Thursday, August 16, 2012

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.... 
...just kidding 
kind of.


Blogger bgfa said...

This is a big topic. I find myself agreeing in part with most of the arguments on all sides of this issue, but I also have some solid experience running a gallery for the past 14 years in Los Angeles and now Chicago, and prior to that, working in nonprofit art exhibitions in New York in the 80s and San Francisco in the 90s.

The fact is that walk in traffic is dwindling so severely compared to past years that it is becoming less and less wise to have a physical retail space (at least from an economic standpoint). My sales went from 10% internet (and other remote methods) 10 years ago to about 80% now.

So here is the dilemma: If the cost makes it harder to justify a retail presence, how is the public served if venues to see art dwindle? A big part of our mission has always been to provide free access to our shows to the public, which was subsidized by the small percentage of visitors who bought art. Now that the buyers are abandoning visits in favor of remote transactions, the general public suffers as venues remove themselves from view.

Mostly now the only people who come in are here to look and not buy. I can't justify my space on that basis; why not just get a cheap office space somewhere and be by appointment only?

8/16/2012 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger Michael Rosenthal said...

I closed my gallery this month with the idea that there has to be a better way. My thoughts are that a more natural relationship with artists, projects, exhibitions and sales will create a dynamic interest in how art is made and why it is important to engage in some portion of the process. New work, workshops, exhibitions and a strong online presence are at the center of my thinking. The gallery experience was great . After 5 years of very modest success, it is time to try something new. This is not a suggestion or a comment on how to do business. It is an attempt to learn from experience and create a hybrid version that is a more satisfying for all involved.
michael rosenthal

8/16/2012 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Michael and Bert, thank you both for sharing your experiences here.

Bert, I'm wondering, though, whether there's a drop in traffic across the board, whether the "crowd" simply moves on to new spaces, or whether there are so many new galleries now that the "crowd" only seems thinner because they are more spread out.

In the end, the result's the same for each individual gallery, of course, but...

8/16/2012 02:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think the discourse about art that people seek can now be gotten over the internet and so people can see, think and discuss art without having to ever enter a gallery or ...even purchase a piece of art? I know I would never have concrete access to the caliber of minds, thoughts or works included in this blog. Would I seek out the real thing and save up for a piece if I didn't have this access?

8/16/2012 06:49:00 PM  
Blogger Richard G. Crockett said...

As someone who is reasonably familiar with the art scene in LA, I found the closure of Leavin gallery interesting and hardly surprising. Brandow's comments about it serve well to show exactly why: They were completely out of touch with the audience and are clueless as to why they were not getting the traffic or attention they thought they deserved.

Every time I went to that gallery, it was always the same, just not in touch with the scene, thinking they were the point guards but really at the rear. Their closing does not indicate some radical change in the art scene.

As to the future, in general, I think you are right, Edward. A combination, but also, one which involves a lot more self promotional work on the part of the artist, certainly at the beginning. The ones who do that, do better. It's just a fact.

8/16/2012 10:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the average age ,income, sex, ect of a Nyc arts enthusiast? How much art do they purchase a year what kind of art do they purchase? what sells the most in the nyc market? Does madison avenue have this information? What is your marketing plan Gallery owners?

8/16/2012 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger bgfa said...

Ed, I have heard from every gallery owner that I know that they are seeing similar drops in traffic. Maybe there are galleries that are not seeing this happen, but my suspicion is that its it endemic to the experience. When I go out gallery hopping I see very few other people out and about.

8/16/2012 11:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Julian said...

I ran an online gallery briefly. There were selected artist's works displayed and works did sell through the same outreach that gallery sales staff perform as part of their daily agenda, research and facilitation. It was a helpful experience to understand what works since setting-up a website is much more of a science than directing a brick and mortar space. I would miss the creative curatorial structure behind month-month exhibitions that when attempted through web curation resemble something more like having duel topics posted on a blog for example. Viewer interaction is another issue that makes a difference during the discussion of artworks and the exhibition as a whole. Speaking with people one-on-one can make a difference for writers and collectors which could be lost on a web platform. I believe I understand the necessary structures and content need to creating a great website for artwork but I still think it will never come close to the physical gallery experience. It is an issue of cutting costs and overhead, not creating a 'new' experience. It may be a better location for secondary market sales and advisory than it would for new and experimental artworks that require discussion and personal experience.

8/17/2012 09:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

"Although Leavin has a stellar stable of contemporary artists, she hasn't added younger artists to keep it fresh."

It is phrases like the above that will give me some tiny tinge of schadenfreude when the gallery system as it currently exists crashes and burns. A slight tinge, which is probably proportional to the enmity they have induced on "we" unrepresented/rejected artists, and I know there are many many gallerists that work hard for "their" artists but the assumption that "young" is what is important in art is way too overplayed. the pool of artists continues to grow (and age) and gallerists circle the wagons in any way they can to shut out those outside their myopia. I wish no ill on any small gallery and do not want to shoot myself in the foot too many times, I would much rather see the big box galleries fall but they are probably too big too fail and the smaller galleries are stuck under the spell of their success.

