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As a backdrop for an exhibition of contemporary art, 180 The Strand, in central London, takes some beating. This bleakly beautiful 1970s building, with fine views across the Thames, is the venue for the Moving Museum, a travelling project that presents pre-eminent works in cities worldwide. The exhibition, Open Heart Surgery, which opens during Frieze Week (and closes on December 13), includes more than 200 pieces by 31 artists, spread across 35,000 sq ft of the sprawling modernist monument.
The show is a significant addition to the giddy art merry-go-round spinning across the capital this week. The works are for sale and wealthy individuals frequenting Frieze London will no doubt make the show part of their circuit. But this non-profit venture promises something rather more radical. Co-founders Aya Mousawi and Simon Sakhai describe it as “an alternative organisational model to support contemporary art practice”.
The pair could be poster children for today’s global contemporary art world. Well-connected and articulate, they hail from Middle Eastern families (Mousawi is Iraqi, while Sakhai’s roots are in Iran) and boast sparkling CVs. Sakhai held a position at the US Department of State and helped launch the now defunct Shizaru contemporary art gallery in London’s Mayfair; Mousawi was assistant curator for the non-profit, London-based arts organisation Edge of Arabia, and graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London with a first-class degree in art history.
On paper, the duo look like the usual trust fund twentysomethings who swarm around the art world. But the likeable twosome say they are anything but. “We are not independently wealthy,” they insist. “We believe passionately in the Moving Museum as a concept and have made considerable personal sacrifices to nurture its growth.” Significantly, they have not yet drawn salaries from the project.
Mousawi and Sakhai bonded last year on a summer road trip, travelling from Berlin to Kassel in central Germany for Documenta, the exhibition of modern and contemporary art that takes place every five years. Then, in March, the pair opened the first Moving Museum show in the well-polished, corporate confines of the Dubai International Financial Centre. Coinciding with the Art Dubai fair, the 300-piece exhibition, called Tectonic, featured 24 established and emerging contemporary artists.
At a sparse, concrete bunker-like space, visitors were greeted by a taxidermied horse astride an azure fibreglass ball. The work, “Moje Sabz, 2009”, by the Iranian-born artist Soheila Sokhanvari, proved surprisingly popular with local audiences and it was bought by a Middle Eastern collector.
Dubai’s dogged attempts to transform itself into a contemporary art hub were certainly boosted by the ambitious show, throwing into relief the emirate’s substandard institutional infrastructure (a growing commercial gallery sector sates the public appetite for contemporary art). “Although Dubai has some of the region’s most international and progressive audiences, it does not yet have a contemporary art museum,” says the preface to the Open Heart Surgery catalogue.
London, of course, is a different ballgame – so why muscle in on an already crowded field of Frieze Week add-on events? “It’s been a long time since the Young British Artists, and I think some of the most interesting artists in London are understated in a subversive way,” argues Sakhai. Working with a network of “curatorial advisers”, the pair drummed up a longlist of almost 250 names. The 31 practitioners that ultimately made the grade include Shezad Dawood, Stefan Brüggemann, Hannah Perry and the group of artists LuckyPDF.
The range of works is impressive, from James Bridle’s “Render Ghosts”, flags installed along the building’s exterior, a protest against recent anti-squatting laws in the UK, to the 2007 Fig series comprising 80 still-lifes, portraits and landscapes by the photographers Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. James Capper’s mobile piece “Hydra Shuffle” (2013) will claw and tear at the venue – “an attempt to push sculpture beyond the confines of the gallery or museum space,” says the catalogue – while Matthew Smith will exhibit “Glam Rock Bog”, a piece as lavatorial as its title suggests.
Mousawi and Sakhai set up the Moving Museum last year as a “community interest company” (the UK government established the CIC model in 2006). Any profits generated by the young trailblazers must subsequently be “used for the public good”, according to government guidelines. Mousawi says the exhibitions benefit the diverse communities linked to each city stint, with education outreach programmes, workshops and performances forming part of the package.
Sale proceeds went towards the Dubai exhibition costs and a handful of private donors also pitched in. At the time of going to press, Mousawi and Sakhai were keen to secure sponsorship for the London show. Artists get the lion’s share of any sales revenue, while the Moving Museum receives a smaller portion (prices of the works were undisclosed).
“This is a more transparent model,” stresses Mousawi. “A commercial show is evidently organised in an explicit commercial context. Biennials are presented as non-commercial but most people are aware that there is a selling aspect on the side. The Moving Museum is neither.” Sakhai is just as candid: “The art world likes to believe what it wants to believe, pigeonholing everything as either commercial or non-commercial, when everything is ultimately commercial.” The question, he adds earnestly, is how to address this quandary in an ethical way.
The Vinyl Factory, a London-based company that produces vinyl editions, prints and exhibitions, has played a key role in the scheme. Its co-founder, Mark Wadhwa, explains that the Jersey-based owners of 180 The Strand have leased out 100,000 sq ft to his company. With plans to launch a “creative hub” in the building, he jumped at the chance to hand over part of it to the Moving Museum. Mousawi coyly says that the Vinyl Factory has been very generous with the space, adding that it has also supported the exhibition financially.
As I leave 180 The Strand, the Moving Museum’s founders grab some heavy-duty drills on site. Laughing, they ask me to take a photograph of them astride the machinery – a cute, fun image that underlines who’s driving the project. Perched on the drills, Mousawi and Sakhai tell me the next stop for their travelling art venture is Hong Kong next May. And if it remains to be seen whether their model is sustainable, it’s equally clear that this energetic duo have China in their sights.
‘Open Heart Surgery’, Moving Museum, 180 The Strand, London, October 13 – December 13, themovingmuseum.com