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Art Market

Does today’s gallery system work for artists?

27 June 2016

Representation by a leading gallery can make an artist’s career. But do commercial galleries hold too much sway over which artists come to public attention, and even the type of work they produce?


Craig Burnett

Systems only look like systems from the outside, or when they fail. Otherwise, we tend to describe nebulous structures as communities or networks, terms with positive associations. Today is an age of jet-set feudalism: a vast, worldwide court without a single king or queen. There are petty rivalries, scandals and gossip, beautiful relationships, extraordinary talent, venality and benevolence, folly and thoughtfulness, all in a precarious balance. It’s important to emphasise the uniqueness of each situation and experience, impossible to talk about whether the ‘system’ works without succumbing to generalities. But it works, sometimes spectacularly so. The gallery system is like Churchill’s description of democracy: it’s the worst way to show art except for all the others.

The head of an art school in London recently asked me (informally) whether I would speak to a graduating class about how to find a gallery. While a few curators or dealers might jump at the chance, I demurred because there is no secret formula to help catapult an artist on his or her way. And yet it’s a question that keeps popping up, even among mid-career artists. But if there is no system, there can be no method to access the system. I was reminded of Steve Martin’s advice about how to get into showbiz: ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’

Be good. There is no way to infiltrate the non-existing system other than by being very good. If that sounds glib, keep in mind that most people who go to art school don’t become artists. (A lot of them, in fact, become dealers.) That doesn’t meant that very good artists aren’t overlooked: that’s a common problem. But perhaps I’m losing the thread here: once inside, how does the gallery system benefit artists? A solo show at a gallery can be one of the most rewarding things an artist can do, with buzz and significance to rival a museum show. A gallery show is like a novel: a couple years’ (or months’) work, a whiff of the zeitgeist, a snapshot of a particular period in an artist’s life. It’s an essential antechamber to the peak of any artist’s career: the museum retrospective. 

A lot of artists don’t make it there, but it’s likely that those who do will have had a good gallery. (The relationship is often inverted: good artists make good galleries.) Each successful relationship is like Tolstoy’s family: the happy ones tend to be the same. Support over a career, advice, sales, museum acquisitions, friendship, loyalty, encouragement, patience. Even the occasional miracle of galleries working together to mutually support an artist. How does the system fail? Well, there are too many galleries now. I don’t think that helps artists. Too many huge spaces as well. Dealers might treat artists’ studios like open-pit mines, spaces to excavate indiscriminately. Galleries will compete and squabble, preferring to tear artists apart rather than work together. A lot of fantastic artists fall through the cracks. They may be too shy, their work not quite commercial or attention-seeking enough. Many a squeaky wheel drips with oil.

A few years ago, while researching the work of Philip Guston, I went to look at a painting and talk to David McKee, who had been Guston’s dealer from the early 1970s. McKee generously offered anecdotes, showed me material from the Guston archive, all with devotion and patience. We discussed Guston’s legendary Marlborough Gallery show in New York in October 1970, where the artist showed his late figurative mode for the first time, and where McKee worked before opening his own gallery. I asked what sold from the show. Nothing sold, said McKee. Nothing sold for five years, he added, until a museum acquired one of the paintings. I expressed my surprise. ‘It’s not all about sales,’ he said. ‘It’s about attention and respect.’

I love that line, and repeat it often: attention and respect. McKee recently closed his gallery, citing changes in the art world, its focus on ‘fashion, brands and economics’. But with two words he expressed an ideal relationship: if a gallery can foster attention and respect for its artists, and keep everyone afloat along the way, the gallery system will continue to be the best of the worst.

Craig Burnett is director of exhibitions at Blain|Southern.


Huw Lemney

There’s something of a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude in the non-commercial gallery scene of artist-run alternatives spaces. There’s always an eye on how Daddy does it. Visit almost any emergent non-commerical space in London, New York, Berlin, and you’re likely to find a scene of comfortable familiarity, an international vacuum. Just as the pressures of finding a lingua franca that makes diverse cultures and practices legible to international audiences has ended up producing a monolithic new language ‘International Art English’ (as described by Alix Rule and David Levine in their essay of the same name), so the pressure to be legible to the commercial gallery system is creating a system of artist-run and funded ‘feeder galleries’, which seek to emulate the tedious dominant cultural and visual structures of the market sector.

Look where these spaces are located; usually they’re working-class neighbourhoods, with large migrant populations. Here, through the cracks in the city, you find an everyday culture that people make when lives push up against each other; dirty, bright, stupid, weird: interesting. Contrast that with the spaces set aside for art in the very same streets. If you’re looking for the most drab, monotone and unintriguing spaces for visual culture available in London’s poorer boroughs, I suggest you visit one of its project spaces.

Despite many of these spaces being established by graduates fresh from supposedly daring art schools, this model seems increasingly to dominate the sector. Emulate the forms, modes, and infrastructure of the commercial gallery system, as far is as feasible, and you’ll gain the credibility to become a trusted and respected space. The effect is uncanny; the white cube, the monochrome logo, the press release. Why does the commercial gallery system retain such a hold on the imagination of young artists and curators? Just what is it that makes today’s project spaces so similar, so unappealing?

Of course, the market doesn’t provide any immediate reward in the form of funding structures or financial support for feeder galleries. As a result, these spaces are necessarily limited in scope and longevity, lasting until their members burn out, are evicted, or decide to overhaul their organisational models and find a new way to sustain themselves financially – usually by adopting a market model. This is how the commercial market reproduces itself: through the unpaid labour and ideological tribute of the young.

I would suggest that the dominance of commercial form is the result of a catastrophic lack of confidence in the belief that creative practice matters outside its important role as a manufacturer for a commodities and securities market. It is, however, possible to imagine ways of working outside this system. For spaces that manage to become self-sustaining, through fundraisers or crowdfunding, or by providing accommodation or artists studios, the possibilities are enormous; they can build and support new communities (not necessarily local ones) and experimental practices.

The proliferation of new models would require a new confidence by artists in the value of their own work and their own cultural ecosystem; it would also require a drastic reappraisal of the cultural and economic value that the commercial system can (and will) actually bestow. If a space is sustained by oneself and one’s immediate cultural community, all lip service paid to the commercial scene is a slap in the chops to that community. Yet such emulation persists, with young artists desperate for economic security and wilfully impersonating the reactionary art-dads who will ignore and exploit them until they’re credible enough to absorb them into the market proper.

Artist-run spaces should try to create an infrastructure that enables artists to control how their work is distributed, albeit within the context of a larger and more powerful market. The cultural dominance of the commercial system, however, has such influence over the imagination of the world of producers that most can’t conceive of models outside it. Infrastructure just as much as language shapes the limits of what is imaginable, and it’s a feedback loop. To break out of that loop, a conscious political project is required.

Huw Lemmey is an artist and writer. He lives in London.

From the July/August issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.