Once a year, the Tate Modern invites an artist to do something in its cavernous Turbine Hall. The art is inevitably big, smart, engagingly populist, and Flickr-genic. The Turbine Hall show annually generates more press and conversation than any other contemporary art installation in the world. It seems like all of Britain is looking at or chatting about today’s art, in this case Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds. [Image: Sunflower Seeds (detail) at the Tate Modern via Phil Hawksworth.]
Here in the United States, we have nothing of the sort. Oh sure, we have big spaces in big museums, but they’re designed as rental spaces for corporate events and not as art spaces. None of them have ever hosted an installation that has come close to putting art or artists in everyday conversations throughout the country or beyond. Nor will they ever.
So what does Britain have that we don’t? Easy: A single city that dominates the discourse. About a quarter of the people who live in the United Kingdom live in metropolitan London. There’s no British city that has anywhere near London’s clout.
To put London’s dominance of the UK dialogue in perspective, here are the U.S. metropolitan areas you’d have to put together to include about a quarter of America’s population:
- New York (6 percent of the U.S. population);
- Los Angeles (4.8 percent);
- Chicago (3 percent);
- Washington, DC-Baltimore (2.5 percent);
- San Francisco Bay Area (2.5 percent);
- Dallas-Fort Worth (2 percent);
- Houston (2 percent); and
- Philadelphia (2 percent).
If someone could organize (and fund) a contemporary artist doing something significant at MoMA, LACMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, SFMOMA, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the MFAH and the Philadelphia Museum of Art concurrently, a U.S.-based project would certainly generate the pop that the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall installations do. It would certainly be a big deal for the injection of contemporary art into outside-the-art-ghetto conversations.
In a related story, I think this is a gap in our contemporary art community that should to be addressed by philanthropy: Nothing in the United States elevates artists into the context of national or international discourse the way the Turbine Hall has helped put/keep Ai Weiwei in the forefront of discussions about contemporary China. I think the chances of getting all those institutions to do something together is, er, extremely unlikely. (So what could do it? Broadly distributed, nationally and internationally-minded journalism about art would be one way.)
Related: Turbine Hall installations are always big hits on Flickr. This one’s no exception.