Hubert Burda Media

The Time Is Now

CEO and Gallery Director of London's Saatchi Gallery, Nigel Hurst is an impassioned champion of contemporary art.

The Time Is Now

Lately, Nigel Hurst has found himself in the most ebullient of moods. One of the early gallerists to champion contemporary art, his hunch has proven right. After all, works by the likes of Damien Hirst (once dismissed as a purveyor of “con art”) and Tracey Emin now command multimillion dollars. Global auction houses, such as Christie's, even organise dedicated contemporary art weeks.
In Singapore, four major art events such as Art Stage and Prudential Singapore Eye took place in January alone, with more planned for the rest of the year. The latter — which Hurst co-curated — is part of the Prudential Global Eye Programme that promotes contemporary art and nurtures rising talents. The ongoing local edition comprises a public art exhibition, Prudential Eye Singapore — which showcases the works of 17 local artists (whittled down from over 100 portfolio submissions) — and the Prudential Eye Awards, which presented 13 prizes, including the overall Best Emerging Artist Award, during its January ceremony.
“Contemporary art came onto the radar almost a decade ago, but traction has only really been gained in the past five years,” Hurst says, crediting the movement to a greater appreciation (and therefore, demand) of the genre by a global audience. “There were very few collectors of contemporary art in the past. But now, many people are engaging in it because globalisation has broken down barriers.”
The deliberate openness of contemporary art also helps, he claims: “Part of its success story is that it comes with very little cultural baggage. As compared to a classic masterpiece — something we've all been told for years how to interpret — people can have very clear, open views on contemporary art. It is really about engaging the viewer, provoking interest and debate. [And] sometimes, controversy.”
One of the biggest champions has been the Saatchi Gallery, which was founded by prominent London ad man Charles Saatchi in 1984, putting the genre on the world map by drawing the crème de la crème of contemporary art society into his space.
“The aim for the gallery was to legitimise the making and collecting of art, and to ingrain art in our nation's culture in the same way that music and fashion have been,” Hurst, who joined the gallery in 1997, lets on.
As gallery director, he has overseen the showing of the best and brightest in the industry. For instance, the Andreas Gurksy display in 1997 (the German fine photographer best known for his Rhein II that sold for over US$4.3 million at Christie's in 2012), the Hiroshi Sugimoto exhibit in 2001 and Damien Hirst in 2003.
This month, the gallery is showing Post Pop: East Meets West, where 250 works by 110 international artists the likes of Jeff Koons and Ai Weiwei celebrate the legacy of pop art. Next month, it will run Pangaea II: New Art from Africa and Latin America, featuring creatives such as African contemporary art star Boris Nzebo and exiled Cuban artist Jorge Mayet.
The evolution of the gallery into a dominant player in the UK art scene can be attributed to a number of factors, chief of which is the fact that it was a pioneer of contemporary art in the UK, says Hurst.
The fact that the gallery is privately owned also allows it to react quickly to developments within the industry. “Unlike public art institutions with large bureaucracies, we are a very small group. As soon as we see something interesting, we can show it fairly immediately,” he says.
The absence of curatorship at the gallery is perhaps another key factor to its success in stirring open debate.
“Today, there is the cult of the curator, which has only existed for the past couple of years. But at Saatchi, we do not like the C-word. Really, what ‘curating' does is to create a smokescreen between the artist and the viewer by weaving in a lot of lengthy intellectual narrative. At Saatchi, we don't do that. It has always been a very simple viewing experience for the audience, which works,” he opines.
In terms of trends, Hurst acknowledges that Asian contemporary art is very important (Chinese works especially, he says, are being bought worldwide), so much so that he now regularly flies to the region for the Prudential Global Eye Programme, a collaboration between Prudential Eye founder Serenella Ciclitira, insurance giant Prudential and Saatchi Gallery. Conceived in 2008, it has been held in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and this year, Singapore.
Like Hurst, Ciclitira has observed the Southeast Asian art market evolve greatly in the last few years. “Until a while ago, being an artist was not something really acceptable in the region. Through programmes like Prudential Eye, young people are now aware of art and the fact that they can become artists,” she says.
So what distinguishes Singapore art from the rest? According to Hurst, a penchant for the mediums of painting, digital media and photography. As for style, it is generally very urban with numerous pop art motifs and mass media references.
“The style may change years from now, but who cares? The joy of contemporary art is that it will always change and constantly evolve. This keeps things interesting.”
The Prudential Singapore Eye exhibition runs until June 28 at the ArtScience Museum