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Should we be worried about the future of small galleries?

27 November 2017

Following a flurry of closures, is the future bleak for small galleries? Or might new initiatives enable them to keep championing emerging art and artists?

Alain Servais

My focus here is on those smaller galleries that champion the challenging art which I believe is the only kind worth preserving for future generations. I will call them ‘adventurous’ galleries. Elsewhere, the thriving one per cent indulge in their safe and comforting version of contemporary art. As in the fashion, sport or entertainment industries, a ‘winner takes it all’ mentality has led to expensive competition between galleries to attract and keep those Very Bankable Artists necessary for ensuring sales to this clientele.

The gulf is widening between the demand for this art which sells and that which is critically acclaimed or endorsed – as it is between the flourishing mega-galleries (and those aspiring to join them) and the vulnerable emerging or mid-size galleries. Those galleries that are closing offer art that does not match current demand. Just look at the list of closures over the past year, which includes many galleries with an ‘alternative’ programme: Andrea Rosen, Freymond-Guth, Carroll/Fletcher, MOT International, Micky Schubert, Rampa Istanbul, Silberkuppe, CRG Gallery, Vilma Gold, Limoncello, Murray Guy, D+T, RaebervonStenglin, Kansas, and so on.

As a collector, I don’t mind that others waste money or ‘invest’ in what I consider insignificant but fashionable art. What does concern me is that the dominance of unsophisticated money dictates what is shown in ‘successful’ galleries and art fairs, and to a lesser extent at museums and biennials. I’m worried about the homogenisation of the art world and about whether a more challenging type of art can survive in what I have described elsewhere as ‘the shadow of art market industrialisation’.

In this context, the curator Jens Hoffmann’s words, from an interview with Blouin Artinfo, are particularly instructive: ‘I personally feel that the reason we are still in a conservative moment in art making is because there are all of these institutions that depend on a very traditional understanding of art. Art schools need students, and the students want to have a career and a gallery, and the galleries need things to sell, and the art fairs need the galleries – and so on and so on. It’s a system that could not sustain itself if artists were really radical and not producing commodities. I’m not saying artists shouldn’t make a living. […] But as a curator, I think you have to ask yourself, “What’s next? What could be next?”’

The second blade of the shears snapping at adventurous galleries is the pressure to market themselves towards the same public as large galleries, particularly through participation in art fairs that stretch their limited financial and human resources. Those fairs that have an interest in a diverse and dynamic art ecosystem have reduced the cost of sections – such as Focus at Frieze, Presents at the Armory Show, and Statements at Art Basel – aimed at adventurous galleries. But many such sections are smaller than they once were; like any commercial entity, art fairs have a responsibility to their shareholders.

So, yes, I am concerned for the future of adventurous galleries, but more broadly for an entire generation of artists under pressure from the market to homogenise. This hits home every time I read the announcement that another contemporary art gallery has added an artist’s estate or a ‘rediscovered’ artist to their roster. Who will be left to defend the current generation of emerging artists?

Solutions do exist. We need more cooperation between those who want to support a more challenging version of art: galleries, curators, writers, critics, and collectors (yes, they have a major responsibility too!). I am optimistic about the development of initiatives such as Condo and Okey Dokey, which allow adventurous galleries to develop their international presence through the sharing of space in other cities – although I do fear that participating galleries will largely exhibit ‘suitcase art’ – the works they can pack and transport on a plane. Art must stay ambitious if it is to have an impact. Then there are pop-ups such as Ruberta or Independent Régence, collaborative exhibition spaces that welcome galleries from abroad, and nomadic, low-cost art fairs such as Spring/Break Art Show, Material, Poppositions, or Parallel.

Maintaining variety also demands better strategic thinking and more business acumen, qualities lacking in many smaller galleries. It entails a much better use of social media to consolidate the scarcer and more scattered demand for challenging art. And finally it requires gallerists to curtail the individualistic behaviour that makes cooperative activity so difficult in this sector. If they don’t work together more, they will simply be made extinct by the power of auction houses and mega-galleries.

Alain Servais is a contemporary art collector and art world commentator based in Brussels.

Holly Willats

In 2008, when the financial bubble burst, the art market took a severe kicking – but rather than adapt and restructure, galleries in London continued to run as they had before, and as a result many small commercial galleries are now closing. Alongside this, funding cuts, ridiculous education fees for art students, and mind-boggling house and studio rental costs are having a critical effect on the arts.

Things will only get harder for smaller galleries in coming years, unless they begin to make some radical changes. Amid the unknowns of Brexit and political instability across Europe (and further afield), it now seems risky to rely on the art market to sustain a small business. At the same time, larger galleries and international art fairs only seem to get stronger.

Smaller commercial galleries could learn something from London’s artist-led and non-commercial spaces. In 2010, I launched Art Licks, an arts organisation that provides support to, and a voice for, the lesser-known activities that form the grassroots of visual culture in London. Our annual festival, the Art Licks Weekend, involves collaboration with artist-led spaces and independent projects across the city, and celebrates the contribution early-career artists and curators make to the capital.

Over five years, the changing map of this event has highlighted the shifting geography of London’s small non-profit spaces. They are far more spread out than they once were, not just clustered in east or south-east London any more but also appearing in the north and on the edges of the city; every year the map reveals how housing developments and increasing rental costs have forced people to move. Rising rental costs are an acknowledged problem for galleries, but the festival demonstrates the speed at which the city’s project spaces are adapting and shifting to keep going; how they remodel and reconfigure themselves quickly to stay relevant within the changing cultural landscape.

To mark its fifth anniversary in 2017, the theme of the Art Licks Weekend was ‘Finding Solutions’. The festival explored the different ways in which artists and curators are working together to continue to make challenging new work and exhibitions, presenting many examples of projects that were inventive about what a gallery space can be. For example, CAMPerVAN took on its namesake; three separate collectives made public parks their exhibition space; two projects used canal boats; Cypher exhibited on a roadside billboard; Word In Transit used a tube carriage on the Victoria Line; and 10 per cent of the participating projects looked to domestic space as a solution. An open-mindedness and investment in a community, of the type encapsulated by Diaspore’s Favour Bank project, is needed from all models of gallery to move forward.

Of course, these are non-profit spaces, so their motivations and needs are different to those of commercial galleries, but they share similar problems with funding cuts and rent increases. Sam Walker, co-founder of Assembly Point in Peckham (which covers its operating costs through studio rental income), says that galleries need to ‘find new ways of exhibiting that aren’t burdened with rent and all the other costs that go with having a permanent space […] Short-term projects and spaces [may] become the dominant mode of exhibiting, not just for less-established and emerging artists.’

Smaller commercial galleries could take note of the resilience and survival instincts of these project spaces. If the galleries could shake off the traditional gallery model and consider a more flexible and inventive exhibition format for their artists, then they could reshape the status quo and broaden their opportunities through new ways of working.

It is not just the future of small galleries that we should be concerned about though, but the whole network of the arts: the non-profits, too, and the artists themselves, who will start to leave London in larger numbers if things do not improve. In London, the arts have been corralled into a vertical, top-down market structure that does not encourage experimentation. If a concerted collective effort was made to change this, to reimagine things and move them in a new direction, we could support artists in a more exciting, collaborative way that would lead to a whole new structure for the future.

Holly Willats is the director of Art Licks (www.artlicks.com).

From the December issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.

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