Dealers of the World: Unite or Perish?
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 artnet.com 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.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.
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.
Labels: gallery business models