Thursday, July 09, 2009

Dealers of the World: Unite or Perish?

A while back I reported on a conversation I'd had at Art Basel Miami Beach with a highly respected young art dealer about galleries co-operating like fashion designers do to save on overhead:
There are a few fundamental differences between how a commercial art gallery and how a fashion design company run that make this example an imperfect template, obviously, not to mention that, as one influential young art dealer I talked to about this idea in Miami noted, "Many art dealers can't stand each other."
Now I'll be the first to admit that a few art dealers I know are highly unlikely to ever receive a party invitation from me (...they're highly unlikely to see me even piss in their direction should they catch on fire, to be perfectly blunt about it), but I do count among my closest friends quite a few of those who others might see merely as my "competitors." The truth of the matter is though, that in the 8 years we've been in business I've never once seen a sale I felt I "should have had" go to another dealer instead. It simply doesn't work that way in the emerging primary market. We're not selling the same products.

Actually, I've always believed in the strength of galleries working together. From being a founding member of the Williamsburg Gallery Association to hosting regular cocktail/strategy meetings with other dealers in our space in Chelsea, I see much more to be gained from sharing information and working together than hording something another dealer will learn eventually anyway (and thus serving only to make them feel less generous toward me when I need something). It's no secret, for example, that Winkleman Gallery and Schroeder Romero formed a joint multiples publishing venture. Combined, our respective client lists have helped make Compound Editions quite the nascent success, and we've worked out a system through which our independent programing is unaffected by this collaboration.

All of this background forms the context in which I read Charlie Finch's latest column on about two dealers who missed what Charlie felt was an obvious opportunity to work out a mutally beneficial arrangement:
Funnily enough, the best solution was always right in front of them: a merger of operations between Dealers A and B, which would have led to reduced debts, a bigger and better space and continued employment for dozens of artists. But each was too monumentally self-involved to consider the temporary sacrifice of ego necessary for such a sensible solution.
Now I've heard that advice from business types before...that mom-and-pop galleries will have to suck it up and join forces to compete in the global economy and current recession. The biggest stumbling block there, of course, (aside from dealers not being able to stand each other) is identity. If you've carved out a niche for yourself, it's not at all attractive to water that down. Moreover, galleries are usually selling more than simply the art on their walls...they are often selling a point of view and in some instances they're actually selling a life-style. (I know of the director of one gallery, for example, who on his first day at a well-known space had someone walk in and say "A friend of mine came in here recently and spent $83,000 on a painting....I want one that costs $84,000." Mind you, that happened during the boom, but it still illustrates that what that man was buying had nothing to do with art.)

Still, Charlie's cautionary tale bears consideration:
Dealer A, a veteran expert in a certain esthetic field, has had a rather sketchy career, filled with abrupt gallery closings, fights with prominent collector backers and court battles over estate representations. Dealer B, a cutting edge type, has kinky tastes in private life, a domineering approach to artists and spends money like water.

Both have had their share of curatorial triumphs, but each is not quite at the top rank in their respective fields, because of a tendency to bentness. Now dealer B long ago fell behind on the rent, and, despite faking nice-nice with the landlord, was under severe pressure from said landlord to cough up or move out. Dealer A proposes a solution: If Dealer B will "lend" Dealer B's most prominent artist to Dealer A for a career survey show, Dealer A will pay off some, but not all, of Dealer B's rent debt.

The artist in question is a tempermental piece of work, but acquiesces, particularly since Dealer A, with a mysterious sudden infusion of cash, is expanding operations. Now Dealer A, fully aware of Dealer B's profligate spending habits, gives Dealer B just enough cash to keep Dealer B's space open throughout the period of Tempermental Artist's boffo show at Dealer A's deluxe space. Soon enough, Dealer B closes, throwing a huge stable of artists onto the street, who will be in demand from other galleries, putting career pressure on the whole food chain of artists all the way down the line.

