Interview with Anna Somers Cocks, Founder of The Art Newspaper

 

ARTE Generali

 

Anna Somers Cocks OBE is an art world force of nature. After a career as a curator, most notably at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, she went on to become an art journalist and eventually founded The Art Newspaper in 1990. After many years as its leader and editor, she now dedicates her time to writing about and fighting for causes close to her heart, in particular the Venice in Peril Fund.

 

When do you first remember falling for art?

‘Between the ages of four and nine I lived in Munich and every weekend we would pile into the car and drive to some church or monastery. I used to be carsick every time, but I learnt what the main subjects of religious art were and spontaneously had a go at painting them in my art lessons. It also gave me a lifelong enthusiasm for good Rococo. And then, when I was nine, there was a big exhibition of Chagall in the Haus der Kunst (the place where the Nazis held the Degenerate Art show) and I remember the pictures to this day. People rather look down on Chagall now, but he painted like a child and I responded to that. I have also lived intimately with “Las Meninas” because my grandmother was a very good copyist of Velasquez and her house in Venice was full of “his” paintings.’

 

How did you go from art lover to founding the English-language version of The Art Newspaper?

‘I was a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum for 13 years, specialising in liturgical goldsmiths’ work, Renaissance jewels and Kunstkammer pieces. Then I became the editor of Apollo Magazine, but I realised quickly that it had lost its constituency; it was intended for the general reader, but there is no such person anymore. Amateurs no longer have the stamina to read quite long art-historical articles, while the art world had become specialised, with dedicated publications for each area.
One day, a newspaper landed on my desk, the Giornale dell’Arte, which reunited the art world by writing about its news instead of its research or criticism. It covered everything from archaeology to contemporary art, museums and conservation, art market and the latest academic ideas, so long as the events were newsworthy and bang up to date. I thought it was marvellous and I sought out the founder and editor, Umberto Allemandi. That’s how I came to leave Apollo after three years and start The Art Newspaper for him in 1990, on the same principles as the Giornale dell’Arte, but with about 80% different news because it was and is aimed at the English-speaking world. I married him a year later and commuted between London and Turin for the next quarter century.’

 

How have you seen The Art Newspaper change over the years, and the wider art publishing world?

‘It has become much more focused on the contemporary art world as that is where the noise is coming from and where a great deal of money is being punted. Inevitably, universities are falling into line as students think they are more likely to get a job in the contemporary art world than if they study the Renaissance. It is also because schools have given up teaching history as a continuum, so large areas of art are completely unmapped in people’s minds. Older art history is still being published, mainly by the university presses for academics, but then suddenly a new thread gets discovered by the public, as with Artemisia Gentileschi, who has been adopted with enthusiasm, not because she is a good baroque artist—there are plenty of men as good as she is— but because she has become a feminist heroine. But artists have always gone in and out of fashion in response to the needs of later centuries. Just think of the nineteenth-century cult of the sixteenth-century goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini because they saw him as the heroic, romantic epitome of a virtuoso artist. There’s even an opera about him by Berlioz, but how many people have heard of him today?’

 

Where do you see art publishing going from here?

‘The sale of print books seems to be holding up; I read novels on my iPhone, but not a serious text. I hope that pointless, promotional monographs about contemporary artists will die out, but I expect I shall be disappointed. Ideas, ideas, ideas are what we want, but where is there a big mind writing about contemporary art? Perhaps it has become too fragmented along with our belief systems. I’m dying for someone to risk saying “This is good and this is not”, as Clement Greenberg used to in the 1960s—and explain why.’

 

What art do you surround yourself with at home? Do you consider yourself a collector at all?

‘I have three of my grandmother’s Velasquez, of course, and they take up a lot of space, so I can’t hang many of the things I’ve bought, starting with sixteenth-century Netherlandish prints that you could get in job lots at Bonhams in the 1970s. I do live with a very moving print of a poor, pregnant woman by Käthe Kollwitz and a largish wall sculpture of 2013 by Nasser Al Salem, who is a very good Saudi artist. It’s called “Allah will find a way out for whoever believes in Him” and it looks like a maze, but actually it’s made up of very stylised Arabic lettering. It unites the world of faith, which is very strong there, with calligraphy, still the predominant art form in that part of the world, with a conceptual and sculptural awareness of the kind with which we are comfortable. But I like it because the fundamental thought processes and aesthetic that have gone into it are different from those of art in the West.’

 

Where do you get your art?

‘I buy at occasions, such as the fair in New York’s Armory, where I got the Kollwitz from Jane Kallir, and the Nasser Al Salem, which I bought from Athr Gallery in Jeddah. I saw it when I was on one of my many exploratory trips to the UAE and the Kingdom while planning The Art Newspaper Arabia. It’s the greatest sadness of my professional life that we came within a hair’s breadth of getting it off the ground, not once, but twice, and both times something happened to stop it.’

 

You've had an incredible insight into the financial side of the art world, what big changes do you see on the horizon?

‘I’m too old to guess on the basis of the art itself; I don’t swim in those waters anymore, just as I can’t tell you who the most famous popular musicians are today, when once I could rattle off their names. So far as economic considerations are concerned, if we get Weimar-style hyper-inflation I imagine that the recent, tedious tendency to bank money in blue-chip art will be reinforced, while all the other artists will have to get second or third jobs.’

 

Christie's has just announced an NFT sale, do you think crypto is all hype, or something more substantial for the art market?

‘The words alone put you off: can you imagine saying, “Come and see my non-fungible tokens”? I am deeply sceptical, although enthusiasts say that they are no different from putting money into financial markets, but these also become unsound when they are based on fictitious values, as we saw with the subprime mortgage crisis in 2008. A work of art is not in itself worth anything; all its value is attributed and the more consensus there is on its value, the safer it is—but also vice versa.’

 

How do you see the art world emerging from Covid?

‘The British Parliament and World Health Organisation (WHO) have both published well documented studies recently that prove how making art with an artist can be of great help to people suffering in the mind.  I believe and hope that the role of the artist as a potential healer working with communities will grow and be recognised more and more. It’s badly needed because Covid-19 is creating a mirror pandemic of mental distress.

Tate is one of the institutions leading the way with its Tate Exchange, and so is the Healing Arts initiative, which is raising money under the auspices of the WHO for artists’ projects in communities in different parts of the world. I’m trying to help them, so here is my appeal to artists who are already successful: please donate some of your very best works of art to the Healing Arts for Christie’s to sell this year on its behalf

As for the merry-go-round of art fairs that whipped up the art scene, I don’t believe that we shall see anything like it again. They are unnecessarily expensive in terms of money and environmental damage and I really believe that the first encounter with most works can be made online. Then if you want to consummate the purchase, you can go and see it.’

 

You've been a fierce advocate for various causes over the years, can you tell me about your current passion for Venice? 

‘Early impressions are what have formed me. I first went to my grandmother’s house when I was seven and immediately thought Venice was the best place I had ever been. I still think it’s the most beautiful man-made creation in the world, which is why 42 years later I became the chairperson of the Venice in Peril Fund and we worked to understand the science and disastrous politics of the place. We financed a particularly important three-year study of its lagoon with Cambridge University, for example.

But Venice is like the world itself: all the scientific evidence says that it is doomed, but the vital connection to the decision-makers has not been achieved yet. We are like the New Yorker cartoon of a man falling from a skyscraper. As he shoots past the 32nd floor, he’s saying, “So far, so good”.’

 

Interviewed by: Eddy Frankel