Contemporary art Fairs Collectors Switzerland

Here come the young ones

Patrons groups for people under 40 are on the rise in UK museums and elsewhere

The Guggenheim's Young Collectors Council was founded in 1997

Contemporary art’s fashionable status has created a new international clique. “Young patrons groups”, until recently the preserve of US museums, are now appearing elsewhere—and making their presence felt at the art fairs this season.

The groups, which provide an additional funding stream for visual arts organisations, are aimed at people aged 40 and under, who pay between £250 and £1,000 a year, depending on the institution. This is less than full patrons, whose annual membership starts at an average £1,200.

In the UK, the Tate, the Serpentine Gallery and Parasol unit (to name but three) have developed thriving groups for younger patrons over the past few years, all run by the energetic Alia Al-Senussi, a member of the Libyan royal family who also runs Art Basel’s VIP relations in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Photographers’ Gallery in London is launching a young patrons group next week and the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) will do the same later this year. Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) launched its Ullens Contemporaries group last month (its first trip was to Art Basel in Hong Kong), and the UK’s Royal Academy launched its equivalent group in November. Gregor Muir, the executive director of the ICA, says the ability to launch such groups is “a sign of the times, contemporary art is so widely-exposed at the moment that newcomers can now mix with like-minded people”. Plus, adds Philip Tinari, the director of the UCCA, “ticket sales [at the UCCA] wouldn’t even pay the water bill.”

The groups generally mix members from outside the art world with those who work in the industry. The Tate’s roster, for example, includes Andreas Gegner of Sprüth Magers (2.0/B19), Matt Carey-Williams of White Cube (2.0/C18, joint membership with his husband) and Alex Logsdail of Lisson (2.0/B12) among its 150 members. Organisers say that this doesn’t represent a conflict of interest, rather the best way to break down barriers. “Including young dealers encourages accessibility in a world that people can be nervous of entering,” Al-Senussi says.

Those from outside the art world who are joining up are generally the working wealthy, from international backgrounds. “These groups work for someone who is actively involved in the arts, such as myself, but also those who are new to London, or someone who has just made enough money to develop their interest in art, or perhaps works in a bank and wants to talk about more than finance all day,” Al-Senussi says. Talks, private dinners and an annual party are generally included in the programmes—as well as events around art fairs (“members love them”, she says).

The importance of this demographic cannot be underestimated in the fast-moving contemporary art world. “If you looked at who were the top ten collectors [at Art Basel] ten years ago, they wouldn’t be the same as today. People die, lose their fortunes or just change their minds, and reaching out to young collectors is one way of rejuvenating the scene,” says Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel.

When their interest is piqued, these people, whose day jobs often involve making quick decisions, swiftly become young collectors. Indoo Sella di Monteluce, who manages the sports investment fund Global 11, joined the Tate’s young patrons in 2010 as a relative newcomer to art. He has since built a collection that includes work by Doug Aitken, Daido Moriyama and Alighiero Boetti. “I can honestly say that [this] has been heavily influenced by the insight and knowledge I have gained through the group”, he says.

Museums’ young patron groups have grown in popularity alongside other private “clubs” that cater to the younger would-be art buyers. The Arts Club in London, revamped in 2011, offers a discount for members under 30. Its curators, Amelie von Wedel and Pernilla Holmes, are conducting a tour of Art Basel to selected members (The Arts Club also did the same at Frieze New York and the Venice Biennale last month). Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the (young) collector Alan Lo has just launched Duddell’s club (its opening exhibition “Face to Face”, until 31 August is also curated by Von Wedel and Holmes). “People love to say I’m a member, you’re not,” Lo says.

So are young patrons groups just the latest way to have fun with a pre-selected, young, wealthy and international social circle? There’s certainly an element of this, and this week’s events for young patrons in Basel include not only tours of the fairs, but invitations to the peripheral parties.

Despite this, the organisers underline the serious element of their offering to the young. This is just as well, as members are also having a tangible impact on the museums that they patronise. The Guggenheim’s Young Collectors Council, founded in 1997, votes on and, in part, funds museum acquisitions (between two and five per year). Karaugh Brown, the Guggenheim’s manager of membership and patrons, says this is a “unique part” of its programming, but the newer groups are also heading this way. Al-Senussi, as the representative to the Tate patrons executive committee, votes on acquisitions on behalf of the young patrons (although their funds are not exclusively used for this purpose). Plus, she says, “resources are not just financial— enthusiasm goes a long way”.

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