Hitting Rock Bottom

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From the Bottom Up: Rethinking Art Galleries in a Commodity- and Event-Dominated Ecosystem
Friday, March 7, 2014
Armory Show, Open Forum, New York, NY

“Welcome to the Armory Show TED Talks,” joked Christian Viveros-Fauné, a New York–based art critic who was the moderator of today’s panel. He said that everyone onstage for “From the Bottom Up: Rethinking Art Galleries in a Commodity and Event Dominated Ecosystem” is or was involved in exhibiting in a gallery situation or with an art fair, except for Georgina Adam, a columnist for the Financial Times and BBC.com and an editor-at-large for the Art Newspaper.[1] If only the panel had been, like a TED Talk, uplifting and inspirational. When the dust settled, the speakers neither established a historical assessment of the art fair’s ascendance over the past twenty years, nor did they interrogate—and I choose this word purposefully because of Viveros-Fauné recent cynical, under researched rants—the perceived state of the art market and art world.[2] While I recognize the panelists witnessed the rise of the art fair firsthand, their recollections of the recent past were grounded in anecdote, hearsay, and received wisdom.

History of Art Fairs

In 1970 art fairs took place in Cologne, Basel, and Antwerp, Viveros-Fauné claimed. By Viveros-Fauné’s count, 55 art fairs were held in 2001, 68 in 2005, 189 in 2011, and 300 in 2014. Galleries, which he said now number about 300,000 worldwide, need the art fair to sell work. I wondered where these figures came from and how a “gallery” is defined. The first Art Basel Miami Beach would have been held in December 2001, Viveros-Fauné recalled, but it was canceled because of September 11–related complications. An upstart group called Fast Forward couldn’t afford to back down that year and consequently hosted the “first” art fair in south Florida.[3] Viveros-Fauné and Kavi Gupta, director and owner of Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago and Berlin, participated in Fast Forward that year. “It grew exponentially overnight,” Gupta remarked. Collectors back then, he noted, were more enthused about finding new art than in securing investments. Adam said that she attended her first Miami art-fair week in 2003, watching from the sidelines as a reporter. The art-market boom, when collectors ran like greyhounds to the hot booths immediately after the fair gates opened to meet their prearranged five-minute reserve, took place through 2007. The Great Recession curtailed this heated contest, temporarily.

Golden Years

Viveros-Fauné asked the panelists to talk about those golden years. Darren Flook, cofounder of the Independent Art Fair and formerly director of HOTEL, a gallery he operated with Christabel Stewart, made his first appearance at Zoo Art Fair in 2004. His London gallery, located in a first-floor apartment, was visited only by other artists and magazine people. He did not meet collectors with cash until he showed at Zoo: “We didn’t know those kinds of people—doctors in Cologne, [various types of professionals] in Los Angeles—that didn’t come to East London.” Carlos Durán, the director and owner of Galeria Senda and a cofounder of LOOP, a fair for video art, entered the art world in Barcelona in 1992. His gallery eventually moved into the German and French art-fair circuit. “I’ve been watching this monster grow,” he said. “I’m part of the monster[’s] … foot.” The joke fell flat footed.

The growth of art fairs has been rapid and marvelous over the first decade of the twenty-first century. Viveros-Fauné described the bidding wars over works of art, with people shouting higher prices over other people’s shoulders. “It was ridiculous—but it felt good at the time,” he said as he reminisced about his past life as an art dealer for Roebling Hall. He turned to Gupta and asked, “When did the idea for Volta come on?” After doing his first NADA fair, the Chicagoan replied. (They are talking about Volta in Basel, founded in 2005, not the New York event, first held in 2008. Volta in both cities focus on solo and two-person booths.) Gupta felt he was filling a need for galleries that were doing important things but hadn’t flagged the attention of patrons and museums. Viveros-Fauné asked him to describe the environment for galleries. At the time, Gupta responded, there was no Frieze Art Fair, and Art Basel was very small—primarily New York galleries showed there. Apartment galleries were gaining traction and attention, he remembered, as well as young galleries in Chelsea, Los Angeles, and London.

Despite this first-hand knowledge of recent history, Viveros-Fauné and his speakers did little to establish the basic facts or a straight chronology for art fairs, pulling counts of galleries and fairs from thin air. Perhaps an intrepid scholar will take up the task, connecting our current situation to the Parisian salons and Refusé exhibitions of the late nineteenth century and to the Salon and Gallery Cubists of the early twentieth.

