By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - A U.S.-born Italian-Bulgarian curator little known outside the art world has topped ArtReview magazine's annual Power 100 list, the first female to do so in its 11-year history.
Previously topped by familiar names like artists Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei and gallery supremo Larry Gagosian, the 2012 title went to Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev best known for curating the marathon Documenta 13 art fair staged in Kassel in Germany.
An art historian who wrote for newspapers before taking up curating in Italy, Christov-Bakargiev has been widely praised for staging a critically acclaimed edition of Documenta, held every five years and lasting for around 100 days.
Some 860,000 people visited the Kassel show, spread across the city's parks, galleries, cinemas and train station in what Christov-Bakargiev likened to "an exploded museum".
Another 27,000 attended a satellite event in Kabul in a bold extension of a fair founded in 1955 by an artist who was banned by the Nazis and whose aim was to revive culture.
"I don't think you get extra points for being famous," said Mark Rappolt, editor of ArtReview, commenting on a less than obvious choice of the art world's most powerful individual.
"Art is about people who have an influence over what other people are producing."
He praised Christov-Bakargiev for the "global scale and great ambition" of Documenta, and suggested that some members of the panel which came up with the 100-strong list had argued for more commercial figures in the art world to be at the summit.
"It's not like it wasn't contested," Rappolt told Reuters. "I think the power of money is always pushing, as it were, but she was a contender all along.
"There are two strands, and both reflect the proximity of art to the real world. One is a quest for bigness, monumentality and globalization and the other is a belief that art needs to be socially responsible and interactive."
Underlining his argument was the fact that in second place this year, up from fourth in 2011, was Gagosian, with fellow gallery owners Iwan Wirth and David Zwirner in fourth and fifth.
Dissident artist Ai, who has been in the headlines for his ongoing confrontation with the Chinese authorities, was placed third after being first in 2011.
And German artist Gerhard Richter, who set an auction record for a living artist earlier this month when an abstract painting fetched $34.2 million at Sotheby's, rose to sixth from 11th.
But the biggest mover was Sheikha al-Mayassa al-Thani, daughter of the Emir of Qatar who also heads the Qatar Museums Authority which has gone on an aggressive expansion and acquisition drive to fill new museums with art.
She jumped to 11th place on the power list from 90 last year, largely due to Qatar's spending spree on some of the world's most expensive works of art.
The Economist estimated that the al-Thani family has spent at least $1 billion on Western art over the last seven years, including a version of Paul Cezanne's "The Card Players" for over $250 million, believed to be a record for a work of art.
Asked whether he thought women were finally approaching equal footing in a traditionally male-dominated world, Rappolt replied: "It's difficult to answer that question as a man, but it's probably changing more slowly than some people would like."
Russian punk band Pussy Riot was a new entry on the list at 57, recognizing the jailed members' success in highlighting the issue of free speech internationally.
And Rappolt noted the rise of art world figures from Asia and Latin America, reflecting the comparative strength of economies and culture in those regions.
"The list is more diverse than it has been in the past, and to an extent it reflects the real world more closely."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White)