Veteran Dealer Margaret Clinton on Why She Closed Her Brooklyn Gallery—and Why the Art-Market Ecosystem Is in Need of an Overhaul

The dealer behind Koenig & Clinton shares a frank account of the challenges of running a gallery.

Margaret Liu Clinton. Photo by Renee Bevan

Many in the art world were surprised to receive an email late last month from gallerists Margaret Clinton and Leo Koenig explaining their decision to close after seven “productive and rewarding years working as collaborators and partners.”

Since it opened in 2013, Koenig & Clinton had become a reliable venue for emerging figures who would go on to prominence, including American Artist, Maria Hassabi, Olivier Mosset, and Javier Tellez. But ultimately, the status quo in the art market made it untenable—not to mention undesirable—to maintain the gallery, Clinton told Artnet News in a frank, wide-ranging conversation. “We’re in a perfect storm with a very rapidly changing ecosystem,” she said.

Koenig & Clinton isn’t the only midsize gallery to close its doors recently. Chicago’s Shane Campbell Gallery, Los Angeles’s Richard Telles Fine Art, and New York’s Julie Saul Gallery have all closed or transitioned into private practice in the past year due in part to rising rents, reduced gallery foot traffic, and what some perceive as an increasingly profit-oriented collector base.

Leo Koenig. Photo by Ilka Grüneberg.

Leo Koenig. Photo by Ilka Grüneberg.

While Koenig (who established his eponymous gallery in 1999, which later became Koenig & Clinton) will maintain an exhibition space and continue to focus on secondary market sales and artist projects, Clinton says she is going take a break after leading Koenig & Clinton’s program and going “nonstop” for more than a decade.

Speaking to Artnet News, Clinton discussed the difficulties of balancing a primary market business focused on emerging artists with secondary market activity; the changing landscape of collectors and philanthropy; and the challenges facing female gallerists in particular. Though she is far from pessimistic, she is certain the current model is in need of a rethink. (Koenig declined to comment for this story, directing inquiries about the gallery’s closure to Clinton.)

“I was very enthusiastic about trying to have a cross-generational program. And I also think I was naive about that,” Clinton said. “The resources that one needs to work with an artist in their 60s, 70s, or 80s, is very different than the resources that one needs to work with artists that are in their 20s, for example. I really wanted to have some sort of viable alternative space, but you’re either tiny or have a large model. I wanted something in between, and it’s really hard to do.”

Installation view of "Steven Baldi: Life as Cannon Sees It" (2018) Image courtesy the artist and Koenig and Clinton, Brooklyn. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges, Brooklyn.

Installation view of “Steven Baldi: Life as Cannon Sees It” (2018). Image courtesy the artist and Koenig and Clinton, Brooklyn. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges, Brooklyn.

Before she joined forces with Koenig, Clinton worked at a number of galleries with a reputation for scholarly programming that eschewed established market trends, including Miguel Abreu Gallery and Alexander Gray Associates.

Clinton said the couple’s personal reasons for initially partnering—they married in 2011—“had to do with the simple circumstance of just not seeing each other very often” when she was working for another gallery. At the beginning, she said, “we were often in the same room whether we were working primary or secondary market.”

But that changed as the art market evolved. “We found that our lifestyles were changing and that frankly, there was just less and less time spent in the same room as the collectors and their markets changed,” she said. The two divorced in late 2018, but remain close.

Javier Téllez, <i>To Have Done with the Judgment of God</i>(2016). <br /> Image courtesy the artist and Koenig &amp; Clinton, New York Photo: Jeffrey Sturges, Brooklyn (installation view, Koenig &amp; Clinton, New York)

Javier Téllez, To Have Done with the Judgment of God (2016). Image courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York Photo: Jeffrey Sturges, Brooklyn (installation view, Koenig & Clinton, New York).

Their early days were not without challenges either. The launch of their venture was delayed in part because their 23rd Street gallery was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. Their decision to move further inland from the Hudson River coincided with Postmasters’ relocation to Tribeca, so they took over that gallery’s West 19th Street space.

But after four years there, a combination of soaring rents and rampant High Line-adjacent condo construction prompted another move, to Bushwick, Brooklyn, in mid-2017.

As Koenig went deeper into secondary market dealings, Clinton worked to add new elements to the gallery’s primary program, including conceptual art, video, and performance. Together, they focused on being “a very solid, mid-field gallery, but we essentially had to downscale in order to keep doing the work I wanted to do,” she said.

In order for Clinton to foster “practices that were not so object-oriented,” the gallery required considerable institutional support at a time when the philanthropic landscape was shifting. “We see the rise of the private museum and the highly mobile collector living between multiple cities,” she said. The result is a class of collector who is less dedicated to supporting an individual local art scene. “When you look at the generation of Chicago collectors that have kind of retired now, it’s an incredible group of people that are very proud of their institutions and listening and being with curators,” she noted.

Nowadays, many collectors are coming to collecting “quite late in their lives. That is a very different thing than the upper-middle-class professional who lived in New York City and went to museums and galleries on the weekend and who became involved in collecting in a way that allowed them to see the growth of a career.”

Furthermore, the preponderance of art fairs means that many people “who are encountering art in the experience economy of the art fair don’t realize that they’re in a food court,” she said. As a result, they may not understand that galleries, museums, and artists all exist in “an interdependent ecosystem.”

Brandon Lattu, <i>Column, Stella's Dilemma, Colors 1958-66, Even Progression</i> (2016).<br /> Image courtesy the artist and Koenig &amp; Clinton, New York. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges, Brooklyn

Brandon Lattu, Column, Stella’s Dilemma, Colors 1958-66, Even Progression (2016).
Image courtesy the artist and Koenig & Clinton, New York. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges, Brooklyn

For all the talk of mutual support between galleries—and she’s not denying that incredible examples exist—”I find it to be really competitive and an outdated model,” she said. Even attempts to reduce the rates smaller galleries pay to participate in major art fairs has not made a major impact.

It just fails at the level of small,” Clinton said. “There is no actual support. I have personally seen an entire generation of future female gallerists disappear due to the cost of child care in New York City, and really a lack of support from mentors and amongst each other.”

What’s next for Clinton? “It’s still so fresh right now,” she said. “I’m going through eight years of accounting for artistic production that I helped sponsor. I’m going to allow myself to have some time for the next few months. I need to slow down enough to pull my perspective out of this particular context.”

But, as always, her wheels are turning. “I’m thinking of ways in which we might be able to help artists beyond bricks and mortar,” she said. She plans to take on consulting work and continue to advise artists while she plans her next move.

“At present, I just don’t see how I can avoid the outcome of incubating artists and employees for larger galleries while trying to retain the integrity of a mid-scale or smaller-scale space,” she said, “and until our industry actually starts valuing the roots of the ‘creative supply chain’ and we prototype viable alternatives that do not rely on vague ‘noblesse oblige’ declarations from larger galleries, I’m all right with aligning with Melville’s Bartleby when I say that, for now, ‘I prefer not to.'”

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