Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Education by Galleries: The Impact of Art Fairs

I was very pleased yesterday to be invited to lecture at the University Art Museum at the University at Albany, as part of their Art and Culture Talks. A heartfelt thanks go out to Director Janet Riker, especially for the wonderful introduction (any time I'm feeling abused by the art world, I'll remember that generous intro), Associate Director/Curator Corinna Ripps Schaming for the kind invitation to join such an impressive lecture series this year, Exhibit and Outreach Coordinator Naomi Lewis for all the help and insight into making the lecture happen at all, and to Joanne and Pat and the rest of the Museum staff for their help with logistics.

I also have to thank the faculty of the University Art Department for arranging what was truly a wonderful series of discussions with the MFA students whose thesis exhibition was on display at the Museum. Special thanks go Danny Goodwin, Leona Christie, Adam Frelin, and the other instructors and students who made me feel so welcome! Another special thanks goes to Mark Greenwold for his provocative questions during the Q&A portion of my lecture (again, I'll reveal what I really think in my autobiography).

One of the questions Mark asked, though, related to how much collectors know about contemporary art. There's no question in my mind that one of the added values of working with a gallery (and indeed one of the responsibilities of a gallery) is to serve a role in education, not only for the general public, but also for collectors.

Now I'll be the first to admit that there are plenty of collectors who could educate me on a wide range of artists and art history in general. Some collectors are truly brilliant in their own right and can grasp an artist's work intuitively like few dealers can. Others, however, have very busy schedules and so rely on the galleries they work with to do the research and communicate the essentials of the work they represent as part of their gallery visiting experience. Personally, I live for these types of conversations.

Having said that though, one of the issues that came up in the context of the discussion on this topic was education about art during art fairs. Because many galleries are doing more art fairs than ever before and more collectors are purchasing art at fairs than in galleries than ever before, the education part of the relationship between gallerists and collectors has migrated in part to that environment. As with every other aspect of the art fairs though, this means the education part is accelerated and somewhat disrupted by how much else there is going on. It's rare for a collector trying to see an entire fair to have as much time to spend with one dealer discussing an artist as they would in a gallery context.

This is perhaps a secret I should keep, but one of the ways dealers relax after a hectic day at an art fair is to trade "war stories." Who had the most obnoxious visitor that day, who had the most people touch the art in their booth, or (my personal favorite) who got the most unexpected question about their booth or the art in it?

Dealer friends of our have taken to texting their favorite questions around to our circle during the fair. Some classics include:
  • Did you make all this work yourself?
  • Does the red dot on that label mean that piece was judged as best in show?
  • Who are the people sitting at the desks in these booths? (they meant the dealers)
  • (Looking at a piece by Duchamp) That looks a lot like the work of my cousin in Idaho, {insert name here}, do you know him?
Of course, it remains the dealer's role to answer even these types of questions as patiently (and frequently) as possible, but, again, given the pace of an art fair, I'm beginning to wonder about the overall quality of the education a dealer can provide at one. Perhaps this quickened pace is simply another reality of our ever-faster lives and there's no reason to bemoan it (and of course, an art fair introduction is often only that, an introduction...dealers do send lots of of follow-up material to collectors they meet at fairs). But if you combine the pressure to purchase that occurs at some fairs with the smaller window of time in which to learn about the artist, I can't help but wonder what quality of education dealers can truly provide.

Consider this an open thread on the role of galleries to educate the public in general and collectors in particular. (Or, if you prefer, as Zippy once quipped...consider this an open bottle of beer...)

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37 Comments:

OpenID ericgelber said...

This seems like a no-brainer to me. My dad was a salesman his entire life. He sold burglar alarm systems, sprinkler systems, indoor vacuums, insulation, home improvement products, and of course he had to know enough about them to convince the customer that they needed them. Gallery owners need to know enough about their artists and the contemporary art world to convince collectors of the value of the product they are selling. If a collector approached a gallery owner and asked stupid and/or smart questions about the art and the gallery owner rubbed their chin and said "Duh, I don't know." they probably wouldn't sell a lot of art.

5/06/2008 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I think art fairs are a net negative for contemporary art, and especially for artists, and they cater to those who either don't have time or couldn't be bothered to look at art in its natural habitat. In other words, those for whom art isn't a real priority, other than as a means to soak up excess cash and buy a little cultural street cred. And, as you say, the education part is accelerated and disrupted. Of course, they are here to stay, although mercifully we probably won't see 23 fairs simultaneously again in Miami.

5/06/2008 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 11:46,

"Personally, I think art fairs are a net negative for contemporary art, and especially for artists.."

