London's contemporary art season is officially under way; the press view for this year's Turner Prize is going on as I write. The opening of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Turbine Hall commission next Monday at Tate Modern will follow.
Ai Weiwei receiving the Kassel Prize, 26 September 2010
The next 10 days will see shows opening across the capital in private galleries and public buildings, creating a contemporary art fest to match any in the world. October has long heralded a new art season, but the last eight years have seen an explosion in activity quite unlike anything before.
The reason is simple: the Frieze Art Fair, founded by the entrepreneurial publishers of the eponymous magazine, whose confidence that London could sustain an art trade show to match those in Basel and New York has been fully vindicated.
For four windy, autumnal days in North London's Regent's Park, expensive German cars inhabited by lookalikes from a Tarantino movie descend on the capital. The art world has arrived: curators, artists, dealers and collectors.
Money is the season's lingua franca. The collectors want to spend it; the dealers and artists are happy to help them. And then there are the curators. They tread a delicate path, especially if they work for a public institution.
The curators and public institutions want the collectors' money too - and quite often their collections as well, to show in exhibitions or as a gift when the collector dies or tires of their bounty. So they are happy to cosy up, happy to "advise" in an informal "have you seen so-and-so's installation in Bloggs' gallery?" sort of way. But they know that the collectors have something to gain too.
Collectors want the reassurance and independence only a respected curator can provide. They also calculate that if the curator likes an artwork or an artist, the chances are he or she will include their work in a show or better still, present a monographic exhibition of the artist's output. This increases the value and reputation of the artist. It suits them very well to know what the curator is thinking.
Each year at the Frieze Art Fair there is a fund of around £100,000 made up of smaller donations by a group of collectors called the Outset Group. The money is given to the Tate Gallery to spend at the fair. So, before anyone else has seen what's on offer, Tate curators (plus a high-profile guest curator) go on a supermarket sweep and spend the money on a variety of artists (one of the conditions of the gift). These works are then put on show at the gallery the following day.
I am told that some of the Outset Group collectors who provide the money join the Tate curators for their early-bird private view.