Benedict Tomlinson opened the defence of the motion by recounting the history of private collections and their contribution to public culture. Numerous landmark institutions have private origins, from the Tate Gallery in London to the Guggenheim museums around the world, the Fondation Beyeler outside Basel and, latterly, the Rubell Family Collection or the Uli Sigg’s donation to the M+ museum in Hong Kong. Thanks to private individuals a wealth of art has become accessible to everyone, and can even reinvent failing cities, as is the example with the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Veronika Spierenburg countered that the experience of art had to be a public experience. Going to a museum is not just about the art, but also about doing something in common with fellow citizens. She also made the point that political statements or activity must, by definition, be public. If art is to be political, it must therefore also be public.
Anna Francke supported Ben’s opening arguments with a paean to the art market. This private mechanism in fact sustains the art world; private spending helped the art world recover from the slump of the late 2000s. Art fairs are not only good for galleries and buyers but also benefit cities, associated businesses and visitors. But Caroline Loemmart contested that the art market only hindered public appreciation of art, making it ever more difficult for public institutions to compete. While the so-called generosity of private collectors and their donations often has more to do with escaping tax payments than real munificence.
The debate swiftly became an open discussion about the differences or benefits of the private and public in the art sphere. Issues raised included the difficulty of any art space being truly independent of financial interests; the entanglement of private and public interests in nominally public institutions and the lack of transparency thereof; and which institutions are accountable for their actions, not to mention to whom. The benefits of exposure to art were also picked over – whether the idea of public education and improvement through culture is still valid today. And if free institutions really were purely providing art for art’s sake or were a government means of stimulating other (private) businesses.
A highly productive conversation in Florian Christopher’s private salon closed with a tied vote for which side had made the better arguments.