Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Tales of Cartels and Other Windmills

As reported in Artforum.com, Berlin's Der Tagesspiegel recently published a story by Kai Müller about an alleged gallery cartel in the German capital that wields so much power they essentially "decide who plays a role in Berlin and who doesn’t."
Writing about his attempts to investigate his hypothesis further, Müller notes that the tone among Berlin dealers has changed: “One hears conspiracy theories and encounters a lot of discretion,” he writes. No discussion about the subject is to leave a meeting. “Even though it’s difficult to prove to a cartel that it wants to be a cartel, it does spread enough fear to make it seem like one,” Müller argues. “For a long time there wasn’t much to go around in Berlin,” says Gerd Harry Lybke, the owner of Eigen + Art, who was recently excluded from Art Basel after years of participation in the fair. “Now that there’s something, people reveal their true characters.”
No one loves yarns of international intrigue more than I do (ask Murat, who can attest that I never leave an international airport without a cheesy spy novel to read on the plane, as well as a Duty Free bottle of a choice single malt).

But anyone who's ever tried to raise the stature of their gallery (via the art fairs or other events designed to aggregate the worthy spaces and label them such for collectors and others too busy to shift through all the pecking order indicators) can tell you that of course there are cliques and alliances with preferred curatorial philosophies, as well as personal friendships that open doors for the limited room at this or that table.

But they can also tell you that the landscape is constantly shifting, and that today's power-brokers often find themselves, when tomorrow comes, either just plain broke or worse,
passé. Collectors are constantly seeking out what's new. It's hard to stay new for very long, so it's silly in my opinion to get too upset about whether you're invited to learn the new secret handshake or attend this or that frat party.

Yes, it may look as if all the money and attention is following one particular new coterie and that your business's very survival depends on them realizing how cool you are too, but in the same way I strongly believe it's a fool's game for artists to chase after this or that trend (because they're more likely to see tastes circle back round to what they're truly interested in making than they are to ever catch up by constantly changing), I feel a gallery too should stick to its guns and carve out its own opportunities.

As I have long observed (and note in my book...yes, the marketing manager at my publisher will agree that it's high time I plugged that paperback again), the most successful new galleries are often the ones that reinvent the business model in some significant way. The same goes for the ones who reinvent the gallery community and how it collaborates.

Take SEVEN, for example, which I am very pleased to note will be returning to Miami this December with the same seven galleries but in a newer, even nicer location (details as soon as the ink dries on the contract). This initiative is founded in an attempt to present our programs on our own terms. It was a lot of work, yes, but it was also ultimately nicely profitable. Last year each gallery had nearly 3,000 square feet of space each to present large-scale installations, performances, videos, etc. More than that, though, it felt good to be able to work in an art fair setting the same way I work in our gallery, dreaming bigger with our artists than we can afford to in other fair contexts. Not that I don't like other art fairs (I'm of that rare breed of dealers who rather enjoys them), but I do prefer an overall landscape in which galleries are, from time to time, able create their own options. Indeed, because the galleries are closer to the artists than fair organizers (or auction houses or what have you), it is gallery-organized fairs and events (like the various gallery weeks or more and more of the art fairs/events out there such as Independent, NADA, VIP, Moving Image, Sunday, etc.) that can create contexts closer to their artists' visions.

No such event can duplicate the control an artist can have in their respective brick-and-mortar galleries, for sure, but rather than worrying about cartels (yes, where there's smoke, there is most likely fire, but who cares?), I'd highly recommend that the galleries who feel left out make the effort to organize something themselves. If you make it smart and attractive enough, it will play double duty in giving you more control over your gallery's fortunes and how effectively you can promote your own artists.

Warning: it is a lot of work (and I, as do many other dealers, have the bags under our eyes to prove it), but it's far more productive than bellyaching that you weren't invited to the dance.

Labels: gallery systems, how to start and run a commercial art gallery


Blogger J. Wesley Brown said...

"The surest way to miss your place at a crowded table is to keep circling it looking for the best place to sit down."

- Edward Winkleman

9/27/2011 04:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Us and Them

9/27/2011 05:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Jerry Saltz, 2010:

...the New Museum is not alone in the terrible habit of fixating on certain galleries. MoMA has had two shows in a row of Marian Goodman artists, and no one said a word. The Whitney museum has had a spell of three Marian Goodman artists! Again, no one complained. The Guggenheim's last show was of a Marian Goodman artist! Before that they showed three artists from the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. Dia showed over a half-dozen Goodman artists before shutting down its West 22nd Street space. I love the Marian Goodman Gallery and the Barbara Gladstone Gallery. But what is it with these curators?

There's your cartel for you. As is often the case in other industries, the worst betrayals are collusions of the public and private sectors.

9/28/2011 06:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

This artist-run gallery [ http://baangandburne.com ] have pinpointed some of their gripes, and are doing things their own way. I expect art fairs will eventually be on the radar for them too.

Some of their events have been inspiring (from a continent away) and I am planning similar events in Beijing over the next couple of years. Though not a gallery. Even the thought it is exhausting.

10/05/2011 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

There was something strange about the Eigen+ exclusion from Art Basel. The Art Basel selection committee is not dominated by Berlin-based galleries. Why pick on the Leipzigers? My gut feeling is Germans are too shrewd in marketing to do anything as as counter-productive as this. I suspect the pay-off comes a little later.

But it's true there's plenty of resentment in Berlin at the success of the New Leipzig thing.

10/05/2011 01:36:00 AM  
Blogger DarthFan said...

When you start fighting for table scraps all kinds of weird theory's get entertained. The Armoury show always seemed a bit boring or at least predictable, and so there was a demand for satellite fairs - or satellite fairs looked to create a demand.

The demand for the new is sort of short sighted, because art circles back on itself in the same way demand does. Demands change over time, and so does art, as with any industry.

The individual artist should do what they want, but to pay the bills you should do whatever you can.

I overheard this dude talking to a young band and he was telling them to be more conscious about who they performed with. I wanted to hit him, but I also appreciated his attempt to corner the market on his client. What he was really saying was "please stick with me and my bands, I don't earn much, but this is how I make a living". The argument being he could market them better.

10/10/2011 10:39:00 PM  

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