In August 1998, a 35-metre high reproduction of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night Sky over the Rhône was hung from an empty building on a busy roundabout in Taipei. Lauded at the time as an exemplum of ‘public art’, the image formed part of the marketing strategy of the Dutch bank ABN–AMRO, which also included a mock self-portrait of Van Gogh proudly holding up one of the bank’s credit cards. Strikingly successful—ABN–AMRO reportedly issued 180,000 cards within six months of starting the campaign—the ploy is no less breathtaking in its brazen appropriation of culture for commercial purposes. This is not, of course, an isolated instance: global conglomerates now directly dominate many of the structures of the art world. Seventy per cent of exhibition costs in the US and Europe are met by private sponsors, with corporate giants prominent among them. The CEOs of multinationals sit on the boards of public arts institutions, which increasingly deploy the niche-marketing tactics and competitive hard sell of the business world. Permanent monuments to corporate sponsors decorate galleries’ halls—sometimes outliving the fraudulent or bankrupted organizations to which they pay homage. Corporate logos patrol the entrances to almost every cultural space. The Whitney has become the McDonalds of the museum world; the Tate logo sells paint and picture frames; the Guggenheim has transmuted itself into a global franchise.

The close and complex relationship between the state, private money and the arts has long been a site of contestation. Chin-tao Wu’s lively empirical study focuses on a specific moment of politically engineered change within this nexus: the eighties’ shift towards a new sort of corporate intervention within the Anglo-Saxon art world and with it ‘the transformation of art museums from purveyors of a particular elite culture to fun palaces for an increasing number of middle-class art consumers’. Wu traces both the interventions by the Thatcher and Reagan administrations and the increasingly sophisticated and far-reaching penetration of the art world by the business sector. In doing so, she provides a foundational investigation, intensely researched, enlightening and often eloquent. Privatising Culture is written with refreshing directness by an art historian who, while refraining from constructing herself as the ‘other’, nonetheless brings to bear the clarity of an outside view often absent from Western art-historical discourse.

At first sight, the vastly different configurations of the cultural fields of the US and the UK make the tracking of parallel conjunctures between the two appear a perilous business. American art institutions—the Whitney, Guggenheim, Getty—are famously the private endowments of multimillionaires, members of the founding family traditionally dominating the trust. The major British galleries, even when founded, like the Tate, by private fortunes, have long been owned and administered within the public domain. Wu makes a powerful case, however, for the ambiguous status of US museums, documenting their many direct and indirect subsidies to show that, in many respects, they are indeed ‘public institutions’. Though her account of the politically sponsored corporate push into the art world often needs qualification in the American case, the comparison between the two is nearly always illuminating.

An early chapter sketches the methods and philosophy of the status quo ante, touching on the New Deal’s Federal Arts Project and, in Britain, the wartime Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts under the chairmanship of John Maynard Keynes, precursor to the post-war Arts Council—both state-funded projects whose initial focus was on increasing public access to the arts. The Arts Council’s remit—to ‘develop and improve the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts’—was reiterated in the legislative mandate of the American National Endowment for the Arts, set up under the ‘Great Society’ public-spending programme of the Johnson administration in 1965.

In one of the book’s strongest sections, Wu details the ways in which the neoliberal administrations of the eighties—under the banner of cutting public-spending costs and allowing free rein to the private sector—engaged in a ruthless reshaping of both institutions, with an explicit programme of increasing corporate involvement. In the blunt words of Norman St John-Stevas, Thatcher’s first Arts Minister: ‘State-side expansion has come to an end . . . We must look to the private sector for new sources of money. That’s where the possibilities of the future lie.’ The onslaught threw the liberal custodians of the art world into disarray, with Nicholas Serota—later the promoter of the publicity-hungry Turner Prize—voicing alarm that cash cuts might extinguish the museums’ primary activities of scholarship, conservation and education. In another echo from a lost age, Thomas Meser, then director of the Guggenheim, proudly claimed: ‘We would never rent out the museum’.