Personally, I've been very happy to have sold work at art fairs. It's true that collectors don't usually spend a lot of time with the work at a fair, and the dealers don't have the time at a fair to have a significant, in-depth conversation with any one collector because of the number of people around, but the exposure you get at an art fair is great, much wider than you would get if your work is in your gallery, even if your gallery is in Chelsea. So you sacrifice a little in-depth interaction for some phenomenal exposure and make some sales, often to people outside of your own geographic region - it's a pretty good trade-off in my view. Also, I've had my work bought several times at art fairs by other dealers; many dealers are collectors themselves and don't have a lot of time during the work week to go to other galleries, but at the fairs, they see all this work in one spot, and when they take a break, or before or after hours, they look around.

And then there's the fact that, as artists, we can't really control who buys our work, whether at a gallery or an art fair.

Even though I do a fair about of bitching myself, I have to say that the number of artists who complain on blog comments is amazing. I'm guessing that artists who say that art fairs are bad for artists are artists who aren't showing in art fairs, which is perfectly legitimate - they have a right to their feelings, but I think they should be honest about why they are so negative, i.e. I thought the Whitney Bi was atrocious this year, and yet.... if I had been in it, I probably wouldn't have thought it was quite so bad. Exclusion/rejection hurts, but we should try not to let it embitter us to the point where we're just snarling at everyone and crying that the art world is unfair. Like with Ed's post on the West Prize. Someone actually said about one aspect of it, "it sucks." Mind-boggling.

Oriane

5/06/2008 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The number of art fairs and the number of works under 5-years that are flipped are inextricably linked. Art fairs are only good for speculative collectors and the artist-indifferent dealers who sell to them. How can an artist's career be well-served by an environment so unscholarly?

5/06/2008 12:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art fairs are a physical manifestation of web culture. You go and see tons of work from all over quickly. (Relatively quickly.) It's great exposure - for everyone involved. But fairs should be viewed as Youtube videos and galleries/museums as feature length films. Different functions, both expansive in their own way.

So, Ed, how do you define collector? Surely the folks who think a piece looks like something their relative would do are more looky-loos than collectors. At what point does a buyer become a collector?
ml

5/06/2008 12:45:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

So, Ed, how do you define collector? Surely the folks who think a piece looks like something their relative would do are more looky-loos than collectors.

There's a little cross-over, but overall you're right. "Collectors" would fully understand the context of a fair (although a few might not know who Duchamp was).

5/06/2008 01:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ml, good point in your first paragraph. It would be great if collectors looked around at art fairs, then came back to the gallery for more intensive looking, but realistically, that's not going to happen too often. Buyers often don't live in the same city as the gallery.

to anon,
"How can an artist's career be well-served by an environment so unscholarly?"

Well, a lot of people, including curators and other dealers, can see your work at fairs too, so it could lead to other shows. Also, several galleries I show with don't insist on only showing recent work at fairs, and have sold older pieces for me at fairs. This is much better than to have those older pieces sitting in the back room at the gallery.

I agree that it would be a problem if your gallery constantly wanted the latest work for art fairs several times a year, because you'd never amass a body of work for a solo show, but honestly, we should all have such problems. If you're at that point in your career, you probably have a waiting list of collectors, (and can hire assistants to make the work go faster) and shouldn't complain.

5/06/2008 01:08:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Art fairs are just trade shows, one of hundreds every year. They exist because the dollar volume art business has increased to the point where they are practical from a business point of view. When the art market contracts, which it surely will, the current fluffy numbers of art fairs will will collapse as well.

I do not see any reason why a galleries cannot educate their trade show visitors within the limits of the time available. I gave technical demonstrations at MacWorld and photo trade shows, covering fairly difficult material. It is surprising how much information you can get across in a limited amount of time if you are prepared. The trade show is a good place for doing business, especially for making contacts with future customers as well as selling off the floor.

On the other hand, a trade show is no substitute for seeing artworks in the less hectic and more accommodating space of a gallery.

5/06/2008 01:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i'm a new anonymous for today, commenting because i'm annoyed by oriane's claim that anonymous 11:46
is an embittered complainer, whose work is probably not represented or selling at art fairs.

are your assumptions that simplistic? you review art? shudder.

i'm sure that it wouldn't take too long to find a few successful artists quoted saying something negative about art fairs.

and so what if someone thinks "one aspect" of the west prize "sucks". what is wrong with saying that? is everything so black and white for you? either perfect or a disaster?

what did you think of the ed's recent post entitled stinking lying filthy torturer?

that was okay, right? or is ed just bitter because his candidate didn't win?