8/17/2012 10:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If larry G flew me out in his G5 put me up in a nice place bought me dinner and 2 japanese escorts dressed up as cheerleaders . I most likley would drop 50 k on a nice little painting that would make 7% a year for the next ten years .

Peace out.

8/17/2012 02:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


That's so adorable.

You can't talk to Larry's assistant for 50k

8/17/2012 03:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am an artist who has been selling online for years now. I am getting ready to approach brick and mortar galleries. I feel that is the best way to eventually bring up the prices on my paintings more substantially and this has always been my long term goal. I have had success selling my work on Etsy, showing well over 100 sales there in the U.S. and abroad, and over 700 admirers there. Will this be a plus or negative though when approaching galleries? I am not sure how to best handle this. Your advice would be of great help to me.

8/18/2012 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Do you ever worry that someday you will have to deal with real, SINCERE.non-ir5onic artists? I mean dealers come and go but real artists are internal. Have your laugh now!

8/19/2012 11:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And to think... a decade ago the art world big fish scoffed at the Internet. Old school critics like Saltz are just worried about their jobs.

I think the future is clear... artists will come into their own as marketers of their work. Non-profit galleries may still exist... but artists will eventually be the ones forming partnerships with art fairs (we already see a little of that) and forming bonds with museums.

The art dealers had a nice ride with their 50% charm. The ride will be over within the next 20 years.

8/20/2012 06:25:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

I think the trend is undeniable - whether the gallery is fashionable or not. But I suspect it's more widespread - true of business in general. E-commerce is biting hard into clothing, books, music, food, everything and anything!

Art reflects this change.

Frankly I wouldn't trust buying anything over the internet without first actually seeing it (with the possible exception of fast food) but I'm old fashioned.

Art fairs are just about the merch. Leavin's right about solo shows as statements suffering in the current climate of hits and highlights. But again, this is so true of our wider culture.

8/20/2012 10:06:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You Guys need to be careful what you wish for. 50 t0 100 years ago Art Gallerys anD Dealers were not that big a thing The Artist were bigger than the dealers. THE ART MARKET WAS MINISCULE. Now it is opposite.

The Dealers and speculators are the Art Market. the Artist are different grade stocks that are churned and flipped, pumped and dumped.

No galleries and speculators no Art Market.

8/20/2012 01:07:00 PM  
Blogger Lori said...

I've been watching and talking to gallery dealers in the west, most notably the Scottsdale Market. While this market may be different than those in big cities, the sales results have been similar.

Many galleries in the western states' art districts have closed in the past two years. Those that remain open are connected with auctions that deal in works by dead artists, and therefore, pay the bills with shows where the collectors must show up to buy the work.

The other shows and events, which are comprised of living artists (and yes, many of them are young), are attended by the artists. Sales are made over the phone, where works that are on the gallery's website are purchased and shipped to the collector.

So the question remains: Do art dealers need to have a full time brick and mortar space?

I believe it comes down to supply, demand and scarcity of the artwork. If an artist's work is available "all of the time" at a variety of venues, it doesn't create an incentive for the collector to buy - unless the work is scarce and "hard to get".

The most well collected living artists that I know, don't need or use brick and mortar galleries. They curate their own museum shows, sell from their email newsletters, and hire a director to handle the paperwork, buying and shipping.

The art market is extremely complex, in that, there are markets within markets, many types and levels of collectors, and many ways for collectors to see works and buy. The Internet has changed everything! If that were not true, there would be no panic among art dealers... and believe me, there is.

Artists are quitting and finding other jobs - I know many, and even those who have had stable careers in past years, are finding their sales at 10% of pre-2008. However, right now, there is an increase in buying - larger paintings and commissions are gaining in popularity. I'm not sure why.

8/21/2012 09:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Alfred Currier/ said...

This is a well informed post and food for thought. Having owned a gallery myself as well as being an established artist, I would like you to add my thought on to what has been already said.

Basically speaking, there are three types of markets in the art world, the tourist market; the decor market; and the collector market. I believe that when you anylise these markets, you will get a grip on these previous posts. When the economy crashed, the tourists stayed home and those galleries who are located in tourist cities, lost big time. The decor market is directly connected to home sales meaning, you have a blank wall in a new house and you need to fill it. These buyers fill those spaces and don't come back. The last is the collector market. The collectors are art junkies! They will always buy and buy with confidence. If they know the artist, they will buy on the Internet, in a gallery, an art fair, where ever. Right now, they are holding this art economy up.

This is how I view this situation; good or bad; right or wrong.

Al Currier
Anacortes, WA

8/21/2012 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Lori said...

Thanks Alfred for your comment. Accurate and is helpful

8/22/2012 09:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Perfect categorization, Alfred. Analysis is spot on (from my experience) as well. Many thanks.

8/22/2012 09:16:00 AM  

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