When Norman Rosenthal, director of the Royal Academy of Arts in London,
ran into a programming snag in the mid-1990s, collector and advertising
mogul Charles Saatchi came to his rescue by loaning him 110 works by the
Young British Artists, also called YBAs, the artistic sensation of the
moment. The founder of the Saatchi & Saatchi agency and architect of the
Conservative Party's 1979 victory had avidly begun snatching up their
works in 1988 after turning away from the American artists he had
collected until then. "Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi
Collection," the turnkey exhibition he funded and promoted with his
own money, ushered in a new, "American" style relationship between
private collectors and dealers on the one hand, and non-profit
institutions on the other. This transatlantic dialogue continued in 1999
when the exhibition traveled to New York and sparked as much of a
scandal there as the one it had caused in the United Kingdom, although
for quite different reasons.
The show's title said it all: it was indeed controversial and set off a
scandal, or rather two more or less orchestrated scandals, which pulled
in the crowds. In London, Marcus Harvey's Myra (1995), a portrait
based on the mug shot of Myra Hindley, one of the two "Moors Murderers"
who killed five children in Yorkshire in the early 1960s, ran afoul of
an organization called Mothers Against Murder and Aggression.
Demonstrators picketed Burlington House demanding that the portrait be
removed. It had been easy to ship the works from the Saatchi Gallery in
northern London and, with the addition of two sponsors (Christie's
auction house and Time Out magazine), "Sensation" allowed the Royal
Academy, whose accounts had been in the red, to replenish its coffers.
Almost 300,000 people paid to see the exhibition, 80% of whom were under
30. Joanna Drew, the head curator of the Hayward Gallery, said Rosenthal
had claimed to be furious when the show had to close temporarily but was
happy to have entrusted a communication genius with the event.
"Sensation" already looked like a retrospective. By 1997, the YBAs no
longer needed an introduction and one of the key pieces, Damien Hirst's
1992 The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone
Living, was already showing signs of fatigue. Rather, the show was an
endorsement of a wealthy private collector's direct influence on the art
scene and the formation of a national taste.
In New York, the museum-going public knew nothing about the story behind
Myra, but, while it had traveled to Berlin without incident, the show
caused a scandal in the US nonetheless, getting caught up in the culture
wars that had already shaken the country when artists like Robert
Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano made headlines in the late 1980s. Chris
Ofili's painting The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) became a lightning rod.
The scandal took a religious turn when New York Catholic League
President William A. Donahue joined the campaign against Sam
Taylor-Wood's Wrecked (1996), a photograph recreating the Last Supper
with a female, bare-breasted Christ. The city's Catholic mayor, Rudolph
Giuliani, condemned the show even before it opened. Censorship was
barely avoided by the intervention of Floyd Abrams, a lawyer
specializing in the First Amendment, but New York City suspended its
grant to the Brooklyn Museum and threatened to close the institution.
Judge Nina Gershon restored the funding, arguing that the attacks were a
matter of opinion. As in the United Kingdom, the scandal was
instrumentalized, this time by New York's two candidates for the 2000
Senate elections, Republican Rudolph Giuliani and Democrat Hillary
However, the transatlantic dialogue we are interested in here transcends
the framework of the scandal's cultural relativism, for it sheds light
on cultural policies and upheavals in the United Kingdom's art scene
since the 1980s. For Saatchi, the dialogue began with his first wife,
Doris, with whom he assembled an impressive collection of works by key
American artists including Bruce Nauman, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Alex
Katz, Jeff Koons and Philip Guston.
At the Tate Gallery, the Patrons of New Art (PNA), a group of
benefactors, was created to help the museum purchase contemporary works
after the acquisition of a controversial piece by minimalist Carl Andre.
The first PNA-backed show was devoted to Julian Schnabel in 1983. But
the Tate failed to specify that nine of the 11 paintings exhibited
belonged to one of the PNA's founding members, Charles Saatchi, who had
to resign. An apparently philanthropic deed brought to light how private
collectors benefit from displaying their works in public institutions.