Helen Allen, the founder and principal of Allen/Cooper Enterprises and Site/109, grounded her observations in the 1990s, an era when [younger] galleries were getting locked out of the bigger fairs. The Armory Show was founded by dealers rejected by the Art Dealers Association of America’s annual Art Show. The process is cyclical, and everyone tells the same story. The received wisdom is that galleries prove their reliability by showing up at art fairs for three consecutive years for face time with collectors. The art-fair model resembles the farm system of professional baseball: dealers play in several tiers of minor leagues before hitting the majors. Flook shared his experience putting together the Independent Art Fair, which he founded with the New York dealer Elizabeth Dee in 2009. Their approach was stripped down: Independent got rid of the sales catalogue (with phone numbers for galleries), the VIP benefits, and the walled booths and worked backward. The focus was on exhibiting art, and people like the approach and format.

Viveros-Fauné asked his panelists about sales. How do they look now compared to 2002 or 2003? Flook said he sold work at the fairs but not from the gallery’s physical location. But, he added, dealers who sold out their booth were “talking about a mystical city far away,” as if this kind of economic success were a myth. “An El Dorado,” replied Viveros-Fauné. “With bad food,” Flook continued. “Rice and beans,” topped the critic. I understood this exchange to mean that dealers inflate their business activity at art fairs—they fake it till they make it. Half of Durán’s sales in 2008 came from his gallery, he said, and the other half from fairs. Now the percentage is 85/15—the fairs dominate. He mysteriously thinks this tendency will change, or he hopes it will change. Regardless, Durán has become more selective about the fairs he participates in, and further hones his program. Adam believes that art fairs should serve the dealer but that dealers cannot sustain the rigorous schedule of international events. “I’ve been told that galleries are pulling back,” she said. Flook knew that New York didn’t need another art fair but felt he had something to add to the dialogue. Allen pointed out the obvious: artists are pressured to produce work for fairs—gasp!

Brick and Mortar Spaces

Are we in the twilight of the brick-and-mortar gallery? Not yet. Allen confirmed that art fairs don’t accept exhibitors that don’t maintain a physical space. Flook argued that galleries are social, conversational, and idea-charged spaces that foreground the “placement of certain objects by individuals,” or something like that. When pressed by Viveros-Fauné, Flook said that the Independent would accept a group without a gallery as long as that group had a social structure, whether online or off, that generated dialogue.

At fairs, art is seen for four days, or as a JPEG, Viveros-Fauné disclosed, before it enters the collector’s castle. He wondered where if dialogue is happening there. As a journalist, Adam doesn’t write about art fairs, whose crowded booth format and brief encounters with objects “put enormous demands on viewers.” Perhaps she hasn’t been to Chelsea lately, where visitors may spend all of two minutes viewing a show before strolling to the next gallery. The most important aspect of fairs, she concluded, is a dealer choosing to represent an artist shown by another dealer. Unpacking this echo chamber of consensus would take some time. Flook made an asinine claim that “art is an expensive product no one really needs,” taking an incredibly narrow view of art.

Most people would agree that art fairs are hamster wheels—so much energy is expended for so little yield. Someone brought up an article by Adam Gopnik—actually written by his brother Blake—that quoted the former art dealer Nicole Klagsbrun: “stop it.”[4] What can the lovers and sellers of art do? Allen described friends who are closing their gallery to start a residency (and also placing their artists with other galleries). Artists are getting into museum shows as a result. Flook witnessed the spectacular bust of a gallery (what it his own?). But with “a certain affection for empty buildings,” he cannot help but to fantasize about their potential when looking through the windows of them when walking by them. He pondered aloud about running a business without making money. “I wish,” fawned Viveros-Fauné wistfully, “there were more of you.”

Financial Speculation

Allen commented (again) on the love of art versus buying for investment, but there is money to be made and attention to seek. Art magazines have advertisements from not only galleries but also “BMW commercials and fashion commodity,” she said. Publications, however, have accepted publicity dollars from nonart business for decades. Viveros-Fauné affirmed Allen’s notion of art as financial instrument, finding a correlation between the financial and art worlds, which is “the huge, massive elephant” in the room. Adam linked luxury goods such as haute couture to the top end of the art market, where “there you’ve got commodification—there’s no doubt. The question is how you deal with it.” Viveros-Fauné also cited a rise in art crime as an indication of pecuniary worth, without providing police reports. Adam noted an increase in art litigation. Viveros-Fauné said that the public looks at us [who?] as the 1 percent, no matter how wonderful everyone on the panel is. Speculation has been an art-world subject for over sixty years—if not longer—and the panelists talk about it as if it were something new.

The panel has identified the problematic areas—really!—and then discussed the changes that must be made. A recent Huffington Post article “paints a really bleak picture,” Viveros-Fauné cried. We complain about a model that works, Gupta said. What about a return to art for art’s sake? “I don’t know,” Gupta conceded. Viveros-Fauné demanded that art should not be sold to speculators or to people younger than thirty-five years of age. What a meanie he is, with all those rules!

