Apollo Magazine

Is this a golden age for art galleries?

Georgina Adam and Andrew Russeth wonder if changing circumstances might not suit bricks-and-mortar galleries down to the ground

Illustration by David Biskup

From the October 2021 issue of ApolloPreview and subscribe here.

With art fairs still online or rather smaller when they do go ahead – and dealers finding new ways to work together – is this a time for galleries with premises to thrive as they haven’t in years?

Georgina Adam

The creation of LGDR – an amalgamation of Lévy Gorvy, Salon 94 and Amalia Dayan into one powerful consortium – has led to much pearl-clutching about whether this spells the demise of all but the largest art galleries. The awkwardly named entity – I am tempted to call it ‘GDPR’, which is something else entirely – will see the four dealers working from a single location, reducing attendance at art fairs except those in Asia, and offering a swathe of services, from art advisory to organising exhibitions. But does this augur the end of all but the biggest galleries? I don’t think so; in fact, we could be entering a new era, not perhaps a golden one, but certainly a silver one.

When I ask the Society of London Art Dealers about this its chairman, Nicholas Maclean, points out that he has seen no galleries disappear so far; in fact the society’s membership has increased. ‘Art galleries have been through so many challenges, for instance after 1990, after the dot-com boom and bust and after 2008,’ he tells me. ‘And they have always proved resilient.’

Indeed, the latest mid-year dealer report by Art Basel/UBS is rather upbeat. Of the almost 700 dealers surveyed, 91 per cent estimate that their sales will either increase or remain stable over the next 12 months. While 2020 was a tough year, with gallery sales falling by 20 per cent, sales are reported as growing by 10 per cent in the first half of 2021, and anecdotally many dealers have told me that they are doing pretty well, considering the circumstances.

What has changed is the way in which they are doing business. The most dynamic are adapting fast and finding new ways of working, from beefing up their online presence to launching a secondary-market business (for example, Perrotin in Paris) to creating their own local events.

At London Gallery Weekend in June, for example, 40,000 people visited the 140 participants over the three days of the dealer-organised event. The model – of a collaboration between galleries based in a single city – is being repeated around the world, from Warsaw and Beijing to Santiago and Mexico City. In Germany, the dealer Johann König launched an art fair in 2020 – Messe in St Agnes (MISA). For the second edition he partnered with Berlin Art Week, and followed this up with an online sales platform, offering both primary and secondary work to collectors.

And since collectors are likely to be hesitant about travelling for some time to come, some galleries are following the money to posh holiday spots, organising pop-ups – in the Hamptons, Palm Beach and Aspen – or opening permanent spaces, as Hauser & Wirth has done in Monaco.

Another initiative that is heavily on-trend is the ‘shared space’ concept. Frieze’s No.9 Cork Street and Cromwell Place in London (disclosure: I am chair of the membership committee) offer exhibition spaces in the capital without the costs of having a plate-glass, ground-floor gallery all the year round. So promising is this concept that a similar venture, organised by the art investment and advisory firm Artvest, is launching in New York this November, and Cromwell Place is actively looking to take the model to other cities around the world, starting with New York.

One of those exhibiting in Cromwell Place is Matthias Arndt, whose art agency has offices in Melbourne, Berlin and London. He organises exhibitions of his artists around the world, and is bullish about the future of galleries, but with this caveat: ‘The new global will be many locals,’ he says, meaning that dealers will concentrate more on their backyard. ‘Because people won’t travel to fairs so much, they will go more to their local galleries, which is great because it is a much better way to see an artist’s work in depth, as well as getting to know the dealer.’

Probably the best indication that art galleries will survive is another finding from the Art Basel/UBS report. Rather astonishingly, it found that millennial collectors – defined as those aged 25–40 – spent more on their collections than any other generation in 2020, and art tended to form a larger proportion of their assets. Significantly, 55 per cent of the millennial buyers surveyed cited the ‘expertise and advice’ of art dealers as their most important role, and 61 per cent said they preferred buying from local galleries.

