How does performance art get collected? And why should it be?

Posted on 23/07/2020

What will we remember about today’s art in 100 years? How does performance art – which centres around liveness, process and ephemerality – get collected? What is the difference between a public art institution and a commercial art gallery?

Rose Lejeune, Director of an innovative new collecting project named Performance Exchange, has penned her thoughts for us on this topic.

Towner Eastbourne is one of three national museum partners that Performance Exchange is working with. Following a series of live performances in London this winter across a range of commercial gallery spaces, Towner will acquire an artwork from the programme, supported by an acquisitions fund, and with a view to showing it in the galleries in near future. Keep an eye on our channels as our plans with Performance Exchange progress.

Rose explains:

Performance art’s early practitioners in the late 1950s and ’60s explicitly saw its immateriality and ephemerality, as well as the underground and small-scale sites it happened in, as articulating its anti-commercial and politically active intentions.  These elements meant that it was understood that performance could not be bought and sold, and that attempts to do so would corrupt its agency  and critical potential in the world.

Since then though, the economic situation of artists has radically changed – basic living costs are immeasurably higher, the cost of education and funding cuts have taken their toil and many young artists face an increasingly hostile environment – living and making work for free is simply no longer possible. On the other hand, the art market has  internationalised  and expanded into a significantly more powerful force.  This seemingly buoyant art market offers economic stability and collections offer a place in art history, yet  they  only accommodate a very narrow band of material practices and are overwhelmingly dominated by painting.

Seemingly contradictory perhaps, rather than recede into the shadows, performance has become an increasingly important part of a great number of contemporary artists’ practice – both as a discrete, stand-alone practice, and within much broader constellations of work, from painting to ceramics, film, drawing, and installation. One artist may use all these mediums to express ideas over time –  and that means that within the  art market and museum collections there are lots of artists who are already making performance, but their practice somehow gets split – with some elements being bought and collected – and others not.

It is responding to these changes both in performance art itself and in the arts eco-system, to which Performance Exchange addresses itself.  Originally due to happen in July 2020 (and now postponed until the winter), the programme is a series of around twenty performances in London commercial art galleries by artists that are represented by – that is, have a long term  commercial relationship with – those galleries.

The  programme  spans artists from generations of practitioners since the 1960s, and will highlight performance over many different registers and formats.  Over four days, audiences will be invited to visit each of these galleries to experience the performances, and alongside be offered documents that create a direct link from the live work to how it might be collected – be that as a contractual relationship, or through documentation and residues such as props and scripts.

Following this programme, three museums – Towner Eastbourne, Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool, and De Montfort University Gallery in Leicester – will be supported to acquire a work for their collections and help to show the work in 2021. Collecting by museums such as these supports contemporary artists in multiple ways; giving them career support, visibility and legacy.

Thinking through how to collect performance is difficult both for museums and private collections because most collection structures were built to accommodate objects – both physically, in storage facilities, and conceptually, as stable objects requiring stasis and conservation. Much like the script of a play, performance requires restaging and interpretation; it is live and changes over time, even in the collection. Nevertheless, collections retain value to the public through their permanence; creating forms of communal and public ownership, shared experiences and connections over time. Collections form what we know of the past and give us mirrors to hold up against ourselves today.

It is important to have performance presented and collected, because, from an art-historical point of view, without performance in the mix, contemporary art practice looks very different. Performance Exchange is a catalyst for reimagining individual artist’s practice as a holistic entity for posterity and changing collecting structures to support and reflect this.

The contemporary art ecosystem is a complex beast – full of tensions and what can feel like mutually exclusive spaces of public and private, critical and commercial aims. In highlighting how commercial galleries support artists in the long term, and how regional museums like Towner provide a context for their presentation and legacy to new audiences, Performance Exchange creates a cross-sector collaboration of the art market and museums, encouraging them to share knowledge and expertise towards their common goals of having as broad a spectrum of practices as possible being supported now, and understood in the future.