Durán said there are significant issues with big galleries, when an artist’s career rises. Viveros-Fauné wondered what happens to the middle tier, as if he was a politician wooing middle-class votes. Allen said that middle-tier galleries close when bigger galleries poach their artists. What happens, she asked, when artists are asked to represent a country [in an international biennial]? Can a small or mid-sized gallery come up with $300,000 to fund the project? I wonder why an invitation to exhibit in a major international showcase doesn’t come with funding for the artist, or if artists at such a high level must still work for exposure.

In many businesses in America, people change jobs regularly. Say I work for a company for five years and get a better offer for my services somewhere else. Do I take that job, which has more money and better opportunities? Why is it an ethical issue when an artist jumps ship? Does employment by art galleries offer the same kind of job security and opportunities for promotion that a corporation does? When you think about it, have artists ever been company or union men? Flook said job-hopping happens so quickly, so often, and that younger artists just don’t understand why some old guy would have a moral or ethical issue with this. Artists have a “corporation me” attitude that was unthinkable twenty years ago. Yet, Flook conceded, “You can’t really argue against it.” Applications for art fairs cost big bucks, which steer the odds toward the bigger gallery, which will win. Again, a myopic understanding of business world that pretty much anyone with a job is a part of fails because the art-world folks can’t see beyond their little sphere.

A self-identified businessman and art collector in the audience said whether it was art or a cheeseburger, he wants “relative value” for his money. The art fair, he continued, is a remarkably inefficient way to acquire art—but didn’t explain why. He wants art and access to artists (I think), but he doesn’t want to run in and out of galleries. It seemed like collecting wasn’t exactly a leisure activity for him. Gupta said that fairs are filtering systems run by the people who spend time with art twenty-four/seven. But he also encouraged collectors to visit alternative and artist-run spaces. Keeping up with contemporary art takes a lot of time.

Possible Solutions (Again)

Flook wondered what success is and how do we measure it. Value self-corrects itself, he said. Okay. The artist Theaster Gates does marvelous things with money, Viveros-Fauné said, working on projects that don’t always produce objects for sale via Gupta’s gallery. It’s an interesting model for people to wrap their head around, he marveled, seemingly unaware of the rich history of dealers, gallerists, and curators, from Seth Siegelaub to Robert Nickas, who have long operated as art dealers without a gallery. Others, such as Virginia Dwan, John Gibson, and Howard Wise, have found a way to sell art made outside, and can’t be presented in, the white cube. Progressive minds in the early 1970s were predicting the end of brick-and-mortar spaces, yet today’s dealers continue to marvel at the potential of the idea.[5] I am not suggesting that an art dealer needs to know the history of the business, but commercial art galleries are not terribly old—one hundred years or so, right? The historical amnesia exhibited by the panelists was astounding.

Durán said Brazilian galleries are sharing costs instead competing against each other. Perhaps galleries can run careers like the music industry, he offered, presumably like agents and managers instead of record companies, whose twentieth-century business models have floundered over the past fifteen years. In a conservative move, Durán suggested people become antiglobal and get back to their roots, cultivating audiences for your shows, returning to the good old days of slow culture that had disappeared with the rise of the art-fair monster. Allen mumbled something about travel, the internet, phones, always being connected, and having to respond immediately. People today don’t experience experiences in person: “They’re looking at sunsets through the Instagram app,” she astutely and stunningly observed. Flook countered by saying that, in his personal survey, people won’t pay for songs and films but will shell out $200 for a live show. Or $40 for an art fair, which is this year’s admission for the Armory Show.

In Terms Of count: 3.


[1] The panel was presented by an organization called Talking Galleries, the International Platform for Gallerists.

[2] See, for example, Christian Viveros-Fauné, “How Uptown Money Kills Downtown Art,” Village Voice, February 6, 2013; and “Art’s Big, Dirty Secret,” Village Voice, January 1, 2014.

[3] Fast Forward, Kavi Gupta and Viveros-Fauné claimed, evolved into the New Art Dealers Association, or NADA.

[4] Blake Gopnik, “Great Art Needs an Audience,” Art Newspaper, February 13, 2014. For more on Nicole Klagsbrun closing her gallery, see Charlotte Burns, “Nicole Klagsbrun to Close Gallery after 30 Years in the Business,” Art Newspaper, March 28, 2013.

[5] The April 1971 issue of Arts magazine devoted its entire editorial content to galleries to describe their approach, strategies, and thoughts.

Read

Charlie Finch, “Survival Strategies,” Artnet, January 12, 2009.

Steven Zevitas, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say, or Why the Art World Is in Trouble,” Huffington Post, February 28, 2014.

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IN TERMS OF

Reviews of lectures, panels, interviews, conferences, and other live speaking engagements in the visual arts.

 
Funding for In Term Of has been provided by the Arts Writers Grant Program.