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Deserted Halls of Commerce

17 September 2013

A recent article by Jerry Saltz, ‘On the Death of the Gallery Show’ (New York Magazine, April 2013), reads like a paean to a now dead, long defunct commercial gallery system. Yet a hallmark of the post-crash market has been a proliferation of ‘mega spaces’ in London. Victoria Miro’s impressive real estate on Wharf Road and Gagosian’s location on Britannia Street were early heralds of the present situation. London now hosts nearly a dozen such spaces: Sadie Coles at Kingly Street; David Zwirner on Grafton Street; Hauser & Wirth (times three); Blain|Southern on Hanover Square and Jopling’s depot in Bermondsey.

The city is, undeniably, in the grip of a blue-chip gallery boom, with big name Americans expanding in greater numbers to serve an international client base. A running joke in the industry holds that you need to be within 15 minutes of the Ritz to be a contender. The latest, Marian Goodman, will reportedly pay £1million annually to rent her expansive new space on Golden Square.

According to The Art Newspaper’s feature ‘The architecture of art’ (Georgina Adam, June 2013), there is a clear orthodoxy when it comes to blue-chip gallery interiors. A favoured assortment of architects (Annabelle Selldorf, Caruso St John, David Kohn, Thomas Croft, David Chipperfield) have been identified as marshalls of this austere, ‘purist’ style, in which everything is recessed against white walls, offset by polished concrete or wooden floors.

The article makes another observation: every major commercial gallery (bar Zwirner on 20th Street in New York) occupies a pre-existing building. A sense of history, provenance and atmosphere clearly outweighs a building’s capacity to withstand aggressive architectural refurbishment.

This continuing obsession with super spaces represents a contradiction which now underpins the contemporary art market. While fewer and fewer people attend gallery shows, square footage rises exponentially. On entering such galleries a powerful, occasionally overwhelming, mixture of emotions sets to work, as they encourage you to feel very, very small, and ignite a terrible longing.

The intent is, clearly, to reinstate the power of awe. When your clients have everything, go anywhere and buy anything, what language should you adopt? And how do you tip the balance of power back in your favour? A vast, silent, immaculate space generates a sense of reverence which theatrically naturalises the dealer’s role as purveyor of rare and rarefied commodities. Such raging surplus is the currency which drives turnover.

A terrible cruelty of the new era gallery system is played out among the lower tiers. It is now well documented that many mid-tier galleries have bowed out. Nicole Klagsbrun closed her long-standing gallery in New York, publicly admitting exasperation with the system as it stands. An interview between two other gallerists, Edward Winkleman and Elizabeth Dee, provides insight into the evolution of commercial gallery practice. Dee believes the gallerist must now function like an agent, working to generate opportunities, and overseeing deals which take place far beyond the gallery’s walls.

A heavy slap in the face comes from Zwirner himself, who recently gave an interview expounding the importance of small spaces: his assertion no doubt rang truer in past decades. And the question remains, should young or small galleries even have the audacity to exist in such a saturated, top-heavy market?

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