5/06/2008 01:45:00 PM  
Anonymous before the y said...

meter

5/06/2008 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'd agree with the sentiment in that piece, before the y, that the confusion is actually not always bad (it suggests a willingness to learn), and so perhaps my response to looky-loos' questions at art fairs is more an indication of being so focused in one mode of communication that I can't easily shift gears, but...still..."Did you do all this work?"

Really?

Who do I look like, Gerhard Richter? ;-)

5/06/2008 01:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

or is ed just bitter because his candidate didn't win?

For the record, when I'm bitter that my candidate didn't win, I complain about the winner's economic policies. When they authorize torturing people, it's another matter altogether.

5/06/2008 01:59:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, ed, i understand. i would never actually make an assumption so stupid and simplistic.

5/06/2008 02:04:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

"art fair" sounds like a line from a George Carlin monologue

owlgod

5/06/2008 02:07:00 PM  
Anonymous 291 said...

As one of the potential collectors walking from booth to booth, I've sometimes found it disappointing when I did get to talk to staffers. Dealers working with artists overwhelmingly know what they're talking about, but you'd be surprised how many dealers trading in vernacular photographs and ephemera seem ill-informed or even evasive when you ask them serious questions about the works they're selling. I've gotten confused shrugs when I questioned them about approximate dates of origin, where prints came from, how common they are, and even whether their frames are originals or later additions. I recognize that it's more difficult to provide documentation and price points on that kind of material, but it seems to me that you shouldn't be peddling something as a professional if you can't back up your wares with some kind of intelligent conversation or scholarship about them. Is it possible that a careless and spendthrift collecting public has encouraged a minority of careless and crafty dealers?

5/06/2008 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"i'm a new anonymous for today, commenting because i'm annoyed by oriane's claim that anonymous 11:46
is an embittered complainer, whose work is probably not represented or selling at art fairs."

First of all I did not claim that anon 11:46 him/herself is an embittered, etc. I don't know who that person is, and obviously can't assume that s/he doesn't every show at art fairs.

"are your assumptions that simplistic? you review art? shudder. "

No my assumptions are not that simplistic, but in this case I did make a guess ( "I'm guessing that artists who say that") about artists who say this. And I stand by my guess.

No, I don't review art. I believe I mentioned in a recent comment here (or it could have been somewhere else; I don't remember where) that I have only reviewed one show, when assigned by my editor, and I explained some of the reasons that I'm not comfortable reviewing fellow artists' work.

"i'm sure that it wouldn't take too long to find a few successful artists quoted saying something negative about art fairs."

No argument there. People say a lot of things. I'm sure I've said some negative things about art fairs myself, such as "Scope sucks this year, doesn't it?"

"and so what if someone thinks "one aspect" of the west prize "sucks". what is wrong with saying that? is everything so black and white for you? either perfect or a disaster?"

My point was that here is someone (Paige West) offering a prize of a lot of money, a catalog, exhibition, and at least 10 purchases of art work and still people complain. Ms. West was more than gracious in her response to criticisms, and yes, I was less gracious in my response to complainers. I think that speaks for itself.

"what did you think of the ed's recent post entitled stinking lying filthy torturer?

that was okay, right? or is ed just bitter because his candidate didn't win?"

Well, if you had actually read the comments to that post, you would have seen my comment saying that, while I agreed with him on his conclusions about the lying stinking, filthy, etc., I found the use of the video he showed manipulative and counterproductive.

Anything else, annoyed anonymous complainer?

Oriane Stender

5/06/2008 02:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no oriane, you are right about everything. sorry i complained about your initial complaining about what you perceived as complaining.

5/06/2008 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

As one of the potential collectors walking from booth to booth, I've sometimes found it disappointing when I did get to talk to staffers.

Thanks for the insight from the other point of view, 291. I think your comment is spot on.

Yes, it's fair to expect dealers to know and be able to explain all aspects of their artist's works and how it's presented, conserved, and produced. A few years back, I had to confess I didn't actually know how long licorice shoes would last, but did promise (and delivered on it) to consult some conservators on the issue and get back to the inquirer.

I might draw a line here at highly specialized subject matter, as well. In Chicago I had an exchange with an art historian and curator of a major museum about the Chadwicks' work where I realized I was horribly out of my depth on the subtler issues involved in 17th Century Dutch paintings, but...I mean, I'm not sure that's essential background to understand the contemporary aspects of the Chadwicks' project (although, it did send me scrambling to do some research).

________________
As to the commenters going rounds about complaints etc. can we all agree that the absence of facial expressions and body language in this medium behooves us all to give everyone a bit more benefit of the doubt? I've heard a few folks comment off line that it's gotten a bit to negative around here, but short of turning off the comment's or enforcing Draconian posting rules, I'm not sure what to do about it.

