Reactor

Solid Gold: Serpentine’s Julia Peyton-Jones Tells Us How to Spend It

by Mostafa Heddaya on December 20, 2013

Julia Peyton-Jones as a faux refugee at a Crossroads Foundation "Refugee Run" at Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum in 2010 (images via Crossroads Foundation Flickrstream)

Julia Peyton-Jones (right) as a faux refugee at a Crossroads Foundation “Refugee Run” at Davos, Switzerland, during the World Economic Forum in 2010 (images via Crossroads Foundation Flickrstream)

In case you thought that serpentine was just a name, not a sensibility, Julia Peyton-Jones, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, has some stiff correctives for you. The first is the news of her obscene payday this year, up 60% over the last due to fundraising bonuses. The British press has been particularly unforgiving — The Independent excoriated Peyton-Jones for the excessive remuneration, noting that she was paid more than the director of the National Gallery and only slightly less than Tate director Nicholas Serota, who declined his bonus last year due to a pay freeze at the institution. The high pay is all the more galling because the Serpentine Gallery is a registered charity, does not maintain a permanent collection, and — just this week — apologized for an unpaid internship listing after activists staged a protest.

Yet on Monday, the same day the pay story broke, Peyton-Jones also concluded a five-day, five-part diary of sorts in a new Financial Times-owned publication called How To Spend It. To dismiss her deliciously-timed piece, which appears in a recurring feature called “Diary of a Somebody,” as baffling or insipid is to commit yet another grave error of sensibility. Peyton-Jones has in fact delivered a brilliant comedy of manners, Molière reincarnated in Kensington Gardens. (The work even has five parts!)

Though we cannot, in good conscience, recommend that you take the time to read the whole thing, we have selected below key passages, so that you may revel in the crystalline insights and sterling situations.

On brunching with bling:

On my return this week, I’d planned to consolidate all the connections we made in Miami, where we launched the Americas Foundation of the Serpentine Galleries to attract philanthropic support from North and South America. The launch took the form of a brunch at Casa Tua, hosted by David Webb and magazine. Exceptionally, I was dripping in David Webb gold and diamond jewelry and surrounded by bodyguards in case I decided to leg it to the nearest pawn shop (do they even have such things in Miami?) to hock the lot – literally worth my weight in gold – as part of the Serpentine’s endless fundraising drive.

How amazing are Miami’s “two fairs”?

Art Basel Miami is always amazing, not just because of the weather, but also because it’s an opportunity to see an extraordinary range of contemporary art and design at the two fairs, as well as in the many displays, private collections and museums outside them.

Making decisions!

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Jochen Volz, head of programmes, and I put wet towels around our heads and start with a list of all possible contenders.

Double-booked for Christmas parties!

I am double-booked tonight, as I also have to be at a fundraising dinner in our new building, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. Unusually, the Serpentine party is not in a low-down seedy dive, but on the lower-ground floor (far too grand to be called a basement) of a rather glamorous hotel.

I guess “the team” is kind of a drag, but titans less so:

Requisite speeches from myself and Hans Ulrich express our deep and heartfelt gratitude to the team before I have to sprint to dinner at the Sackler, which is being hosted by a titan of the business world and chairman of a national not-for-profit organisation. More speeches follow, but these are altogether more reflective: questioning the role of a leader, appealing for reputations to be built on substance rather than PR, and discussing the whole issue of trust. In addition, a question is posed: who will the transformative leader be in 2014?

Just who will the Serpentine board cabal anoint the transformative leader of 2014? Edward Snowden? Google Glass? The guy who decked that Hilton brother? Dante DeBlasio? (In some industries — among them fundraising — what follows is the thing called the “money shot.”)

I put only one name on the card we all have to fill in – that of the widely admired and much applauded Michael Bloomberg, our new chairman of the Board of Trustees. However, when all the names are read out I am surprised to find that I am not alone in my suggestion, as he has been nominated by more than half the people around the table. Feeling rather put out that my good idea has somehow been hijacked, all is possibly explained when I look up to see that the gallery in which the dinner is being held has a large sign endowing it to his name.

That was fun, but never mind — this is the actual money shot:

On Saturday evening, I attend a surprise birthday party at Mark’s Club for one of London’s best-known collectors, thrown by her husband. Tracey Emin represents the artists, and there are two of us from the museum world, along with a significant showing of gallerists who either already are — or want to become — part of the inner circle of this influential pair. The art world has changed so much since I started working in it, mostly for the better: now collectors build museums, while commercial galleries often do the work of museums, and the public sector straddles both.

Let the Dakis Joannous of the world take note: the private sector is the new public sector, “Tracey Emin represents the artists,” and Julia Peyton-Jones is less the director of an influential contemporary art institution than an exquisite performative act illustrating how irony and discretion have bottomed out in Boris Johnson’s London.

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  • Justin Neely

    I really appreciate what you do with this piece—shining a very direct light on Peyton-Jones with the help of her own words. But I’d like to add (not so much a “gotcha,” as a “you should keep an eye on this source material on a regular basis”) that How to Spend It in all its absurdly glossy splendor has been around for 20 years (for a short summary of its evolution see http://www.mediaweek.co.uk/article/1223823/financial-times-ready-global-transformation-hughes). This sort of prose (when covering art-connected luminaries and quietly fabulous others in any lifestyle-focused section of the FT) is so much the norm that it’s hard to single Peyton-Jones’ voice out as any more distant from reality (as many readers here likely experience it) than any other in their pages. Meaning what? Make reading coverage of art personalities in the FT and reporting on their public face “among friends” a regular feature? Be on the FT beat? I’ve been reading it for six years and find the experience is neither aspirational nor voyeuristic—it’s eavesdropping not for pleasure, but to understand the frame of reference in which some of these art world luminaries exist. It is arguably one in which context neutralizes what would otherwise on its face be considered obscenity. There’s much to be learned behind that paywall (including some excellent journalism and analysis—I don’t mean to denigrate the publication). It would be a great addition to Hyperallergic to provide some regular insight into how art as diversified (and perhaps increasingly securitized) investment is covered, and to give more attention to how persons at the top of this world consider (or don’t) the experience of people making, showing and reviewing art without making life-changing profits in the process. Voices can be markedly different (as you read it here!) when speaking to a presumably friendly and exclusive audience.

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