A Modest Proposal (in a Black Box)

Solo exhibition by Vermeir & Heiremans

Pump House Gallery, London 03/10 – 16/12/2018

Curated by Ned McConnell

A Modest Proposal (in a Black Box) is a project that investigates how current approaches to financialisation could be redirected towards a more equitable model by considering the financialisation of public art collections, museum real estate and symbolic capital.

In collaboration with financial sector workers, lawyers and academic researchers, a financial model is being developed that would benefit not only investors and art institutions, but also the artists and art workers. This would create an ecology where value generated by artistic practices is distributed more sustainably amongst all stakeholders.

Seeking to mobilise the main financial asset of Pump House Gallery – the building itself, the financialisation of the gallery real estate was considered as a case study. How could Pump House Gallery become true to its original design as a ‘pump house’, leveraging all rising values, both monetary and cultural, that surround it and become a power house for the benefit of the whole art community?

The exhibition centres on the financial model, held on a USB stick that is itself enclosed within a 3D-printed metal lattice structure, The Black Box. In an accompanying video, lawyer Luke Mason recites the clauses of a contract being developed for the prospectus of the financial model. As described in the contract, in order to access the proposal, the artwork within which it is sealed must first be purchased by an art institution, and subsequently destroyed, to access the financial model.

A promotional video introduces the model and the benefits and opportunities it offers to a variety of stakeholders. The main video piece, equally titled A Modest Proposal (in a Black Box), introduces the artists duo Vermeir & Heiremans and Luke Mason debating the financial model and its possible impact.

Throughout the galleries included in the exhibition are also archival materials about the creation and realisation of Battersea Park and the Pump House Gallery building, that present a site-specific narrative of a change in the uses of land, from common land for grazing and agriculture to urban land uses, triggering real estate and land speculation in Battersea in the Victorian era.

Battersea’s transformation today seems as sudden and dramatic as its urbanisation in Victorian times. The area has seen a vast increase in investment in recent years, as it is being branded as a new cultural quarter and opportunity area. A Modest Proposal seeks to harness the surplus values thus generated and develop a sustainable cycle of value.

This raises further questions as to who should receive the return on investment: should it be channelled directly into art institutions and art workers, or re-directed back into a public purse, for use determined by democratic processes?

These pressing questions were addressed during A Modest Proposal (Symposium) at the Royal College of Art in London (27 October 2018), for which Vermeir & Heiremans invited a number of speakers working in the fields of financial geography, art and law. The contributions by Annelore Hofman, Victoria Ivanova, Caroline Knowles, Luke Mason, Louis Moreno, Andrea Phillips, Emily Rosamond were edited and compiled as essays in the publication A Modest Proposal. This edited publication also features the script of Vermeir & Heiremans’ video installation A Modest Proposal (in a Black Box) and a series of archival documents on the creation and realisation of Battersea Park, which the artists brought together for the exhibition at Pump House Gallery (located within the park).

A Modest Proposal (in a Black Box) invites us to consider the dynamics between art and the economy, and the value of culture in between.

Production: Jubilee vzw

With the support of:

The Flemish Community

Art et Recherche asbl

Federation Wallonie-Bruxelles

Pump House Gallery

Wandsworth Council

Enable Leisure and Culture

Art Council England

Cockayne-Grants for the Arts

The London Community Foundation


Reviews and reflections:

Zeynep Kubat, ‘Kop of munt: financiële verbeelding in de kunst‘, in: Rekto:Verso, August 29 2019 (in Dutch)

Dirk De Wit, ‘Naar een wederkerig werken in de kunst‘, in: Boekman Stichting, 2020 (in Dutch)

Selection overview of press, reviews and reflections on Vermeir & Heiremans practice (2009-2020)