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Contemporary art: A view beyond the power, politics and money

Interview with artist Edy Ferguson

Contemporary Art is endlessly complex and beguiling, but as new SideStory Insider Edy Ferguson points out, its very existence is often dependent on the relationship between artist and patron or collector, and courage of convictions from both.

Let’s start with a simple question, but one that isn’t particularly easy to answer: what drives artists to make art?

It’s a need to tell a story that you can’t write down. Art is a persistent daily process that explores the connection between materials and the investigation you’re undertaking. It’s a very mysterious exploration, but when it’s executed well we get an incomparable perspective of the world.

It is just something human beings do to understand our world, and as such, it isn’t something you can put a value on. Artistic exploration has enormous value to our social and cultural legacy in history.

A collector buys art from a certain artist because he relates to the story the artist is making. A speculator buys art because he thinks the work will go up in value with little risk involved.

Serpentine Gallery experienceSerpentine Pavilion 2017, Designed by Francis Kéré. 

You’re involved with events at the Serpentine Gallery, which is an important place for contemporary art and artists – how important is the relationship between collector and artist?

Good collectors are very important to artists because they help them survive. There are collectors, and then there are speculators. A collector buys art from a certain artist because he relates to the story the artist is making. A speculator buys art because he thinks the work will go up in value with little risk involved. Of course, this ideology has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘art’because art is all about taking risks. It’s no surprise that two of the most successful artists in the last 10 years, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, replicate the idea of a global corporation which puts a lot of energy into minimizing risk. They hire hundreds of assistants and manufacture pieces made with expensive materials, like diamonds and the highest grade of porcelain, hiring the best technicians in the industry to fabricate replicas of the same piece again and again. Both Koons and Hirst got together and made a statement about the fact that artists now need big investors to carry out very ambitious, expensive projects and production. This is an economic ideology that matches our present one.

In Europe and New York, there are key institutions which champion contemporary art and the Serpentine is financially situated on top. If you’re having a show somewhere like that, it shows you’ve been accepted into the contemporary art world proper – it’s an important milestone.

Sometimes work is so far ahead of its time, it literally scares people.

Jeff koons contemporary art experienceBalloon Flower by Jeff Koons Cour du Chateau de Versailles.

So it really takes a collector or curator with a good deal of vision to take that leap of faith and champion it?

You can’t underestimate the importance of a visionary collector who is also something of an artist himself. Some collectors like to say they will come to your studio and see your work “as a buyer”, essentially revealing they are only interested in buying things that they think will go up in price.  What they really mean is that they are shoppers.

A good collector doesn’t shop, they look for things that affect them in the gut because the artwork says something about themselves that is beyond words. This has depth and this is the value of a work. They’re the ones who understand art, are not overly concerned about the person who made it, because they know that the power is in the work – not the celebrity of the person who made it. These are the people you need to meet: they know the instant they walk in the door if something moves them.

It’s all too easy to follow the artistic trends, but to do something truly honest requires a huge leap of faith. I take this from my own experience as an artist. 

Van Gogh Art experienceWheatfield with Crows, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

These are the kind of people who would have bought Van Gogh…?

Not necessarily: there are a number of reasons why Van Gogh didn’t sell his work in his lifetime – what is important is that his work is so valuable now. It blows out of the water the common belief that museum directors, or even the artist themselves, determine value. At the time no one understood the value of his work except fellow artists, and his brother, (although only somewhat, because even he was thinking of cutting funding for Vincent towards the end).

Sometimes work is so far ahead of its time, it literally scares people. The man himself scared people. That is the nature of our reaction to something truly innovative, original, and new. One museum director recently admitted she turned down Basquiat’s work while he was alive in New York: now he commands the highest auction prices. The work is now too expensive for any museum to buy, and that is a real shame because the public has little chance to see his work in person. Basquiat’s work did not fit the acceptable ‘form’ of contemporary art at the time.  A lot of museum collections are really quite a bore, a dull formula of academic elitism that surprisingly avoids complexity.  

It’s all too easy to follow the artistic trends, but to do something truly honest requires a huge leap of faith. I take this from my own experience as an artist. Artists see how the world is going to change before others do, so often they have to wait for that change to happen in the superlative and then the general population can ‘see’ the work.

No one has faith in [contemporary art] anymore because it has lost the plot. Without integrity, everything eventually withers.

Edy Ferguson contemporary artist

As you said earlier, contemporary art can be difficult for people to get a handle on – what’s a good way in?

One has to be open-minded and non-judgmental. You have to actually like, enjoy and appreciate art. You have to go out and see it often. And you can’t do better than speaking to artists themselves. I mean speaking and really listening. Artists really have the power, not the dealers behind the reception desk selling the work, the curators, or the collectors, or the museum directors. This is the opposite of what everyone commonly believes and that is why the contemporary market is failing. No one has faith in it anymore because it has lost the plot. Without integrity, everything eventually withers.

The serpentine gallery experienceA view of the Serpentine Museum. 

Is that what makes a contemporary piece of art stand the test of time: being able to preserve the connection between the artistic endeavour and the moment that it captures?

Yes. You see Picasso didn’t understand what he made with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Actually a Russian collector (Sergei Shchukin) wanted to buy it straight away, (not because he understood it either, but because it revolted him) and Picasso said no – he needed to have it in the studio – and he was very poor at the time, but he just stood firm in his decision. He needed to understand his own painting.

Collectors such as Shchukin have single-handedly enabled our most important and influential artists to keep working. If it hadn’t been for him, we wouldn’t have Matisse, because he quite literally sustained him at a time when he was so poor he wasn’t able to raise his own children. Just as most people didn’t understand Matisse, neither did other collectors understand why this particular Russian kept coming to Europe to buy the art he did. Everyone thought Matisse was crazy, but Shchukin saw something. He didn’t read about it, he didn’t understand it, and he didn’t watch the sales reports of these artists, he just looked at their work. He amassed perhaps the most important collection of that time period because he took that leap of faith.  

Join artist Edy Ferguson on an exploration of the two Serpentine Galleries, as you unravel the complexities of contemporary art and get the insider scoop on the latest and greatest to grace this incredible mecca of talent.