The Future of Commercial Art Galleries, Part Two
The art world has shifted into high-speed. What does this mean for dealers?
This is the second part of a two-part transcript of a conversation at an artnet roundtable discussion held in May 2014 in artnet’s offices in the Woolworth Building. The moderator was Anthony Haden-Guest, artnet News columnist and cartoonist, and author of the book True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988). As Haden-Guest put it to the group at the beginning of the discussion (see New York Dealers Discuss the Future of Galleries, Part One):
This came out of a piece I wrote for artnet News [see Are Mid-Size Galleries Disappearing, And Who’s To Blame?] about the closing of the Dodge Gallery. I spoke with Kristen Dodge and Ed Winkleman. And that same week there was a report that planetary warming was speeding up, and I thought Well, everything is speeding up. The art economy is speeding up. And this is really about that. The rise of mega-galleries, franchises. And about the rise of art fairs. There’s a precise date for that, 1994. Before that, art fairs were trade fairs. I remember when John Baldessari was the only artist I had ever seen at an art fair. But in 1994, at the bottom of an art slump, four New York dealers gave a fair in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Well, that’s where it started. But I am just the moderator. Feel free to raise any subject. It’s not like there’s a menu. Interrupt each other. This is just a conversation between people.
The participants were:
Joe Amrhein: Founder-director of Pierogi Gallery, located on North 9th Street in Brooklyn. The gallery’s artist roster includes Nadja Bournonville, Tony Fitzpatrick, Kim Jones, Daniel Zeller, and the late Mark Lombardi.
Sarah Christian: Cofounder of Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden, now merged with Pocket Utopia, located on West 22nd Street. The gallery’s artist roster includes Tatiana Berg, Drew Beattie, Rachel Libeskind, and Matthew Miller.
Benjamin Genocchio: Editor-in-Chief of artnet News
Magda Sawon: Cofounder of Postmasters Gallery.
Jason Vartikar: Cofounder of Hansel and Gretel Picture Garden.
Tamas Banovich: When we started our galleries, our focus was on art and the artists. . . . And even the business part was acceptable. It was not a problem. Now you spend your time thinking about the rent.
Joe Amrhein: Which is a distraction.
Tamas Banovich: Even artists look at the space differently. And you guys (to Benjamin Gennocchio and Anthony Haden-Guest) write about the market. You give the names and the numbers, nothing else. It is insane. But at the same time I think that what goes up must come down. Suddenly they have pushed out too many people. And those people will take over.
Anthony Haden-Guest: A few years ago it seemed to me that the winner-take-all economy that is taking over in so many places was going to triumph in the art world. If it wasn’t a Damien Hirst or a Richard Prince Nurse, forget it! Well, it didn’t happen. Suddenly there was a lot of energy among dealers working with younger artists. Collectors are more diverse than the number crunchers think. They don’t all want the same thing. And there’s enough of them to support a lot of art galleries and a lot of artists.
But one thing came up very strongly from my talk with Kristen Dodge and Ed Winkleman. Mid-level galleries spend a lot of time and energy and money nurturing artists. Then a mega-gallery swoops in and they are gone. So how do you find artists? And how do you protect yourselves from losing them to the mega-galleries?
Magda Sawon: You can’t protect yourself. But to make one point, neither Winkleman nor Dodge lost a lot of artists to mega-galleries. So I think they discuss the syndrome. Look! You will lose people in this system. There is always turnover. A lot of people hopscotch. A lot of people have very pragmatic ideas about who they want to represent them. And what objectives they want to meet. Which smaller galleries cannot in all cases provide. But you will also see that galleries have only a certain capacity. If somebody leaves, there’s room! Okay? Somebody else can come. I think one very basic definition of intelligence is adaptation.
Stefan Stux: What are the crucial venues? You have to come here and here and here and here! And go through (gestures as if plotting a route)—a survivor.
Magda Sawon: We work cheap, basically. We don’t spend a lot of money. And that allows for—
Stefan Stux: —No advertisements? No art fairs?
Magda Sawon: We do one art fair. We don’t make advertisements, that is correct. I don’t believe in advertisements in magazines. I believe in social media and editorial.
Jason Vartikar: Also, I think it’s really important to remember that we are talking about real estate and location and stuff, but art history really belongs to a community of artists and thinkers, and it doesn’t really matter who advertises. Like Richard Bellamy. He lost artists. He was a total failure by the standards of these days. But he was great. Pierogi is part of our history whether you’re in Brooklyn or 57th Street.
