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Beyond Cork Street: London’s art dealers and the press

12 March 2014

They’re a recurring presence in the art press: commentators of a certain age bemoaning rapid changes in the commercial art market. Most recently Mark Hudson, writing for The Telegraph, penned an ambivalent, cynical piece entitled ‘Mayfair’s art galleries are going, going, gone’.

Hudson argues that while Cork Street’s beleaguered dealers are ‘principally motived by profit’, their staff ‘sniffy’ and the owners ‘snobbish’, the cultural importance of this street should be legally protected. Objectively this might be a sensible suggestion for the sake of posterity, but the tone of his article is confusing. It segues, for example, between the rhetorical question ‘If one group of purveyors of grossly overpriced products is supplanted by another, should anyone outside that glossy, self-serving milieu particularly care?’ to his support of cultural diversity that ‘includes businesses run by posh people – where only the better off can afford to buy, but which in a weird way benefit us all’.

My main objection to Hudson’s article is this cynicism. I would also contend that it is a species of support we could well do without. His understanding of the commercial gallery scene in London, its internal dynamics and the forces driving meaningful change at the younger and mid-tier levels, is incomplete.

I should clarify two personal views. First, I believe totally in the dealer. Of course, being a dealer, I’m biased. But many view dealers as profiteers, opportunists or, at worst, exploitative. It always strikes me as odd that business owners, seeking to ensure their existence from year to year and (gasp!) trying to make a living should be reprimanded for making money. It also obscures the reality of a situation in which dealers frequently risk everything (personally and financially) to keep the doors open.

Second, I find wealth-bashing a rather narrow minded pursuit. Of course, there are complex problems inherent in the art market, and occasionally both public and private institutions are unduly beholden to those holding the purse strings. But the production, display and support of art has and always will need money and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.

Almost a year ago Jerry Saltz wrote the important, eulogistic essay ‘On the Death of the Gallery Show’. This piece is everything that Hudson’s should be. Where Saltz is impassioned, despairing, eloquent, even-handed and, dare I say it, moving, Hudson is begrudging, confused and mean-spirited. Saltz decries seismic shifts in the global art market, which have resulted in dwindling attendance at gallery shows. He writes of New York, but the same is true of London. The quality and breadth of commercial shows in the city is remarkable, but increasingly they lose out to bigger art fairs as people try to reach their cultural quota in the space of a few days.

Hudson queries the future of London’s venerable Cork Street, but his article touches on a wider question – whether the traditional gallery model is still sustainable. The perceived threat to Cork Street is rising rents. I would tentatively suggest that it is a combination of outdated business models meeting a middle-aged brand of inertia that is the real nut of the problem. The cycle of gallery launches and closures is, regrettably, part and parcel of a difficult and frequently cut-throat industry. Consequently I am not convinced by the argument that Cork Street galleries should enjoy a commercially privileged position while the rest of the industry is feeling similar pressures.

Hudson refers begrudgingly to the educational benefits gleaned from traditional dealers. Yet his description sounds like prising blood from a stone, or catching crumbs from the blue blood’s table. This sits unflatteringly alongside the abundance of free educational opportunities available elsewhere in London. Contemporary commercial galleries of all stripes provide every opportunity to meet artists and learn about the work on display. Not to mention the performances, panel discussions and collateral events, or the extensive free programming provided by public institutions in the capital. Why, therefore, should we value the galleries of Cork Street when they offer comparatively few educational opportunities and give so little back to the visual arts ecology?

History has a habit of repeating itself, and perhaps in time I’ll author my own diatribe, having been moved on from an overpriced part of London, grumbling about the ‘galloping homogenisation’ of the city. But Hudson’s article – like Peter Aspden’s for the Financial Times, which I also responded to last year – highlights a problem with how the broadsheets communicate the machinations of the art market. In seeking to appeal to a wider audience they misunderstand the experiences of those working in the industry, and have lost sight of the nuances of the situation.

Related Articles:

Cork Street Galleries Under Threat: March Apollo (Niru Ratnam)

Friezing Outside: the pressure felt by young gallerists to get into the big fairs (Henry Little)