Other than the fun folks are going to have trying to suss out who's Dealer A and who's Dealer B, I think Charlie has done the gallery world a huge favor with this piece. Indeed, each time a well-known gallery goes under (as opposed to finding some other way of staying afloat), it does put pressure on the artist food chain all the way down and sends chills through the gallery system as well. It's not for me to suggest other gallerists owe the art world anything, mind you, but I do wonder whether more collaboration among dealers, more exchanging of war stories and "what worked" or "what didn't" might not reveal how much more we have to gain by joining forces and facilitate creative solutions to individual situations.

Labels: gallery business models


Blogger zipthwung said...

A while back I posted that I thought the art world encouraged a divide and conquer mentality - that galleries (as well as professionally competitive professors and apparatchiks) were part of the problem and that artists are often the victims - even as they participate or perpetrate. I still think this is true, both on the playground and off.

It is a well known fact that anytime there is little to go around that animals will turn on each other.

If there was little to go around for most artists even during the boom, there is even less during the manufactured, dare I say premeditated, drought (paranoia is better than being a total tool right?).

Scientists who experiment on monkeys notice that if there are a bunch of monkeys in a cage they will push the weakest monkey towards the door when it is time to select a subject.

We know that this sort of group behavior exists in tool makingopposable thumbed, speech using, self reflexive, soul filled humans, though possibly more complex due to copycat mechanisms.

I was watching some exerpts from "Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS" and it definitely brought to my mind the idea that catering to collectors is not necessarily about "art" in the sense of personal expression.

Maybe personal expression is out of date as a concept. We live in networked times - a self policing police state. Jeremy Bentham would be ecstatic!

But the solution is not socialism - we don't want everybody to get rewarded for bending wire into animals or mixing grease into an olive green-grey.

We want a meritocracy in which the best art gets presented to the comandante so that at least a few of the most obsequious sycophants will get more than thin gruel and possibly a movie before being returned to the cage for Darwinian punishment (or fawning glory!)

Red of tooth and claw!

7/09/2009 11:39:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Uh...try reading the thread again,'s actually NOT about you (and by "you," I mean the pathologically victimized starving artist you try so hard to personify).

paranoia is better than being a total tool right

There's no ground in between for you?

7/09/2009 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7/09/2009 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Ed, you can be somewhat didactic in the manner of the best administrative types. In the context of your post, I believe I am describing an ecosystem, not just a simple victim-victimizer scenario, although that's included, and pretty hot (Andrea Frazier!) for some people (value added), it is hardly a paradigm that will move art forward (anti-fascism is a lot more complex nowadays - as Macnamara's foggy bottomed corpse! Ask Foucault's pendulous pendulum!).

The middle ground is between two electrified fences and mined as far as I'm concerned. Which is to say, yeah, you can go, but unless you have money to blow, suck it up and stay home and make art by yourself, you'll be happier.

Now lets think outside the terrarium! Did you invite Larry Gagosian to your last party? Barbara Gladstone? Mary Boone? Did they RSVP?

I count these people as some of the best capos in the biz! A rising tent pole doesn't matter to me - the tide is red red red and very very high!

7/09/2009 12:12:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

I think this can work for artists, too. Personally, I love collaborating on art anyhow - and do it all the time - but it can also mean a lot when the going gets tough. In terms of production, shared resources and time; in terms of sales, shared gallery connections or - as the case may be - client lists for direct sales. I find it usually does not affect individual sales (kind of like your joint publishing venture, Ed), and the prices (again like yours, Ed) can differ greatly from one's normal pricing if the work and times and collaborator call for it. (I've been re-looking at lowering my prices anyhow, especially since one of the galleries I work with is closing down very soon, and we had different ideas about where my work should be priced; this collaboration gives me an opportunity to test a more reasonable dollar sign before taking the plunge overall).
Even if you don't collaborate on actual work, one can think about it for shows, too. I'm a big fan of the "duo" show. It means more than a group (I in fact list my duo and solo shows together on my CV), and again, more people, more buyers, more interest, more to talk about, shared resources....

