Land’s End: Art + the New Philanthropy

Ugo Rondinone, “Seven Magic Mountains,” 2011–16. Image credit: Gessato.

Since I devoted last week’s post to an enduring art-market phenomenon, it’s only right to devote this week’s to a recent change in the industry’s landscape, literally and figuratively.

Last Tuesday saw the unveiling of blue-chip Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s “Seven Magic Mountains,” an installation of monumental, fluorescent-painted stone totems in Nevada’s Ivanpah Valley, roughly 30 minutes south of downtown Las Vegas. The piece will remain on view at its current site until 2018. And while there’s certainly truth to the press release’s claim that the seven towers “mark [Rondinone’s] place in the history of Land Art,” it’s also fair to say that they mark something of an inflection point in that history, too.

The issue is funding. Financially speaking, private patrons were responsible for enabling most, if not all, of the US’s most iconic Land Art pieces in the late 1960s and 1970s. Virginia Dwan, in particular, played an outsize role, along with the collector-driven Dia Foundation and Lannan Foundation. In fact, to circle back to last week’s post directly, Robert and Ethel Scull actually used their notorious $2.2 million in 1973 auction proceeds to establish a foundation that commissioned site-specific environmental works by Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria, and Robert Smithson — the same Land Art trinity that received much of Dwan, Dia, and Lannan’s backing in the same era.

“Seven Magic Mountains” arose somewhat differently, but the change only becomes apparent if we burrow underground a bit. The piece was made possible through the joint efforts of New York’s nonprofit Art Production Fund and the Nevada Museum of Art. And although the financial support structure they built still includes traditional private patrons and foundations, those two donor groups appear to be more auxiliary reinforcements than central pillars.

Headlining the funding, the so-called Title Sponsors of “Seven Magic Mountains” are theARIA Resort & Casino, a part of MGM’s CityCenter complex on the Vegas Strip (whose contemporary-art collection I helped coordinate years ago, for full disclosure’s sake), andIGT, billed on its website as “the world’s leading end-to-end gaming company.” For clarity, “gaming” here means “gambling.” IGT provides an array of products and services for casinos and other merchants of fortune, ranging from electronic slot-machine systems to lottery analytics and much more.

One step away from the Title Sponsors stands the lone Lead Sponsor: McDonald Carano LLP, a multi-specialty Nevada law firm. Its partners must either be confident that “Seven Magic Mountains” is liability-free, or else they’re only based in Nevada because they’re inveterate gamblers. I don’t know many other attorneys who would be eager to attach their brands to an array of stacked boulders meant to lure an audience from one of the world’s premier playgrounds for bad decisions.

Only when we move out to the third class, the Major Sponsors, do we find the first three individual patrons, as well as a classic cultural nonprofit (the VIA Art Fund). But those names also share the weight with the Nevada Commission on Tourism and white-collar weekend dadfitter Banana Republic — all the more conspicuous for its alphabetically earned right to be listed first.

The three most ancillary of the six donor classes — Sponsors, Friends of Seven Magic Mountains, and Additional Support — all consist of a more traditional mix of government funding sources and private donors, including Pace President Marc Glimcher and art advisor Michele C. Quinn (who, full disclosure again, I worked with for a time during the CityCenter era). But also present are a few miscellaneous entitles like the Fairchild Consulting Group, the Las Vegas Film Festival, and my personal favorite, the Las Vegas Paving Corporation. (“Seven Magic Mountains” is located directly off of Interstate 15, after all.) They don’t qualify as “brands” in the lifestyle sense of the word, yet they’re a long way from the Dia Foundation.

Arguably the most interesting pillar in the fiscal support structure, however, is not a business of any kind. Nor is it even specifically listed in the press release. “Seven Magic Mountains” sourced roughly $64,000 in funding from a Kickstarter campaign. Its reward tiers ranged from just $5 — for which backers literally got their names shouted from the rooftop of the Nevada Museum on Snapchat — all the way up to $10,000 — for which backers received a private tour of the work, a complimentary two-night stay at ARIA, and the “#7MagicMountains Bundle,” a cultural prize pack highlighted by an 8 x 10 inch photograph of the piece and a sculptural edition by Rondinone. Naturally, the edition was a small fluorescent-painted rock. (Incidentally, the campaign also acts as proof of a concept for what I proposed last year to artists interested in crowdfunding their projects.)

Pull all of the various donors together, then, and what do we have? A pronounced shift away from the model behind the original Land Art movement. Instead of relying on single collectors or cultural foundations, the new model sources its biggest contributions from brands, while a few hundred largely anonymous online backers — in this case, exactly 208 — coalesce into a tech-enabled philanthropic collective. High-end site-specific art has officially stepped off the map.

Now, there are two opposing ways to judge this 21st-century patronage model. The first is to take the purist’s view — namely, that corporate branding implications and mass-market involvement automatically toxify projects like “Seven Magic Mountains,” no matter how invisible they may be when experiencing the actual piece. The second is to take the pragmatist’s view — namely, that the ends justify the means, so long as the patrons demand no noticeable concessions from the artist in terms of concept, aesthetic, or access.

As longtime readers no doubt guessed, I pitch my tent in the second camp. To me, the Art Production Fund and the Nevada Museum of Art should be commended for weaving all these random funding threads together into a rope that could haul “Seven Magic Mountains” out of Rondinone’s mind and into reality. Especially in light of the continueddecline in corporate giving to arts nonprofits, which has incentivized even museum heavyweights like SFMOMA and the Art Institute of Chicago to cater to private collectors like never before.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d feel differently if Rondinone’s sponsors had compelled him to stack his fluorescent boulders into an ARIA logo, or to grant viewing rights only to visitors wearing the Gavin Relaxed Straight Cotton Chino. However, even if such invasive requests were made during the process — and having worked extensively with corporate clients on commissions, no ask would be too absurd to surprise me — none of them seem to have altered his vision or execution of “Seven Magic Mountains.”

Therefore, when I look at the piece’s donor list, I don’t see a pollution of environmental art. I see resourcefulness and a potential path forward for artists, gallerists, and curators willing to be more open-minded about their production strategies for ambitious projects of all types. True, Rondinone’s blue-chip status no doubt eased his trek to realizing “Seven Magic Mountains” in a major way. But in a rapidly changing art world — one where more and more of the traditional revenue streams are being dominated by fewer and fewer people — his new monument could still stand as a waypoint for less well-known travelers seeking more fertile lands.