I'd ask everyone to use your own best judgment in offering negative feedback (but, by all means, be true to your convictions). Just consider carefully how your comments might be misread as often as you can. Oh, and, go somewhere else if all you want to do is spread misery.

5/06/2008 03:00:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Ed suggests:
Oh, and, go somewhere else if all you want to do is spread misery.

Damn.

[slouches back to Pretty Lady's]

5/06/2008 04:57:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

My recommendation for education at art fairs: don’t expect to get educated at art fairs. How much can you impart in 3.02 seconds?

Don’t shave while driving, especially not your legs. Don’t knit while running. Don’t play chess while swimming. No texting while skiing.

Also, I’m gona go off on the next kid that disses Idaho. Let’s pick on Connecticut.

5/06/2008 05:29:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Just as artists need to do their homework when looking for a gallery, collectors need to do their homework as well. Art fairs offer a wonderful opportunity for collectors to see a variety of work in a range of prices from galleries around the country or the world. This alone is educational.

True, the fairs don't offer the intimacy and focus of a gallery, but many emerging collectors have told me they like this way of dipping their toes in. To overuse an already overworked analogy: it's like dating.

And my understanding from a number of dealers is that sales result after the fairs anyway.

As for ridiculous questions, this is a chestnut for artists: "How long did it take you to make that?" You can see the calculus of price-divided-by-hours taking place behind the inquiring expression--a calculus that completely leaves out a host of elements, from overhead and experience to commission and market issues. My usual response is, "It took me 50 years."

BTW, I am totally with Oriane and Ed on the issue of negative comments. I said so on the West post, so here I'll just add that pro-and-con discussion is one thing, but the bitter or doggedly argumentative, while perhaps cathartic for the posting commenter, is decidedly less so for the conversational commenters. Peace out.

5/06/2008 06:27:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Joanne sez:
the bitter or doggedly argumentative, while perhaps cathartic for the posting commenter, is decidedly less so for the conversational commenters.

Now even Joanne hates me.

[frowny]

(I'm not seriously this paranoid, by the way, but I am bored with my online reading material today. Hence my especially pointless comments.)

5/06/2008 08:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Collectors should be doing studio visits, especially during open studios. It would be much more meaningful than an art flea market...err....fair.

5/06/2008 08:03:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Actually, Chris, your irony comes across as irony, not as bitterness(to me, at least). This might be because you have found the kind of online tone that allows it, or because you have a history of posts in which your humor comes across, or perhaps it's because of the picture of you smiling--seriously.

So I still love you.

5/06/2008 09:26:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

And here I thought my new photo just reads as "Dork."

5/06/2008 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Consider this an open thread on the role of galleries to educate the public in general and collectors in particular.

What is the inverse of this? If not the galleries, who?

Consider the semantic difference between "public" and "collectors," each one will have different initial requirements or points of entry. The museums interface with the largest number of undifferentiated individuals, they can be considered to be the statistical "public" and seducible using the essences of television. Mass media rules the world of numbers, selection by statistical seduction.

Collectors are a subset of the "public," they have already declared an interest in art, implying that on some level, they have made an effort to understand what they consider art and they have made a conscious decision to acquire additional information.

To the museums, we give the public, eager but uneducated. The museum thrives on numbers, it must reach deep into the pool of those with potential interest, and seduce them with the sonorous grace of a well crafted pitch, it is pornography at its most elevated state.

The collectors, Burroughs junkies requiring their fix delivered fully packaged, labeled with only two words, "Black Ecstasy," "White Death," "Oral Gratification," or even "Bubbas Best," and delivered with the appropriate cultural cache designed to elevate desire to a frenzy. Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby, tell me what this means.

Moral: Understand your market.

5/07/2008 01:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George,

Dude, are you high?
"Oh baby, oh baby, oh baby, tell me what this means."
You tell us. None of it makes a lot of sense, but that whole last paragraph seemed like maybe it was accidentally cut and pasted in from some other piece of writing. I don't want to get into a long back-and-forth with you (I'll leave that to Franklin) but really, "pornography at its most elevated state"?

Are you really saying that about the marketing of museums? Sure, they engage, some more than others, in some questionable marketing tactics, but I would reserve "porn at it's most elevated state" for the marketing of violent games, movies, music videos and other products aimed at the mass culture.

Oriane

5/07/2008 08:30:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Museums place an emphasis on scholarship like nobody else does, and that's pure sex to me. But they've also come up with sad but true visitors statistics about how few seconds someone will actually look at a painting.

