The Post-Brick-and-Mortar Gallery Art Market?
From the moment someone first posted a jpeg of a work of art for sale on the Internet, there has been chatter about whether or not brick-and-mortar art galleries would go the way of the dinosaur. Yes, the initial crop of art ecommerce sites bit the dust, along with a fair number of dot-com initiatives, but what few people seemed to have anticipated was that it wouldn't be online channels alone, but rather a combination of them and the rise of the event-based art purchase (read: mostly art fairs) that would increase that chatter about the impending death of the gallery as we know it to a new level.
Yesterday we learned, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, that after 40 years, Los Angeles' highly acclaimed Margo Leavin Gallery is closing. And while there are perhaps more galleries in the US now than ever before, with quite a few announcing moves to bigger spaces or plans for expansion, it was something Margo Leavin partner Wendy Brandow said about their decision to close that is reigniting the questions about brick-and-mortar's future:
"People are approaching art differently today. They're not seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions," said Brandow. "The exhibitions have been such an important part of what we do, and they are no longer valued as much by the public."
GalleristNY's Sarah Douglas spotted that explanation and asked her readers if they thought it was true. Vocal gallery supporter Jerry Saltz responded
No. I do NOT think that art-audiences are no longer "seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions." I also very much disagree with the idea that gallery exhibitions are "no longer valued by the public.” People still love gallery shows.
And journalist Paul Laster added that it may be a generational thing:
People do still love to look at art in galleries, but Margo Leavin has definitely lost touch with the times.
Although Leavin has a stellar stable of contemporary artists, she hasn't added younger artists to keep it fresh.
And yet, in the same comment thread, artist and gallerist Lisa Ruyter (whose Vienna space exhibits many younger artists) confirmed Brandow's assessment, and noted what I've heard from back offices throughout emerging galleries in New York, London, and Berlin:
Absolutely true, I'm dealing with it in Vienna too. It preoccupies my thoughts and I am trying to figure out how to adjust as someone running a space and also as an artist.
The artworld as we know it will implode this year...
Of course, the art world as we know it has consistently reinvented itself again and again for centuries now, and quite a few watchers of the current one would dance should it actually implode, I'm sure.
So what's going on here, really, though? Some Lower East Side galleries keep moving and or expanding, even as others decide to call it quits. The same is true in Chelsea, London, and Berlin. Is there truly some seismic shift afoot or is this merely more of the typical ebb and flow that the highly creative (i.e., impatient with the status quo) art world has always embraced?
To be honest, I believe it's a bit of both. Like in the debate over "climate change," you can point to anecdotes which contradict the larger trends, but anecdotes won't stop your ship from being sunk by the increasing flotilla of icebergs breaking off Greenland, so you might want to ensure your gallery lifeboats are seaworthy all the same. What that means in practical terms, in my opinion, is you need to adopt a multi-channel approach, whereby you recognize the role art fairs are playing in purchasing decisions, even as you fight the good fight in your brick and mortar space.
The bigger and arguably better, from a business point of view at least, galleries are already doing this, actually...if you wanted confirmation that those "in the know" could sense the icebergs coming. They're doing record numbers of art fairs (some more than one a month) all the while increasingly producing museum-quality exhibitions in their spaces.
Of course, there remain career goals for artists that art fairs cannot provide (not yet, anyway) and certainly viewer experience opportunities that fairs won't be able to replicate without greatly extending their days of operation and/or amount of allocated space (which of course translates into much higher fees, so I wouldn't hold my breath).
So I envision the near future being one in which this hybrid model is perfected. In other words, I envision strategic overlap becoming much more sophisticated, whereby gallery exhibitions are coordinated with art fair presentations more and more to where the strongest potential within both (critical acclaim in the space and sales at the fair) is nearly scientifically calibrated.
Then I see the whole thing imploding....