RoseLee Goldberg, an art historian, author, critic, and curator, is the founding director of Performa, a multidisciplinary organization for the development and presentation of visual art performance.
Collecting performance. Everyone’s talking about collecting performance, as though there were a gold rush to buy performance now when prices are low, “at the bottom of the market,” so as to sell “high” in a few years. Implicit is the notion that there is money to be made. The questions being asked—such as “How does one collect performance?” “What do I need to know?” “Which artists would you collect?”—all fall into language that is used in the art market in relation to painting and sculpture. But collecting performance is another matter entirely. Though the idea has been inspired by the vibrant art market of the past several years, collecting performance has very different prospects, and the collector most likely to purchase this material would have motives very different from those of individuals who typically purchase contemporary art.
The collector of performance most likely purchases this material because he or she is absorbed by the conceptual underpinnings of the performance. Or interest might stem from the novelty of learning about a new discipline or entering a new and untested market. Another reason might be a fascination on the part of the buyer with participating in the work itself, acting in concert with the artist and her wishes and the possibility of reperformance in the future. Sales of live performance are still relatively few and follow different models. In the case of the choreographer-turned-artist Tino Sehgal, the sale of the ephemeral work comprises an oral contract between artist and collector, who, in the presence of a notary and three witnesses, recite the lines of the work and the terms in which it is to be exhibited. Though such a transaction has been hailed as a new phenomenon, sales of a live art work to a collector have occurred in the past: works of “pictorial sensibility” by Yves Klein and “living sculptures” by Piero Manzoni are two precedents from the 1960s.1
For the individual collector, collecting performance instructions, notations, or scripts might be akin to buying first-edition books, a rare manuscript, or a set of conceptual art instructions. They enjoy the rarified intellectual scope of the work, and they are more likely to hold onto it. Resale is not the point. At the same time many artists working in performance since the 1960s—including Marina Abramović, Vito Acconci, Allora and Calzadilla, Roman Ondák, Joseph Beuys, John Bock, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Pierre Huyghe, Joan Jonas, William Kentridge, Paul McCarthy, and Clifford Owens, among many others—make photographs, wall pieces, videos, paintings, sculptures, films, installations, and drawings that together would constitute an extraordinary performance art collection for any museum or private collector. And indeed these already exist inside museum collections, only by another name. They are hiding in plain sight in contemporary art galleries and scattered across departments within museums, from the library to the photography, drawing, and video and film collections. Along with troves of work from the twentieth century—including paintings, manifestos, collages, and combines by the Italian futurists, Russian Constructivists, Dadaists, surrealists, and Bauhaus artists, as well as material by Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Yoko Ono, Red Grooms, and innumerable other artists from the 1950s onward—modern museums already have extensive performance art collections. These are only now being recognized for what they are, as art historians and curators alike finally understand the relevance of live performance in shaping the history of twentieth-century art.
In the museum context this material is taking on more significance, and strategies for collecting and preserving performance art are now a topic of discussion for the acquisition committees that determine purchases for permanent collections. There are two overriding reasons for this far-reaching development. The first is the fact that the 1970s has become history. To curators inscribing the decade in the timeline of contemporary art history, it is evident that most of the conceptual art of the period was performance art, and that most of the artifacts—photographs, videos, drawings, and documentation—produced at that time were the direct outcome of performances. A second important factor is the changing function of the modern museum, which since 2000 has altered radically from a place of contemplative study and conservation to a cultural edifice of engagement, a nonstop hub for performances, screenings, and events of all kinds. Designed with spaces that allow large crowds to interact with art and artists, and with one another, the newest museum buildings now also have dedicated black-box theaters and greenrooms to accommodate expanding performance programs under newly established performance art departments. With the scope of the museum now expanded to accommodate contemporary dance—including programs by such radical pioneers of avant-garde dance as Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer, along with a younger generation of choreographers, including Jérôme Bel, Boris Charmatz, Trajal Harrell, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Ralph Lemon, and Xavier Le Roy, among many others—such highly visible programming calls for its own specialized analysis of dance history and theory and its place in museum culture. It follows that key works from this history, as well as the specially commissioned material made for museums, will also eventually enter permanent collections. Along with avant-garde music, sound works, and new media of all sorts, including material made for the omnipresent digital world in which we live, the twenty-first-century museum will become a repository for an infinitely broad range of material that reflects the newest forms of image making and the technologies that display them. Once thought to be too ephemeral and outside the scope of art history, performance art, and the departments now being founded to examine its history and contemporary forms, will be central to the discussion about art and culture of the future and about the institutions that will conserve, collect, and exhibit this material.
For example, Yves Klein, Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity, 1959–62. Sold at various prices to eight collectors between the piece’s creation in 1959 until his death in 1962, these transactions were documented by a receipt that the collector would burn as part of an optional ritual performed by Klein. The purchase amount of the piece was exchanged for its value in gold leaf, half of which Klein would then discard into the Seine leaving no document of the work or transaction. This ritual would take place in the presence of two witnesses and an art critic, art dealer, or museum director—a person serving as a figurehead for the institutions of the art world. ↩