7/09/2009 12:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been on the streets of Chelsea one time and I have to say it's like another world. Each door to a new gallery is like a wormhole into another dimension.

I don't care to mention names but some galleries stink of arrogance and a foul air of elitism permeates the whole space, which enhances or smothers the work depending on your view. Other galleries truly showcase the artist and put the work at the forefront and you hardly notice the institutional setting, because the work is allowed to shine.

Taking into account this outsider perspective it seems hard to imagine the too many galleries would benefit from working together.

However, as was noted in the Darwin post, I think that an element of cooperation would definitely promote the continued survival of the gallery species.

I imagine that the 28th street warehouse style building (where Winkleman is located) would cost a fortune, but if enough galleries were able to put the capital together, I think that space would make an amazing art complex.

Just some thoughts-

7/09/2009 12:31:00 PM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I tend to agree - even outside the art world, a competitor having a layoff or going into bankruptcy, or liquidation makes the industry as a whole weaker, short term anyway. And creates waves of disruption up and down the food chain.

A mutual support group makes sense to me - especially since galleries compete with each other for money, but the works are so different that they do not directly compete. Especially when it allows everyone to hone their business model and become stronger. Well at least have the benefit of other's experience to draw upon.

(In the bad old days of the 90's when I was working at rather small companies, the venture capital people would usually offer a lot of experienced people to help nascent corporate leaders to maximize the chances of the company to be successful)

7/09/2009 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

... i still can't wrap my head around how much paint and canvas one could by for 83k ...

7/09/2009 02:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

can I quote you?

Now I'll be the first to admit that a few art dealers I know are highly unlikely to ever receive a party invitation from me (...they're highly unlikely to see me even piss in their direction should they catch on fire, to be perfectly blunt about it)

7/09/2009 03:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

++they're highly unlikely to see ++me even piss in their direction ++should they catch on fire

Wow, I don't think I ever hated people this much. The Star Spangled Banner singer already ran its curve? Would piss help anyway?
You only have to scream "roll on the floor, you fool, roll!". That's it. Not really a big effort there.

++$83,000 on a painting....I want ++one that costs $84,000.

Oh, what a cheap ass! When you play this game you have to double or triple the price.

But unfortunately a lot of the art
sell for reasons like that, and ultimately it's the artist's fault if they aren't able to move a viewer upper their exaggerated level of vanity.

+++We want a meritocracy

You might be favoritizing natural talent, intelligence, beauty, and the healthy, which have nothing to do about merit, but about animals showing their teeths. Meritocracy is precarious because they are
not enough people in position of knowing who should merit, hencewhy you end up with phenomenas like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt being at the top of your meritocrat tower (the mass treat them like cultural gods).

I think you need a little everything: some socialism and some merito. I mean, regardless of what I think, meritos are eventually going to eat a little dust because of the amount of non-meritos vs meritos in a future
where poverty increase at an alarming rates. The meritos are better now to find ways fast to help this situation if they want to
keep their position as meritos.

Cedric Casp

7/09/2009 07:38:00 PM  
Anonymous eeee red(head) said...

you are right on the money, ed, and i liked your faux marxian "of the world unite" paraphrase. i think what you say has more to do with social organization and principles of communitarianism , less with just art gallery models(of which i confess i know little or nothing about.) belief in oneself, and in ones work and oneself as an evolving oeuvre (pardon the pomposity: use of French) coupled with a generosity of spirit and belief in shared purpose and values may lead to some expected and unexpected results, much of them good for all we know, lacking prescience. self-help and selfish help must make for loneliness, for dead ends. by helping others we help ourself and create synergies. i look forward to this new order, if you will, as an artist, as a human (categories that one hopes are not mutually exclusive.) cheers,

7/10/2009 12:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam, in a low whisper said...

as a business model collaboration isn’t all that far out there: ,

airlines have alliances for feeder routes, sports teams have farm clubs, banks have credit cards, auto manufacturers have offered foreign manufacturer models under their brand name (okay not a great example), retailers participate in "air mile" schemes, ...

so you're right that likely there are scenarios where collaborative business models can profit mutually.