Sarah Christian: (to Anthony Haden-Guest) One of the most interesting things that came out of your conversation with Kristen Dodge was when she said “I don’t want to rely on collectors anymore.” People say that Paula Cooper didn’t sell Richard Artschwager for 20 years. But she had the commitment to keep showing him.
Stefan Stux: She has the money to keep afloat. It’s not commitment. Money! Where is the money going to come from?
Laughter around the table.
Sarah Christian: But maybe there are other ways to make money? Maybe we can look beyond sales? As we try to cultivate a new younger, middle-class buyer.
Jason Vartikar: We can downsize into a barbecue, you know!
Sarah Christian: There’s someone on 23rd Street, Ann Moore, who is the former CEO of Time Inc. She loves art. But she’s bringing in these finance people and saying pay me $50 and I will bring in the best art adviser I can. Or art historian.
Jason Vartikar: Five hundred people are paying her $50.
Sarah Christian: A $5,000 investment is better than a new Gucci bag.
Jason Vartikar: She’s a performance dealer. She has business savvy.
Benjamin Genocchio: It’s an interesting model. But can we go back a minute? Does it make sense? The representation system, the limited number of artists that you can manage, the non-commitment of an artist to a gallery? Does all of that make sense in an expanding cost-structure environment? I mean, in a way, something has changed, but other things remain the same.
Stefan Stux: It really does not make sense.
Benjamin Genocchio: It doesn’t make sense. So why can’t the artists also be accountable in a way? Why can’t the artists who show in galleries understand that? They’ve got kids at school. They’ve got mortgages as well. They’ve got bank accounts. They’re just trying to make a living. It can’t just be about you guys, providing, providing, providing. There has to be a sense of responsibility on the part of the artists.
Jason Vartikar: I think in mid-level galleries there’s a lot more caution. And artists often get a cut after certain costs come out. Like a catalogue, advertising …
Magda Sawon: Maybe 5 percent of the artists.
Benjamin Genocchio: That doesn’t change, huh?
Magda Sawon: This will never change. And that takes over what used to be called art critical writing and thinking about the work. And the larger content of their world at the moment. It’s not happening. Everything is reduced to a name and a number.
Benjamin Genocchio: Basically there’s been a shake-out in the landscape. But that’s a separate roundtable—the shrinking media and the transformation.
Tamas Banovich: There’s an issue. The art world—probably the biggest galleries mostly: It brings in a tremendous amount of money for the city. And a tremendous amount of tourism and everything. And the city gives back zero. The city has no program, okay? If you look at Frieze, why is Frieze here? Because they make stupid money here. They just put up their tent and everything else is paid by the government. They make special things, they make advertisements for them, the city is upside down. But for us? Nobody knows about the whole thing.
Benjamin Genocchio: So, an area for the arts? A gallery district? What would the solution be? Tom Finkelpearl [the new New York City Department of Cultural Affairs commissioner] is a great guy. Nobody is more into promoting the arts to a wider audience, average people, than Tom. He’s big on community.
Tamas Banovich: But that department has nothing to do with contemporary Art.
Sarah Christian: There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors about what we all do. You know, the glamour of being an art dealer. The glamour of knowing the art that’s part of our history. And it’s really hard for people to see when you’ve got this beautiful pristine space and incredible art on the walls …
Jason Vartikar: People don’t know what we really do—
Sarah Christian: They are not thinking, oh, those poor art dealers! The art world is propelled by glamour.
Magda Sawon: Galleries throw cocktail parties! That is the image of the art world that is propelled by journalists who just cover that.
Sarah Christian: And we were talking about artists leaving galleries. And not being loyal. And in it for the money. But I think there are artists, just like the dealers here, who are really committed to their galleries.
Anthony Haden-Guest: We were also talking about the importance of some kind of art critical dialogue. And about some of the negatives of coverage. But maybe we could look at what we could do online. People like artnet. What should we be doing? It’s a huge community. And we are in a symbiotic relationship?
Joe Amrhein: What galleries would like is critical reviews. Unsolicited. That gets a lot of attention. I think the city should be helping, The city or somebody should give grants to writers to support writing. Because that’s a critical part of the art world. If the writers don’t write, there’s nothing you can do. If a city like Chicago threw money at writers to write, then I think artists would stay, galleries would grow. It would give focus.
Jason Vartikar: What you should do is demystify the art world. Demystifying it! Like what does a curator do exactly? What is their background? Why are they doing that? Like whatshername at the ICA. This is an incredible story, like how do we dealers make it? Sharon Louden just did a book about artists and how they made it in the last couple of years. There’s a great book … what’s it called?
Sarah Christian: The Art Dealers.
