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How to behave in a commercial gallery, if you’ve never dared set foot in one

8 April 2021

I’m getting a bit long in the tooth as an art dealer and these days am entirely immersed in the arcane conventions that govern commercial galleries. But it’s fair to say that learning these rules has been a journey. When I ran my first gallery in the mid 2000s, we managed to get into Art Basel Miami Beach. Standing at the fair booth with my gallery co-founder, I spotted the American mega-collectors Don and Mera Rubell making their way towards our small stand. This is it, I thought. The moment we achieve lift-off. Mera Rubell kept approaching and finally leant towards me as if greeting an old, trusted confidant.

‘Do you mind holding this?’ she said. ‘I just want to take a look at a few of the other stands.’ And with that she placed a large handbag in my hands. I nodded appreciatively and dumbly held the bag for around 20 minutes while Mera Rubell talked to neighbouring art dealers before returning to my stand. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘It’s a heavy bag.’ Neither she nor her husband looked at our stand.

With commercial galleries in the UK set to reopen on 12 April, more than a month before museums, there are a few folk who might not be used to the unspoken rules of the commercial art world. But perhaps – like me, with no idea how to navigate an online viewing room – you’re eager to see art in real life. In place of your monthly trips up to the Royal Academy, you’re going to venture into commercial galleries for the first time in years (or ever). So what do you need to know?

Firstly, as Mera Rubell was keenly aware, there are no cloakrooms. Yes, this is tricky – the spring weather is variable and the large coat you put on in the shires might be too warm once you get to Mayfair. Do not, however, trundle round the exhibition in your heavy anorak. While a direct appeal to the art dealer is perhaps not advisable, there is always a nice unmarked corner in galleries where one can simply place one’s coat on top of one’s bag and leave it. If you feel that this is too discreet, aim for somewhere roughly in the middle of the gallery floor but beware that it might be interpreted as part of the exhibition by fellow viewers.

Don’t expect any audio tours. These helpful guides normally make sure that all viewers walk in the same direction at the same pace and look at the art for the same amount of time. In short: they are the glue that binds society together. In a commercial gallery, however, they will be disconcertingly absent. This could very possibly lead to a total free-for-all – national breakdown, Scottish independence, Meghan running for president in 2024, or even the chiselling down of Churchill’s statue into something that resembles Maggi Hambling’s statue for Mary Wollstonecraft. To counter this, ask one of your party to talk for precisely two minutes in front of each work. (Or just mutter to yourself if you are one of those ‘lone gentleman’ visitors.) Subject matter, like the headsets’ spiel, is not important. Just the reassuring noise is needed. While conversing, make sure you walk in a strictly counter-clockwise direction. Occasionally nod and make appreciative noises. Everything will be okay.

Another thing – sketchers. You know who you are. There might not be the space you usually enjoy to sit on the floor, legs folded gracefully, while copying the best-known works in the nation’s collections (and thus implicitly reinforcing canonical biases and contributing to the marginalisation of women artists and artists of colour). Fear not! Large commercial galleries have special rooms set aside for sketchers like you! Ask for the private viewing room and have your sharpened pencils and thermos flask ready. A ‘director of sales’ will often be on hand to give their informed view on your daubs, particularly if you ask for one on arrival.

And what about the café? How we all miss the museum cafe in these difficult times. Dim is the memory of those halcyon days when you could spend £15 on a slice of quiche at the RA Café. All is not lost, however. Larger galleries such as Hauser & Wirth have their own bookshops, so there’s no reason not to unveil the large cappuccino and croissant you’ve smuggled in from Pret. Follow up with a quick squirt of Manuela perfume, with its tonic note of narcissus, and a wipe down of crumbs with an Arshile Gorky cashmere blanket, and you’ll be good to go.

Finally, feedback. All museums love feedback and commercial galleries are no different. There is usually a nice leather-bound book on the front desk. Some people are shy and merely leave their email addresses so they can be spammed with newsletters – but galleries want more. If you could pen 200 words or so with your thoughts about each exhibition and what the artist could do better, commercial gallerists will welcome you back with open arms. To paraphrase our great prime minister, it is time to cautiously but irreversibly get back out there.