Anish Kapoor says art gallery 'tokenism' with diversity must end

Mark Brown Arts correspondent
Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Art galleries must stop paying lip service to work from around the world and use the unique opportunity created by Black Lives Matter and the Covid-19 crises to completely alter their approach, the artist Anish Kapoor said.

As he prepared to open the UK’s first large-scale art exhibition since the lockdown began in March, Kapoor delivered blistering criticism of the museum world. “Contemporary museums, they need to stop tokenism. Collect an Iranian artist here, a South African artist there or whatever. They need to really begin to try to properly take on … what is contemporary culture today? How do we represent it in objects in our museums. It is not straightforward. But tokenism can’t happen any longer.”

Kapoor, who was born in Mumbai, will unveil a series of outdoor sculptures at Houghton Hall, in Norfolk, this weekend. The installation was arranged for earlier this year but delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kapoor said: “Artists like me, artists from elsewhere, have to refuse – we have to say no more tokenism. Collect the work properly or don’t collect it at all, both are fine.

“Museums are paying lip service to world art. We have to think about it again … radically. It is a hard thing to do. But when was it easy? Our museums have a lot of work to do. For the great historic museums they have to recognise – out of what legacy the collections come.”

The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, known as MoMA, reopened last October after a $450m rehang which sought to rebalance the amount of work displayed by women and artists of colour.

Kapoor was not greatly impressed. “On the ground floor they have room after room after room of artists from here, there, and everywhere, and they are put together like a jumble sale. It is appalling. And then, with all respect for an artist I hugely admire, Richard Serra, male and white, has a room of his own. That just can’t be any longer. We can’t do that kind of shit any more.”

He said he included all museums in his criticism with “Tate most definitely included”.

Anish Kapoor, seen next to one of his sculptures at Houghton Hall, says historic museums should recognise the legacy behind their collections. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Kapoor said future displays of art could not just be about fame and name. “It is hard to do because what it demands is cosmopolitan culture and that is the very thing that our education doesn’t prepare us for, our aesthetic sensibility doesn’t prepare us.

“How do we do it? It is almost as if we have to go back to rethinking what cultural representation means. Not colour of skin. Not male or female or otherwise. Not places of origin. So what? How? There is a whole, deeper, post-enlightenment conversation to have here.”

Kapoor was speaking ahead of what will be his biggest outdoor show in the UK. Houghton Hall is Britain’s finest Palladian mansion, built in the 18th century for the nation’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and which once housed one of the world’s greatest art collections.

In recent years the hall has hosted exhibitions by contemporary artists, including Damien Hirst in 2018. This year it is Kapoor and his exhibition is set to run here from Sunday until 1 November this year. Because some of his stone, marble and onyx works weigh between six to nine tonnes the vast Versailles-like lawns at the hall had to be reinforced with concrete to prevent the pieces sinking.

For the exhibition, immediately in front of the house are monolithic stone sculptures which look as if they have arrived from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey film. The sculptures were installed over 10 days early in March using trucks, cranes and specially laid tracks.

The works include a five-metre diameter concave mirror of polished stainless steel, called Sky Mirror. On Thursday the mirror, made in 2018, was reflecting the light grey sky glinting through some heavy clouds.

Lockdown happened as the Kapoor exhibition was about to open to the public, so the display so far has been largely enjoyed by the family who live there. Houghton’s owner, Lord Cholmondeley, admitted they had had the benefit. “It has been extraordinary to live with them and see them through different seasons and different times of day … at night even. But it has also been very sad not to show them, and have the worry we would not be able to show them at all. So we’re very lucky. Half a season is better than no season.”

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