7/10/2009 06:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

mulling on the idea of farm teams in the professional sports ... could something like this collaborative concept be of value in art world?

In this period of access to abundance, the value of a "filter" mechanism to choose among that breadth of choice becomes clear. Goggle’s search engine has moved beyond getting access to all the answers, and is now geared towards filtering those choices to the answers most likely of value to you. (Whether they are successful at that is something else)

So what if a "consortium" of galleries, offered their expertise as the gate keepers of a website that vetted artworks below a given price range that then are offered to sale over the web. (With a really minimal % return to the consortium) The participating artists could then be mentored as a farm team, and when a achieving a given success rate or interest, the opportunity of a gallery of the consortium to "draft" the artist becomes available. So art works of a given standard, below a given price point, are offered to an audience that is able to learn "discernment" while giving the consortium a "roster” of artists that might one day "cherry pick" potentially more lucrative artists.

Being a site based on artworks and not artists, gallery artists could also participate at the requisite price point and standards, but the return for the participating gallery isn't so much a return on the sales, but the possibility of establishing a knowledgeable buying public which can mature to the gallery circuit (think long term here) and as well the possibility to draft interesting artists without the risks of "first" shows The artists gets the sale, some exposure, contacts with the consortium members and the possibility (but not a requirement) to move towards gallery representation from a member of the consortium . Being restricted to the Internet, and restricted in price range, this commercial venture would not compete with the consortium member’s galleries. Possible mutual benefits to galleries, the public and artists all around. The art site could be focused regionally, or by style, or any other measure. The key is the professional level of filtering offered by the consortium gallerists and curators.

7/10/2009 06:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

in all seriousness

do galleries give air mile points?

(yes I know this won't make the sale, but it might help close it along with the gazillion other more professional considerations)

7/10/2009 07:05:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

Gam -

I heard of one gallery offering some credit towards future purchases from them for sales. I have no idea how well it is working for them, but it is interesting nonetheless.

7/10/2009 09:52:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

83,000 ha, that's not even in my vocabulary. Reminds me of the "Art" thing Alan Alda was in where he buys an all white (i.e. Ryman) painting and gets ridiculed for it.

How droll.

I like the idea of a credit card - lots of people are talking about a cashless society - why not use electronic cash? You would need some centralized system of control.

That way, you could have "work for sale" but without using such low class schemes as layaway plans.
And without value, art would simply be a 0 sum commodity for purposes of taxation.

I'm sure most artists and gallerists are using pay as you go phones and land lines now right? Skype?

Why not start an artist only walkie-talkie net? Tin can + string? No need for a bicycle or subway. It would save money, and in this economy lets get real, most artists are eating rice and beans and suffering mightily for it, or is that just me?

7/10/2009 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Neurartic posted back in April about an initiative in the UK for interest free loans:
But I doubt it is the interest rates that are making buyers hesitant.

Zip, I was just wondering out loud what makes people still make purchases elsewhere and then looking to see if that rational an appropriate fit for the arts market. -I’d hate to see phosphorescent stickers on art indicating they are on special. Yet I could see an artist offering to write a dedication on the back of a work of art (pay more for the front?) if the purchase was for a gift – similar to a book signing.

7/10/2009 10:46:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for all these suggestions, folks.

Actually been working on some new initiative (just an experiment) and many of your comments have been helpful. Will announce it later today.


7/10/2009 10:50:00 AM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

Dedications are a good idea.

You could also sell a work at a discount but not sign it. Unsigned works are not "legit" right? Imagine the horror when a collector gets the (inferior) work and realizes that "X" is the real signature and that "BillyBob" is the joke! (Burnt bridges aside - we don't like Mr. 84,000, do we?).

