ANALYSIS: Art strikes a PR pose for publicity - Modern artists tread a fine line between being thought of as avant garde and being publicly ridiculed. They are increasingly using PR to strike that balance, says Ed Shelton

What is the difference between the unmade bed of a freelance

journalist and the unmade bed of a contemporary British artist? The

cynical might suggest that only PR spin separates my bedclothes from

those of Tracy Emin, who famously entered hers for the 1999 Turner


On this basis, the small number of agencies that work in the

contemporary art world might claim to be practising PR in its purest

form. Witness, for example, the coverage of last week's unveiling of the

latest piece by Rachel Whiteread - an upside down plinth on the spare

one in London's Trafalgar Square.

Promoting modern artists such as Whiteread, Emin and Damien Hirst

involves a difficult juggling act: defending against the inevitable

'emperor's new clothes' accusations, while at the same time capitalising

on the confusion their pieces create. But it is a juggling act those

working in the field are handling with increasing success.

This week also saw the unveiling of the shortlist for the 2001 Turner

Prize - a competition which has spectacularly broken through into

mainstream consciousness in recent years.

Despite the column inches achieved, the artists themselves do not have

full-time agency representation. Each is linked to a gallery that acts

as the artist's agent and may do some ongoing PR, but the majority of

the promotional work is done by PROs for the gallery connected with each


Honey Luard, head of press at the trendy Hoxton gallery White Cube -

which looks after the interests of Emin and Hirst - says there is no

sophisticated PR strategy behind the artists, but that their work is

what promotes them.

'Artists have been getting controversy since year dot. You cannot

control what kind of PR you get - the artists get the attention

themselves in terms of their work,' says Luard.

Luard says the process varies from artist to artist. 'You make sure the

people writing have the material they need but you work with artists on

an individual basis - on their work and who they are,' she says.

The recent celebrity status of some artists creates its own challenges

for gallery PROs who are not necessarily specialists in this area.

Jennifer Thatcher, press officer at the Anthony D'Offay gallery, who

worked with the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts on the

Whiteread unveiling and handles the artist, says: 'In the past, you were

generally dealing with experienced art critics who knew about the work.

Now you are getting news interest and dealing with people who may not

know about the artist and just want a story.'

While the gallery PR teams do the bread and butter work, much of this

more sensitive work is handled by a small number of specialist


Bolton & Quinn (which has worked for White Cube, the Tate and the Henry

Moore Foundation), and more recently Hobsbawn Macaulay, dominate the


Those at the agencies play down their influence. Bolton & Quinn MD Erica

Bolton says: 'We have a role, but Emin, for example, does things that

capture the media's attention. This is something contemporary artists

are more aware of.'

Many in the art world speak highly of the work Bolton & Quinn does, but

some journalists are less enthusiastic. The Observer arts correspondent

Vanessa Thorpe says: 'Bolton & Quinn have a virtual monopoly that makes

it hard to tell how good they are, but they seem to know what is going

on and understand what you need.'

Another national journalist is more explicit: 'They have pretty much

sewn up the market by being first off the blocks. But they have become

very powerful.'

The journalist also questions why organisations such as the Tate, which

already has a PR team of five, still needs to bring the agency in.

'Bolton & Quinn are brought in if there is a big disclosure to make, or

if you are from a national and they think it is going to be


But this is public money - if the press officers there cannot do the

job, they should get some that can,' the journalist says.

The evidence from many galleries suggests there are plenty of able

people in the field, as while the artists are increasingly becoming

media celebrities, galleries are fast developing as international


The Whitechapel Art Gallery head of development and communications Kate

Crane says: 'PR in the art world is getting more professional, look at

the launch of Tate Modern for example: it was comparable to similar

exercises in the corporate world.'

Meanwhile the personality cult around certain artists ensures the

gallery equivalent of bums on seats. And with self-publicity in some

cases appearing to be part of the artist's work, it is no surprise that

PR too has found a niche.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in