The Gray Market: Why Art Dealers Need to Focus on New Audiences or Risk Irrelevance (and Other Insights)
Our columnist weighs in on his main lesson from Talking Galleries 2020, the two-day think tank for art dealers.
Every Monday morning, Artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.
This week, reacting to conversations instead of the news cycle…
CALL AND RESPONSE
Last Monday and Tuesday, the eighth annual Talking Galleries Barcelona symposium rolled out at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA). And while the two-day think tank left me wrestling with plenty of issues about the sector, questions about its audience struck me as the most urgent of all.
It’s not a reality-warping revelation to say that, thanks to the broader capitalist economy it operates within, there is no art business if there is no paying public to support it. But Talking Galleries highlighted this less-discussed truth: nearly every aspect of what the art business is (or can be) depends on the size, demographics, preferences, and worldviews of its audience. Although the system is troubled by many factors, I’m convinced that one of the most fundamental threats proceeds from the fact that too many galleries are too focused on too narrow a segment of the public—and the art market, if not art itself, is suffering for it.
Let’s face facts: based on their actions, most Western galleries want to engage genuinely new audiences to roughly the same extent that diagnosable workaholics want to keep personal relationships strong—enough to talk about it publicly, but not enough to listen to what the other party actually wants, let alone meaningfully change what they’re doing in response.
What do I mean by “genuinely new” audiences? Young people who weren’t born mega-wealthy. People who aren’t so desperate to buy art from legacy dealers that they’ll grovel for basic information or languish forever on (usually rigged) waiting lists. People living outside the allegedly “global” art world that, if most of us fess up, still pretty much just means the US, UK, Hong Kong, and the handful of western European capitals that regularly backdrop profile pics in a dating app.
In short, people with genuinely different thoughts and expectations about what art should be in the 21st century, rather than the same old economic profile and priorities packaged in a different national heritage.
This has led us into a scenario where many dealers would rather fail by doing things the traditional way than succeed by doing things radically differently. After all, who can blame you for crashing and burning when everyone knows the art world is unfair? At least you won’t look like some heathen-baiting art apostate at the next dinner party.
BOUNDARIES OF THE BUSINESS
Now, I am in no way, shape, or form arguing that everyone professionally involved in contemporary art should react in some Pavlovian way to every whim voiced by every pocket of the mainstream public. That would be just as disastrous as refusing to acknowledge the desires of the wider world at all. To paraphrase a surprisingly Buddha-like koan from Harrison Ford, the secret to success is to never listen to what anyone else thinks… but to also listen very closely.
As of today, though, it’s crucial to keep in mind that the art market still primarily consists of buying and selling rare property—paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints—for at least the price of a halfway decent used car, if not many times more. It would be naive to pretend that galleries built on this foundation have no opportunities to innovate, but it would be equally naive to assume that it has no effect on their strategic options.
This reality creates an existential dilemma the further up the commercial hierarchy a dealer climbs. To paraphrase one director at a top-line (but not mega-) gallery between sessions at the symposium, where do you find the time and energy to fundamentally restructure the outlook of a gallery whose continued existence demands it turn over $70 million in sales every year? To which I would add: especially when that gallery is trying to close those sales with basically the same clients as all its main competitors?
This state of affairs should heavily influence where we look for solutions that could make rank-and-file galleries more sustainable. Although it would be unfair to say the biggest dealers never innovate, it’s also true that the rarest business in any market is one that will dramatically reshape its priorities and methods when it’s already succeeding the way things are.
Instead, the most interesting cases are likely to come from the places that aren’t consistently grabbing headlines (which reinforces that this area is one where, as a journalist, I too have to try harder to surface new ideas from new sources).
Case in point: multiple eye-opening details emerged from a session at Talking Galleries on the (problematically defined, as the panelists discussed) Middle Eastern art market. Vilma Jurkute, director of Dubai’s Alserkal arts complex, pointed out that, unlike in the West, dealers in her city do not need to consciously pivot toward the sometimes-markedly different preferences of a younger audience. Why? Because the median age of a Dubai resident is just 33.5 years old.
According to Sunny Rahbar, director of Dubai gallery the Third Line, a viable commercial art market has also existed in the Emirate for less than 15 years, meaning galleries there are often as fresh to the game as their clients.
Combine these facts, and, as Jurkute said, “we [in Dubai] don’t have much to unlearn.” That situation perhaps positions galleries in the Emirates, as well as in other less-discussed regions around the world, to be more nimble and creative with their businesses than their counterparts in traditional art-market hubs.
To be clear, if a dealer wants to try to succeed by operating a white-cube gallery space fueled by a roster of artists largely focused on creating rare, expensive objects for IRL exhibition and sale to pedigreed collectors in the year 2020, I completely respect that choice. But we should recognize that it is a choice, and it will likely box in that gallery’s business model in all the same ways it’s boxed in so many others content to live and die by the old rules of the game.
Embracing a genuinely new audience may not be the only option for breaking out of that box. Nor will it be easy, since it will require galleries to do the hard work of figuring out how to build on new preferences with vision and integrity, not just allow public opinion to push them into a swamp of reactionary, pseudo-artistic dreck. But until more dealers start taking on that challenge, the gallery system will continue to stagnate… and it won’t be the public’s fault.
That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember the words of US Army general Eric Shinseki: if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.
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