Charles Saatchi could be forgiven for wondering if much has changed in our attitudes to contemporary art in the past nine years. The opening of his new show, USA Today, at the Royal Academy has been greeted by the same moral outrage that was hurled in the direction of his Sensation exhibition in 1997. Despite the depressingly familiar nature of the latest controversy, though, the truth is that we are much more willing to engage with new work today. And Mr Saatchi deserves a good deal of the credit for that transformation.
Many of the artists featured in Sensation - among them Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman - have gone on to become respected figures on the international art scene. Neglected media such as installation, video and performance have entered the mainstream thanks to Mr Saatchi's sponsorship. Artistic institutions have also benefited from his patronage. His philanthropic donations have swelled the coffers of several art schools.
Mr Saatchi is not universally loved, of course. Peter Blake has argued that his commercial influence is such that those new artists who do not catch his eye - or fall from favour - can suffer unjustly. Others note that Mr Saatchi's adeptness in generating publicity (using the presentation skills learnt as a advertising executive) has significantly boosted the value of his own art acquisitions.
But similar accusations could be levelled at many wealthy patrons throughout history. And despite the huge public interest in his personal life, he has always put the art first - and it is here that his real achievement lies.
Mr Saatchi has helped to make contemporary art part of our culture. People think about, debate - and, most importantly, view - contemporary art in a way they simply did not before he began collecting. He has also made Britain a world centre for contemporary art. Witness the growing popularity of the Frieze Art Fair, which opens next week. Tens of thousands of visitors come - not to buy but just to enjoy. Regardless of your opinion of contemporary art, it is impossible to deny that there is now a substantial public appetite for it.
He may be no artist himself, but Mr Saatchi has helped to change the way we see the world.Reuse content