I don't know what it's like to have a gallery, but I do know how I behave. I come back. Unlike an auction or even a fair, in a gallery you can spend time with the work before you make a decision.

But even in a gallery, this may no longer be true, if in some niches collectors are fighting over jpegs before the works ever arrive at the gallery. So I am intrigued by the comment above, that the fair is a symptom of the web as a visual technology. I'm never interested in cognitive psychology as a way to understand aesthetic experience, but when thinking about these different institutional conditions it does seem relevant.

Still, a gallery needs to understand that it does do what a museum does. In giving a person time to come back, there is a huge opportunity to build knowledge. And increasingly galleries are behaving more like museums. Catalogs, panel discussions, artists talks, etc. This is more interesting and productive a thought to me than museums behaving like galleries. It really blew my mind when Buchloh curated the show and wrote catalog essays for Marian Goodman's anniversary,that is s sign of the times.

5/07/2008 09:58:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

one mid-level executive interrupted Cruz’s speech to ask, “Are you high? Because I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“High?” Cruz asked. “You mean stoned?”

“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “Smoking it.”

Everyone in the room laughed—except Cruz. (She fired the man for unrelated reasons six months later.)

Yeah, know your mearkat. jack.

Poopin it out one day at a time.

Whats tan has two tits and a yacht? Is what I'm asking. Pure class.

Bitterness is a virtue. Where's the bitter crowd?

5/07/2008 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Bitterness is a virtue.

Bitterness is surrender, nothing more.

There's no virtue in surrendering if the battle's unsettled.

5/07/2008 11:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's sad that saying "art fairs are a net negative" or having misgivings on "one aspect" of a prize are construed as bitterness.

if you think those are bitter complaints there is a long long list of great artists you would not have enjoyed the company of.

the banality enforcement on this blog is its worst aspect.

5/07/2008 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Sunlight does not reach the surface of Uranus and the pressures are enormous -- millions of times that of the pressure on the Earth's ocean floors. The temperatures are far below freezing. (-270 degrees F to -380 degrees F.) This does not mean it is beyond the realm of possibilites that life could exist there, but it makes it highly unlikely.

5/07/2008 12:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 11:36

Just speaking for myself, I think you're being oversensitive and I encourage you to let go of that. I apologize if it seemed that I was accusing you personally of being bitter. When I said "Exclusion/rejection hurts, but we should try not to let it embitter us," I meant this in a spirt of community, not divisiveness (meaning it was a suggestion about what makes us stronger as a community, rather than what pits us against one another). I am not accusing anyone and I include myself in that statement - we all have a tendency to let disappointment make us bitter and I would like to try to discourage that response in myself and in others because it doesn't benefit us.

As for "the banality enforcement on this blog," Ed allows anonymous comments and doesn't screen or preview them before they are posted, so I don't see how anybody is enforcing anything. Let's all take a deep breath and take a moment to appreciate what we have here.

love, Oriane

5/07/2008 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

George sez:
To the museums, we give the public, eager but uneducated.

One could argue that this is not what museums are for -- that in fact museums shouldn't be engaged in education or generating large public audiences, but should be repositories of the past held in trust for the future. That may not be what museums have been, especially lately; but it's worth making the argument, perhaps, that museums have gone off in the wrong direction.

It's the same question one could ask about any public institution: Should they give the people what they want or what they need?

I'd argue that museums should give people what they need and leave what people want up to the galleries. How could anyone trust a dealer to educate them in what they need? Dealers are in the business of selling. Salespeople don't care what you need -- they can create the impression of a need if they have to. Selling art is just a longer, slower, more cautious sell than that of, say, a used car.

But no matter how long a hooker lets you take, you're still paying for it.

5/07/2008 01:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Original Anonymous here:

I said "net negative", not all negative. And yes, i've been in, and had work sold at Art fairs.

5/07/2008 04:03:00 PM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

Chris - Museums produce education as a by-product of justifying their holdings. They need to explain why each object held in trust is taking up public resources and public space. Education comes naturally from those justifications.

5/07/2008 05:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just had to comment on Oriane that I'm a big art visitor since more than 20 years and I never visit art fairs because it's just very possible to hate them. The quality of the viewing is simply atrocious.

And honestly I think the better artists, the ones who don't need art fairs, are often not too keen with them, except for the part that it helps sell their second-rate works. At least, that's the type of after-party "relax" comments that some artists share in between.

I'll grant that I may be a wannabe artist, but I've said it before and I'll say it again that I don't want to ever participate in any art fair ever. It's really not frustration, I hated them long long before I even had the idea to make art myself. Perhaps I just don't need the money. Sorry.


Cedric C

5/15/2008 06:47:00 AM  

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