In 1985, the advertising tycoon decided to support contemporary art by
opening his own venue, the Saatchi Gallery, in Saint John's Wood, a New
York style white cube that influenced a whole generation of British art
students. After the 1990 recession, Saatchi turned to the same young
artists he had discovered at the 1988 "Freeze" exhibition organized by
Damien Hirst. Many had come out of Goldsmiths College and were called
Thatcher's children: the Conservative government's budget cuts led them
to organize their own shows in some of London's disaffected industrial
"Sensation" was resoundingly successful in New York. The triumph was a
significant milestone for British artists because they finally achieved
major international recognition. It was almost like a sweet revenge
after having spent decades in the shadow of American art. Accompanied by
a titillating health warning, the show took Hirst's shark as the emblem
of this scandalous success. But "Sensation" also revealed a journey in
the opposite direction, from the United States to the United Kingdom.
Two controversies echoed each other like mirror images. The one in the
United States involved the use of public funds. In the United Kingdom,
it was about the promotion of a private collection by a public
organization, the Royal Academy. "Sensation" actually acknowledged the
British art world's acceptance of an American modus operandi and the
effects of support for private collections under Margaret Thatcher
But it was not drastic cuts that Thatcher imposed in 1979: much of the
public funding for art and culture was rechanneled to agencies whose
mission was to obtain private backing, such as the ABSA (Association for
the Business Sponsorship of the Arts and its royal support), or to
subsidize mechanisms tied to corporate support, like the BSIS (Business
Sponsorship Incentive Scheme). Like Ronald Reagan with the NEA (National
Endowment for the Arts), Thatcher was tempted to abolish the Arts
Council, but instead preferred tilting its ideological balance by
appointing allies like former journalist Sir William Rees-Mogg and real
estate developer Peter Palumbo to leadership positions.
Yet, drawing inspiration from American cultural policies, Thatcher had
first talked about private sponsors or patrons in rather Victorian
terms. When her terminology began reflecting a shift towards corporate
sponsorship, it sent a clear message that private sources had become the
cornerstone of arts funding in the United Kingdom. Private interests
benefitted from a new tax policy, the introduction of a plan to devote
1% of their profits to art and the use of art to support an urban
renewal policy, all inspired by the Reagan model. This was when
spectacular commissions and prestigious awards were renamed after their
private backers—the Barclay's Young Artist Award, the Unilever and the
Hyundai Commissions at the Tate Modern—confirming the role of
sponsorship as a form of advertising. BP was omnipresent at Tate Britain
until environmental activists from the Liberate Tate artists collective
pressured the museum into rejecting the oil company in 2017.
The rhetoric of conquest used to promote the YBAs abroad highlighted
their provocativeness and a typically British popular culture steeped in
football, tabloids and beer. In 1995, another group show, "Brilliant!
New Art from London", organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis,
was promoted by evoking an invasion of irreverent, iconoclastic young
punks. After years of American domination, British artists took the
announcement of the catalogue of "Brilliant!", "the Brits are coming!",
literally. They rejected being labelled as followers and took their
revenge, monopolizing the front pages of Artforum and Art in America
and the top of the sales rankings.
But these shows, including the most notorious one, "Sensation", actually
confirmed the exact opposite: with the emergence of the YBAs, American
cultural policies gained an enduring foothold on British soil. Although
Tony Blair (1997-2007) slightly increased public funding, he was guided
by New Public Management (NPM), another of Thatcher's American imports,
and the economic and political use of culture. Under Jeremy Hunt,
Secretary of State for digital technology, culture, media and sport,
David Cameron's coalition government (2010-2016) continued to treat art
as a business, promoting private endowments and antinomic corporate
philanthropy. The tiger shark that took New York by storm was only on
display, already harmless in its glass case.