Enter the art platform

I recently returned from a salutary visit to New York. As always I saw a lot of art, but missed far more. Reader, will you judge me harshly if I confess that the one of the misses I regret most is RH Contemporary Art? This six-floor, 28,000 square foot experiment in commerce, culture and corporate control opens to the public on November 9.

RH is not a mere gallery but “…a unique, multi-channel platform designed to raise the visibility of international artists to collectors and viewers.” Corporate marketing hyperbole aside, it sounds a lot like a gallery. Six solo exhibitions of practicing artists (none international, I must point out) debut the space. RH appears to be in the business of exhibiting and possibly selling art.   

Restoration Hardware (gradually rebranding itself as RH), that behemoth source of nostalgic sleigh bells and Belgian linens, provides the funds and initials for this effort. The imprint of their perpetually-described-as-perpetually-tanned CEO Emeritus Gary Friedman is strong. Mr. Friedman has a point of view on matters of aesthetics and authenticity, and can take some credit in shifting our concept of curation from the academy to retail.

My feelings about RH Contemporary Art are conflicted, but above all I am curious. I do not prejudge RH based on advance press or their first few exhibitions, any more than I would want to be prejudged on the same basis. With a market capitalization of $2.7B and strong influence on how many Americans define quality and beauty, Restoration could be a useful provocateur to the art world.

The initial selection of artists strikes the New York Times as “seemingly arbitrary,” and indeed the list could easily have come from an interesting but young gallery. This in itself suggests something more interesting than co-optation of emerging art careers for the purpose of corporate brand embellishment. The promise of a residency program and print journal (this is the company that sends 6 pound “source books” to half the nation every year) offers further promise.

Of course, we could talk about how useful this level of money would be to an existing arts non-profit, or the risk of a “mass class” retailer enforcing artistic orthodoxy via the crushing burden of Good Taste. But I’m waiting till I visit the gallery (I mean platform) a few times. If nothing else, Restoration has already made a surprising choice. When is the last time we saw this level of investment follow anything other than the speculation-based, blue chip art market?

– Theo Downes-Le Guin