‘It’s never been easy for artists, but I don’t want to complain!’ Thomas Hirschhorn noted ironically in a 2005 interview about his storied Swiss-Swiss Democracy exhibition at the Swiss Cultural Center in Paris that year. The show included a simulated piss on the image of billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher, then justice minister of Switzerland and leader of the ultra-right-wing Swiss Peoples Party (SVP) — well known beyond Swiss borders for its particularly nasty anti-immigrant posters in which white sheep kick a lone black sheep off the Swiss flag, black hands grab for Swiss passports and a sinister veiled women merges with missile-like minarets rising from, again, the cherry-red Swiss flag.
Hirschhorns pointed critique of Blocher beguiled the Swiss media, resulting in Switzerland’s parliament cutting CHF 1 million from the annual budget of Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council. (One wonders if the same uproar would have occurred if Hirschhorn had exhibited artworks as patently racist as the SVP’s posters.) More recently, Swiss artist Christoph Büchel set off public-funding alarms in der Schweiz with his 2010 Wiener Secession exhibition, which became known as ‘Raum für Sexkultur’ (Room for Sex Culture). The show engendered this hilariously straight-faced official response from the Arts Council: ‘Pro Helvetia has examined the flow of funds in connection with the exhibition by Christoph Büchel at Wiener Secession and ascertained that no public funds from Pro Helvetia went to the privately run swingers club located in the basement of the exhibition hall.’ End quote (and smile).
Such controversies and the threats to art funding that customarily follow are obviously not specific to Switzerland. American Republicans loudly threatened to cut the Smithsonian Institution’s funding after they managed to have David Wojnarowicz film A Fire in My Belly (1986—87) removed from an exhibition in The National Portrait Gallery. But threats to art subsidizing and the anxieties such threats underline about the place of public art funding in general do not come from controversial art works alone. They also invariably come, like trash on the tide, in every period of economic crisis and/or rising right-wing governance, which by default consensus finds no reason to fund artists or the institutions that show them. (The 2008 global economic meltdown gave fire to conservatives across the West: from Republican proposals to eliminate the petite National Endowment of the Arts in the USA to the art-funding decimation in the UK and Italy.) If such de rigueur conservative, anti-art positions can be quickly written off as blatantly hypocritical the culture wars at their dutiful best they nevertheless point to a more legitimate anxiety, one that preoccupies liberal politicians and art administrators alike: What is the best way to fund and further artists?
That question is being plumbed anew in Switzerland, where the art-subsidizing system, despite a general decrease in funding due to both economic woes and a total redistribution of cultural spending, is vast particularly to me, a recent American import used to tiny grants awarded to the tiny few after record amounts of accomplishment. Compare the Swiss Art Awards, which annually gives out CHF 800,000 to some 30 young artists, in a juried exhibition coinciding with Art Basel. The competition began in 1899; starting in 2012, however, the awards will change. Rumour says that the Federal Office of Culture (BAK) is changing its notorious model of funding, perhaps to fewer artists and for proposed projects, or perhaps ending the under-40 age requirement, amid a general re-organization of the BAKs positions — a re-organization currently occurring at Pro Helvetia as well.
The Swiss Art Awards come under criticism like clockwork every June. The show can be shambling and incoherent, and the artists are expected to reflect the countrys geographic and gender diversity. One young Swiss artist friend rolled his eyes when I mentioned the awards. Its Switzerland showing off how much money it has, then getting nervous and making it as democratic as possible. He also derided the jurys disconnect from the contemporary art scene in Switzerland and internationally, resulting in awards perhaps given unwittingly to unrewarding artists. Well, everythings subjective. That he himself has a good Zurich gallery gives him a privileged perch from which to cast such judgments, but he is far from alone in them.
Pro Helvetia’s director, Pius Knüsel, recently gave an interesting interview in the Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger in which he criticized the increasing institutionalization of Switzerlands art scene, which he saw as inherently less fleet as well as less commercially and culturally viable. His interest in fostering art initiatives in the private sector is odd, considering Zurichs flock of blue-chip galleries and Art Basel itself. Yet, the subsidized art culture here makes it understandable. Knüsels articulated directive — to fund fewer institutions and artists but more amply, and to take the reins of funding from juries and hand them to the subsidized spaces themselves — could improve the system, though who is to say. Noah Stolz, a Locarno curator who is a member of the Swiss Art Awards jury, is wary of this professionalization of the Swiss art world, its artists and its grant system. It could be a danger, Stolz said to me, though he is also working to streamline the awards themselves. More important than whoever turns out to be right, however, is that the conversation here about art funding appears to be a real one, without hyperbole about offensive art and slumming artists or national deficits miraculously fixed by infinitesimal art budgets. Hey world, take note.