My conclusion, then, with apologies to Mark Twain, is that reports of the death of art galleries have been greatly exaggerated.

Georgina Adam is a journalist and author. Her most recent book is The Rise and Rise of the Private Art Museum (Lund Humphries).

Andrew Russeth 

Is this a golden age for art galleries? For a very few, large, well-capitalised galleries, absolutely. The biggest have been opening numerous branches around the world in recent years, and lately they have headed directly to their clients, alighting in Aspen and the Hamptons, Monaco and Menorca. These firms have robust publishing arms, finance museum exhibitions, and pursue ambitious extracurricular activities. Gagosian has an art-advisory arm and a sushi spot. Zwirner has backed a promising-sounding space that aims to operate at a slower, kunsthalle-like pace in New York. Iwan and Manuela Wirth have restaurants and hotels. Pace mounts digital extravaganzas through its Superblue start-up.

In short, business seems to be good. David Zwirner’s father, the Cologne dealer Rudolf, told Artnet News in March that his son had his best year ever during the pandemic. How? He was not spending millions to participate in countless art fairs.

There is a lot to cheer in all this: more exhibitions (and grander ones), more sumptuous art books, and more artists getting handsomely paid. But there are also many reasons to be sceptical.

In 2008, the Big Four had 219 artists on their roster, according to a recent Artnet survey. Now they have 366. Part of the increase is positive: market behemoths are finally diversifying their rosters. But new additions are almost always successful figures leaving smaller galleries. You cannot blame people for preferring more lucrative environments, but when these moves happen at such volume and at such pace, they have a deleterious effect on the ecosystem.

A hot artist can keep afloat a venturesome dealer showing non-commercial art, experimenting and occupying a position. Joining a Big Four gallery, they become a new label at a luxury retailer that offers a little something for everyone. (Robert Irwin and Robert Nava on the same roster: yikes!) Huge galleries host luscious shows, but despite having the means to take chances, conservatism reigns. (Note that the wealthy dealers headed to Seoul, where I live, have not rushed to sign unproven Korean artists.) And, as deep-pocketed dealers assemble dream teams of talent and boost their profiles in international museums and collections, they crowd out artists with more modest representatives.

So, to state the obvious, life for the vast majority of galleries remains precarious. Retail rents have dipped in many cities, allowing new venues to open, but how long will that last? While established dealers, like the LGDR supergroup, have discussed cutting back on fair booths, fairs remain a key way for fledgling gallerists to reach new clients and one bad outing can be disastrous. (I once congratulated an upstart dealer on their acceptance into a prestigious fair. They replied, ‘Thank you. We won the chance to bet our business.’)

Art is, perhaps, becoming like other culture industries, with an oligopoly floating above everyone else. I sometimes think of a 1993 essay, ‘The Problem with Music’, by the producer Steve Albini, which itemises the expenses that cut into a band’s profits, because middlemen keep appearing in art, promising to help dealers compete. There are the publicists and fairs. There are the flex-rental outfits: Cromwell Place and No.9 Cork Street (Frieze) in London, Art House (Artvest) in New York. And there are the online marketplaces: Artsy, 1stdibs, and, now, David Zwirner, whose Platform sells works from select galleries, with an ‘add to bag’ button (Zwirner’s commission is 20 per cent). One collector who spoke to the New York Times explained that Platform is great because ‘I don’t have time to go to every young emerging gallery’. But isn’t that the bare minimum we should be asking of collectors of contemporary art?

There are more dealers, artists, and museums than ever before. Vast amounts of cash are getting spent. It is a golden age for galleries, of sorts, but it could be so much better.

We know the genius artist with no buyers and the visionary dealer who cannot sell. If we are not careful, we could end up in a world dominated by big-box chains, immersive experiences, and online viewing rooms, mistaking simulations of art for the real thing. Then we will deserve to be scolded by an old David Lynch line: ‘It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.’

Andrew Russeth is a writer based in Seoul.

From the October 2021 issue of ApolloPreview and subscribe here.

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