Jason Vartikar: The Art Dealers. It’s a first person narrative about different art dealers and how they made it. I just think demystifying it. Making it less Pop-y, less produced, less of a pageant.
Anthony Haden-Guest: That was the book by Laura de Coppet and Alan Jones?
Sarah Christian: Yeah.
Benjamin Genocchio: The truth is that there is a whole slice of mid-level freelance writers and critics who can no longer make a living. Those budgets are gone. That range of people who were sort of getting by curating shows, doing catalogues, doing reviews, it’s gone in the last 5 to 10 years. You’ve lost a big piece of that writing ecology.
Then there’s the transformation of the media companies. There was a huge contraction and that contraction is only going to escalate. I worked for the Times for eight years. My beat was shows outside of the city, all over the North East. There were amazing people doing great stuff out there. The Times would produce four newspapers a day, basically. Different editions for different places. Every place I went people would say, “Listen, we just need more reviews, more attention from you.” And I would say to them, “You have to understand. You’re going to have to find other forms of validation for what you do. This is not getting bigger or better, it’s getting smaller. The moment I leave, I don’t get replaced. All of you get nothing. You have to see this coming and prepare.” Nobody wanted to hear me say that.
Most dealers simply don’t get that this situation is really not about them, or, better, about you (to the table), the kind of shows you do or even the quality of work on view. It’s about the transformation in the media environment viewed as a business sector. I’m 44. If I were 54 I might have stuck it out at the newspaper for life. But I knew I wasn’t going to survive in a business sector that was undergoing huge, rapid transformation, no matter how good or smart I thought I was. When I went to the New York Times offices in 2000, there were 1,500 people in the newsroom; by the time I left there, they were down to about 1,000 people. Most other big metropolitan newspapers are down to about 200 people in the newsroom if they are lucky. So that’s the reality, the big media is consolidating and newspapers are getting smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller. So within that overall business of journalism context, you can begin to understand that the reviewing and promotion of art exhibitions is a very, very small priority.
That said, at artnet News today I’m always thinking about what I know dealers need. Every Friday we try to figure out the 15 or 16 shows that have to be covered, written about. It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, hopefully we’ll get an image in for each show. So is that useful to you? What are the forms of validation you can use? Or are you still very reliant on media coverage?
Joe Amrhein: In the context of the Internet, Instagram is great.
Benjamin Genocchio: Let’s talk about the Internet. What works for you guys? Promotion of the gallery through a website? Buying microsites on artnet? Keeping your inventory for online sales on Artsy or Artspace? What works for you guys in an online space that makes you happy? Can anyone see a pathway forward that’s detached a bit from bricks-and-mortar, the traditional review-based model?
Joe Amrhein: The Internet is a total party that everybody comes to. I think it’s hilarious.
Benjamin Genocchio: Daniel Kunitz, a colleague, a great writer and buddy says for an art critic, it’s like being a priest in a strip joint. He’s very interested but he can’t participate. It’s about transactions. (To Joe Amrhein). But if that’s what the art world is, then that goes in the other direction to what you are talking about, which is serious and intelligent coverage. Do you get input on the web?
Joe Amrhein: All the time.
Douglas Walla: What I like about the Internet is its function as an archive. When I put a book online, I did it free so that the gallery would discuss the Google search. And it became an intelligent way to discuss an artist’s career in depth. The other side of the web is all the marketing devices. There’s many sites like Artsy that want to take your inventory and put it online. In an older period, that would be called “burning your inventory.” I had a work in my gallery. And a man said I’ve already been offered this picture by Andrea Rosen. And I said “Andrea Rosen doesn’t have this picture.” She just had somebody come and take a picture of it and put it online and try to sell it. But the point is that for me personally that’s never going to work. The idea of selling on the net is not working.
The idea of informing people in depth on the net—that has been tremendous. Because we all like to be informed. So I would tell somebody “If you like something, if you like it a lot, try to find a dealer who knows the work in depth and try to get informed about the work you like.” But there is a kind of impulse buying which is supported by art fairs, where people just go and they want to buy something. And they buy it on the spot.
So I use the web as an information platform and an archive platform. A way of getting information is the Google search. What has helped the gallery substantially is making the information available—not by somebody talking to me. They [people] can see it at midnight or 6 in the morning.
Benjamin Genocchio: There must be some correlation with sales. That kind of information lets people see what they are buying, even if they end up buying it from you.
Douglas Walla: I went to see Stefan Stux last week. Stefan said,”I have to do some business.” And he pumped it through the Instagram. And it worked! I was with Gordon VeneKlasen who works with Michael Werner. He was telling me about Instagram some weeks ago. He said he was the advance man in Basel. And he sold 22 paintings for $11,000 apiece in 90 minutes.
