Why Can't Dealers Be "Honest"?
As if to brandish their insider credentials, often you'll hear folks in the art world "decode" for the layman the responses from gallerists asked "How was the art fair?" You've seen or heard these equations:
- "It was fabulous. We sold out everything in the first 10 minutes." = We had sold most of the work via jpgs before we arrived.
- "It was a good year for us." = We covered our expenses and made a little bit of money.
- "We did OK" = We failed to break even.
- Etc., etc.
Generally, this is done with a warm sense of humor, but more and more frequently, as the market endures this seemingly interminable "event-driven" sales phase, the "translations" are being bantered about as if evidence of egregious duplicity on the part of dealers. "Why can't dealers be honest about how things are going?" is a common refrain to learning they had spun the outcome of a fair in the very best light.
Asher Edelman recently mused on the heart of this issue [h/t S.T.]:
The average gallerists (not the few at the top) are struggling, some on the verge of closing or reducing their spaces and staff. Some, having decided to close, leave the business. Art fairs, I read all the time: “We did very well. We broke even and made great contacts for the future.” As art dealers are prone to optimism, I think that means, “We didn’t do well at the art fair.” Private dealers call each other daily to complain that the auction houses and art fairs are taking their business away.
Before we delve into the logic of being prone to optimism, though, I'd like to spread the defensive posture around a bit here. This quote popped up recently on Facebook. I copy here, for further discussion, my response from there:
Why is that such a noteworthy custom? Don't artists do the exact same thing when asked how their shows went? I have never heard an artist say "I got no press, no sales, and no one other than a few of my friends saw it." Even if all that is true, they'll say "I got some great feedback" or "It was great to get the work out there" or something of that ilk. It's not like dealers are unusual in putting the best spin on things.
And the same can be said for curators and others who take huge gambles (either with money or reputation) to present their wares to the buying and/or visiting public.
In other words, the optimism is a choice. Like deciding the glass is half full, rather than half empty. And it's actually better for you than its opposite, as Jane Brody recently discussed in The New York Times in an article titled "A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full":
In one study, adults shown to be pessimists based on psychological tests had higher death rates over a 30-year period than those who were shown optimistic. No doubt, the optimists were healthier because they were more inclined to take good care of themselves.
More than helping one remain healthier, though, optimism is solid business strategy:
In a book called “Breaking Murphy’s Law,” Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, explained that optimism is not about being positive so much as it is about being motivated and persistent.
Dr. Segerstrom and other researchers have found that rather than giving up and walking away from difficult situations, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, getting advice from others and staying focused on solutions.
Wallowing in the most negative spin one can put on the outcome of some huge effort (and art fairs are huge efforts, believe me) may feel more "honest," but it doesn't help one's business grow. Neither does blatant fantasy, for sure, but a healthy dose of looking on the bright side is clearly smarter than the alternative.