I have trouble finishing work - but I see that many artists (painters and sculptors) get around this by making work with an indeterminate completion - i mean it's usually what the work is about, formally and conceptually, but still, closure is a real issue (beyond anti-esthetics or arte pauvera (poor art=richard tuttle et al)) -

Most artists need economic ways of making work, which influences scale and medium as well as process. It simply takes much more time to make some kinds of work.

AN interesting twist on this is Tara DOnovan who is one step up from arte pauvera but through repetition turns it into an exercise in wealth (1 million cups vs. 1 used cup off the street)

True arte pauvera might be simulation (as Ed mentioned). Instead of Tara DOnovan we have a 3-d Chris Jordan.

"telepresence" (advanced/holographic video conferencing) is a real phenomenon in the corporate world and I can see it becoming one in Chelsea and the art world at large.

Gallerists who want to collaborate - as with limited editions might think prints are the way to go (prints=inexpensive) But prints are relatively expensive compared to some kinds of painting, which can be inexpensive as well to produce (time+materials+overhead) - I could make an acrylic (house paint) painting that someone might like in a few days for $20, where most people like at least a week to make a proper zerograph collage (like Basquiat who may have cut a few corners and made one in a few hours).

Something needs to change in the mind of the collector (and some dealers) for them to understand that medium is not value - that's what dealers need to do more of (education) and less of this sort of nickle and dime game of commodity fetishism.

Ed Knows this as he is the hard working gallerist he works so hard to portray.

7/10/2009 11:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

Am I hearing ideas about hierarchizing art on the web by order of their price value?
Hmm...Ok, I'm not even going to begin bulldozing that concept. Let's call it Meritocracy and Zipthwung wins.


Cedric Casp

7/11/2009 12:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"i want one that costs 84,000"

that is the crux of the problem right there. there is no inherent economic value in art (unless it has a quantifiable auction record) and even then, not necessarily. But there is desire, and when money is readily available collectors are happy to part with such sums for reasons which have very little to do with the work itself.

One of an art dealer's primary jobs is to create excess desire for their artists' work...basically inflating it's value, or at least the point at which supply and demand intersect.

That's all well and good when there is excess cash to soak up. Now that there isn't I'm not sure what a collaborative business model would accomplish.

7/11/2009 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Edward: Great post and incite into the complexities of trying to get together partnerships that work. In any industry that is a difficult task but never more so in the art gallery world.

Many galleries relied on walk in business, or as you stated have their identity caught up in their gallery. But the identity for many owners was just to be part of the art scene. Those groups enjoyed or were intellectually capable of succeeding only when there was the “low hanging fruit collector.” Those times are done, at least for now.

Once these types of owners are weeded out I think partnerships and out of the box thinking (such as you discuss) will emerge as a more dominant theme in art galleries. Marketing is being redefined, more interesting and more complex.

And if you want to stay part of the scene and prosper, acceptance of the new rules will be critical. I think some of the galleries owners already know this, others are learning, and new ones will emerge who know nothing else.

7/12/2009 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger zipthwung said...

"No sooner had my client hung up on his call from the auction house, than my phone rang with the very same expert asking me to lunch the following week, knowing that only I had full access to the work. Talk about a zero sum mentality, for which the art world is famous. One dealer sells, it is perceived, only at the expense of another."

-KS on Artnet

This same sort of behavior goes on in asymetrical power relationships (artist>gallerist, curator>artist, artist>artist) and sure, it takes all kinds, but to see it in action! My god. Capitalism in full bloom! Ego en flagrante!

Now is KS the hard working dealer he works so hard to portray? Or is he just pumping up the volume?

If Dash Snow was the quintessential downtown scenester, then I am a really heavy hitter from brooklyn! Who do you want to be today? Who do you want to be?

7/14/2009 05:07:00 PM  

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