Camden Arts Centre, is on the trail of fine art. She rarely vetoes their choices - unless the work will not fit through doors or seems likely to disintegrate within a year. "I select the selectors, so I control the operation," she says. "You don't keep a dog and bark yourself. But I know what they know and I know where they go."

Wherever they go, they uphold Hedley's tongue-in-cheek boast to contemporary art collectors that the CAS will always get their before them and beat down the price. That is what makes the CAS's annual fund-raising market of freshly discovered talent, held this year at the ART98 in Islington, so unmissable.

Hedley prides herself on her championing of the 1966 Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon, best known for his 24-Hour Psycho video. He was the first Scottish artist for years to get an international reputation.

Curating corporate art gives her less choice. "We have to listen to the company - but there's still plenty of oxygen to exercise my taste." There are some impressive names on the client list of CAS Projects, the Society's corporate art advisory service: BUPA, Canary Wharf, Nuffield College Oxford, Unilever, The Economist. The Society takes corporate buying committees to exhibitions, private views, auctions, even artists' studios. There's nothing to beat rubbing businessmen's noses in art. The sculpture by Carlos Nogueira, pictured here, is in The Economist Plaza, commissioned in consultation with CAS Projects as part of the first major presentation of Portuguese architecture in Britain since the Fifties.

The Society's first really big spend is about to begin. The Arts Council Lottery has just awarded it pounds 2.5m to develop the contemporary art collections of 15 major museums. That's a lot of curating.

Bridget Brown (right)

Putting art to work

Those men in suits know more about the cutting edge than we give them credit for. For them, tame figuratives and wallpaper-like abstracts are out. They want breathtaking artworks that will not only impress VIP clients but also sharpen the thinking of employees.

Bridget Brown, a freelance corporate art curator who has chosen art for Credit Suisse First Boston, Barclays Capital and Sun Life Assurance, says: "The culture implied by corporate art collections is important. It gives a dimension over and above everyday business."

At the Sun Life building, set in parkland near Bristol, Brown, a former Arts Council administrator who assessed young artists for grants, has commissioned a four-storeys-high, teardrop-shaped cascade of bamboo that hangs beside the escalator shaft in the airy atrium. It is the work of the Laotian Vong Phaophanit. Currents of air rattle it gently, dappling light and shade on the floor below.

At the Markborough Properties building in Upper Thames Street, in the City, she has commissioned Langlands and Bell, the architecturally-inspired "Sensation" artists. They have engraved the glass floors of four walkways, tiered one storey above another, with the air industry's acronyms for airports, such as LHR, JFK, TYO and HKG (work them out for yourself).

In the same building, the Scottish installation artist Glen Onwin's pair of 9m-high glass screens, rising beside the escalator, have been installed even before the wraps have been taken off Koln Pedersen Fox's architecture.

They are glass sandwiches. One contains ultramarine pigment suspended in lacquer, with crystals of iron pyrites (fool's gold) fixed on the outside. The other, more organic in feel, contains crystals of copper sulphate grown directly on to the glass.

Janice Blackburn (left)

From Saatchi to Sotheby's

What will the tireless Janice Blackburn come up with next? Her showcase, Sotheby's annual selling exhibition of Contemporary Decorative Arts, now in its second year, resembles the interior of her home in Hampstead - full of the bravest and wittiest furniture, lighting, textiles, glass and metalwork, much of it by young designers whom she has plucked from obscurity.

Before persuading Sotheby's to launch the exhibition - and to hire her as curator - Blackburn had not only been an avid private collector for 15 years, but had spent nine years working for Charles Saatchi and his collection in north London. She says: "The idea of one person making choices made an impression on me. I prefer to stand or fall on my own decisions, rather than being part of a judging committee."

Like Saatchi, she scours degree shows and designers' studios. She champions her choices by giving them exposure they might otherwise not get, especially outside London. "If we don't support them," she says, "they'll disappear." Then, who was chosen to organise an informal fashion show that Cherie Blair hosted at a dinner for the G7 leaders' wives at the British Library in April? Not one of Britain's big couturiers, but Janice Blackburn.

There's a private side to her that has only recently won recognition. She and her husband, David, a lawyer and property developer, have set up an arts lecture programme for young people, and given money to the Whitechapel educational programme, as well as to the Tate and the National Opera Studio. In recognition, Blackburn was given the 1998 Mont Blanc de la Culture Award for Arts Patronage.

She will be curating an exhibition, "Spirit of the Times", at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham (14 July to 4 October), that will match the quirky taste of Josephine and John Bowes, ancestors of the Queen Mother, the building's original owners, who were the Saatchis of their day