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
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.