Joe Amrhein: Good question and I can ask around. So do you need a gallery?
Benjamin Genocchio: Is there potential in banding together? In terms of purchasing a building? There must be a path forward. People want this. Is there much more competition now? Essentially, the art fairs are the product of a bunch of dealers like you saying we need a forum to present our work to an audience.
Stefan Stux: This is another layer than the A-list. There are also the middle-range fairs.
Jason Vartikar: There is another thing about art fairs: I think collaboration is great. And that’s what we’ve been doing. And we have really built a following. We just merged with Pocket Utopia, which is a tiny Lower East Side gallery. Then we can merge with another gallery. And another gallery. Not for financial reasons. It’s not global, in it for the money. We consult artists, we bring our clients together—
Sarah Christian: Pooling our resources.
Jason Vartikar: So art fairs are an opportunity for collaboration.
Joe Amrhein: It’s all about relationships. You don’t have to deal with arseholes. It’s not contracts. This gallery has open relationships with people. If you hold onto people, everything makes sense. Whereas, if you can’t communicate, it’s very difficult. We actually have 28 artists that we represent.
Benjamin Genocchio: That’s a big number.
Joe Amrhein: A big number, yes.
Benjamin Genocchio: I knew you guys were spread pretty wide. Which may well be one strategy for a gallery, if you can manage it.
Joe Amrhein: There’s a reason for that number. There’s a group of artists who are also with other galleries. Or who don’t produce as much work. But it all works. It’s a lot of work.
Jason Vartikar: But it’s supersmart. Every artist you represent knows a hundred artists. That’s a community. That’s a whole other diplomatic—
Joe Amrhein: —That would be for a nonprofit!
Laughter around the table.
Jason Vartikar: Which you are, in a way. We all are.
Joe Amrhein: And it’s about credibility. You have to show work that can be difficult.
Sarah Christian: How does this stress period resemble other times I’ve read about in the past? Floundering! When people have been less interesting. Is it just another cycle? Or, because of technology, are things really changing?
Anthony Haden-Guest: I remember quite vividly that after the crash in 1990, some people felt that they were just dealing with sticks and stones and pieces of canvas, flapping in the wind. They lost faith in art.
Joe Amrhein: Try 2008!
Laughter around the table.
Anthony Haden-Guest: But if you look at the specific reasons in 1990, they were pretty small. The Japanese property market. A Swedish collector dies. But now? Steve Cohen is gone? Goodbye. Charles Saatchi’s gone? No worries. There are a hundred Chinese people banging on the door.
Benjamin Genocchio: Any other final comments?
Anthony Haden-Guest: I’m not sure that’s a good one to go out on!
Benjamin Genocchio: At least somebody is banging on the door!
Yet more laughter. And Tamas Banovich reopens the polylogue, diffidently, but firmly.
Tamas Banovich: I think it is a mystification, the artists’ community, but this is also an issue. Artists are more competitive now. They are not open. Much more guarded. And that kind of restricts community.
Benjamin Genocchio: In terms of their relationships with dealers?
Tamas Banovich: No. Relationships with each other! Everybody is under pressure. So everybody spends more time on survival than sitting around a gallery, talking. Because there’s no time for it, you know. I remember a very different art world. A community. I don’t think it’s anywhere.
Joe Amrhein: We have collectors who go straight to the artist. They go straight to their website.
Tamas Banovich: That’s interesting.
Joe Amrhein: And then the artist calls us. Or doesn’t call us. That’s a whole other ballgame. There’s all this access.
Stefan Stux: Talking to dealers, one thing they say without exception is that the art world is changing radically. It’s very high-speed. This business is not as it used to be.
Benjamin Genocchio: Nokia’s entire business has gone. These businesses came and went. These were billion-dollar businesses. They came and went. Inside a decade. The transformations, it just seems extraordinary. So you are quite right about the speed of it.
Stefan Stux: Leo Castelli’s only been gone a few years. I think a whole new generation of people in the art world don’t have an idea who Leo Castelli was.
Sarah Christian: I know who Leo Castelli was.
Stefan Stux: You’re a dealer. You’re an exception. But in the art world in general, they have no memory. And I bet that 99 percent of people involved in buying and selling art, they have no idea. Prince and Jeff Koons? They know, yes. But art dealers? They have no idea! And I can say that with a smile on my face.
Sarah Christian: I agree!
Upon which amiable note the artnet breakfast broke up.
Follow artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.