The Babies Just Come with the Scenery, Part II
In the middle of the road,An artist commenting in another context, referencing the title of Part I of this topic, complained that "babies" here meant "artists" and took umbrage with the continual referencing of artists as immature or overly defensive players in the art world. I'll leave the irony of their heightened concern about that to others, but I will clarify that my reason for choosing that title (and indeed the entire quote from "The Middle of the Road") is to suggest that the upper tier of the contemporary art market--collectors, auction houses, and super dealers included--do indeed own the big chunk of the bloody third [emerging art] world in which the babies [up and coming players, including younger curators, collectors and even dealers, but, yes, mostly the emerging artists who will go on to create the artwork that will serve as our generation's legacy] do indeed come along with the [contemporary art market] scenery. They don't magically exist outside that scenery. Their top-tier world would quickly dry up if the bloody third[-tier] world wasn't continually pumping out new babies.
You see the darnest things.
Like fat cats driving around in jeeps through the city,
Wearing big diamond rings and silk suits.
Past corrugated tin shacks holed up with kids and
Man I don't mean a Hampstead nursery.
But when you own a big chunk of the bloody third world,
The babies just come with the scenery.
---"The Middle of the Road," The Pretenders
The types of nurseries they help create for those "babies" to be nurtured in is up to them, of course. But by signalling that the way the art dealer game is truly played is to forgo any gallery-based nurturing...to only seek out [i.e., poach] artists with proven markets...is to leave those emerging players essentially holed up in corrugated tin shacks. I'm not saying we're there yet, but things could easily end up there. On the other hand, to encourage a healthy middle-tier gallery system (mostly through a more mutually beneficial poaching practice, but we'll explore another idea below too) is to help facilitate the type of nurturing one associates with nurseries in London's tony and purportedly uber-enlightened neighborhood Hamstead.
OK, so that rhetoric is perhaps a bit too tortured, even for me (which I know is saying something). Let me put it more plainly: If the top-tier galleries get too obsessed with growing their empires, particularly by continuously poaching the top artists from mid-level galleries (and essentially training a new generation of art dealers that that is the way it's done), they will eventually kill off those mid-tier galleries in which the dealers do so much of the hard work of building the mid-careers of artists not yet of a blue chip status. In other words, they'll leave a gallery landscape akin to the corrugated tin shacks in the song. There will still be emerging artists and scrappy upstart galleries, but without the motivation to stick it out through the tough times (and inevitable downturns) that believing one day your investment will pay off provides, I can't see the middle-tier gallery system (which currently provides a highly structured support network for thousands of artits) remaining very healthy very long.
Now, as pessimistic as that may sound at first, let me say unequivocally that the top tier of the New York gallery world today is mostly populated by marvelously generous people who do indeed value the entire system and not only understand why, from a business point of view, a healthy middle tier and an energetic emerging tier are important, but genuinely seem to cherish this irrational industry. No one needs more proof of that, in my opinion, than to consider the heroic way the ADAA responded to Hurricane Sandy. The number of top-tier galleries, art fairs, and private collectors who donated to their relief fund was so heartwarming and impressive, it entirely counteracts the impression some people have of most big dealers and big collectors as blood-thirsty sharks. The grants they gave, in the early days of the clean-up, when many middle-tier galleries were so overwhelmed they couldn't tell you minute-to-minute whether or not they would make it, quite literally gave many dealers I know the strength (and encouragement) to go on.
But something has clearly changed in the gallery world as well. The time was when an art dealer in a solid emerging gallery could not only work hard to get into the middle tier, but envision themselves eventually making a nicely comfortable living in the top tier. It had happened again and again throughout history, we could see the blueprint, and it made sticking it out during the meager times easier...it provided the necessary encouragement to keep the faith.
A good example of how that no longer seems as likely, though, was recently provided by Christopher D'Amelio, who, in explaining why he closed his eponymous gallery to join the behemoth David Zwirner gallery, perfectly described the prevailing sense of the path to the top tier:
“If you’re a mid-sized, respected gallery, even a highly respected mid-sized gallery,” Mr. D’Amelio said, “you’re always at this precipice. To get to the other side can be hard. You don’t want to slip off. To get into art fairs can be hard, to function financially can be hard, to deal with something like Hurricane Sandy can be hard, to deal with so many things can be hard. And we do it, but I was going to build a slow bridge to the other side,” and reach a more comfortable place, when “suddenly I had an opportunity to open my wings and soar over that divide, and I’m about to land on the other side.”Of course, Mr. D'Amelio noted he still believed he could build that slow bridge, but his willingness to close the highly regarded space with his name on the door and work in one with someone else's name on the door suggests to me a sense of skepticism it would definitely happen.
And it bears repeating what Christopher said: at the mid level, most galleries are always on the precipice. To grow into the top tier requires constant reinvestment, which means constant risk and the sleepless nights that go with that. (I've noted many times that the dealers I know who closed their spaces look nearly 10 years younger when I see them 6 months later.)
OK, though, so what can done about this threat to the middle of the gallery system?
Mind you, I'm not even convinced the middle tier of the market is important to preserve for its own sake. My larger concern, quite frankly, is with the system's ability to nurture (i.e., support and encourage) the artists who've made an initially impressive splash but now find it's harder to get to the next level than they had anticipated and face years of self-doubt and seemingly being taken for granted by the art world. Currently much of that nurturing work falls to the middle of the gallery system. Take it out of the equation and, well, I'm not convinced we'll have as robust an art community as we currently enjoy.
Two quick ideas
Poaching has always been a part of the art gallery landscape, so it's not like that represents some horrible new business practice that's wrecking the gentility of the industry. Perhaps, though, the top galleries who are seemingly now more aggressively poaching from their mid-tier colleagues could do more to ensure a transition period of access to some of the work or otherwise recognize they're financially crippling the mid-tier gallery they're poaching from. Some simply won't care, but others have a keener sense of their own struggles during that time in their career and can empathize with the situation they're placing the mid-tier galleries in.
Artists who decide to leave a mid-tier gallery, also empathizing with the dealer they're leaving, can make access to the work a part of their conditions for representation by the new, larger gallery. I know this happens already in many cases, but if it were more formally and widely considered "the way it's done," it could alleviate a great deal of the pain of losing one's top artist.
Art Fairs play a critical role in this as well. As Christopher D'Amelio notes, to get into the right fairs (the ones that will help you grow your gallery by helping you reach a new set of collectors) is hard. Staying in them can be even harder. Understanding what it is you need to change in order to claw your way into one is often freaking impossible.
Now I say what follows because most of the important fairs' selection committees are comprised (in part at least) of top-tier galleries, who have the power to help (or not) the middle-tier galleries who would like to participate in them. As much as the fairs will say the selection committee focuses only on the quality of the proposals, everyone knows there's a huge degree of politics involved in who gets into which fair. All of which is simply human nature, I know, but what I think the fairs can do for the galleries who get rejected, especially given the considerable cost of their application fees, is provide some feedback on the failed proposals. Even basic common sense feedback, such as, "this artist is out of place in this context" or "your booth concept is confusing/busy/overhung/" or "we really liked this proposal but couldn't find room for it, but please do apply again next year" or even "unless you seriously overhaul the bulk of your program you shouldn't waste your time applying to this fair again" could go a long way toward educating mid-tier dealers on what they should focus their time doing to eventually get in, or convince them to stop trying.
Now I know many committee members feel that much of what one needs to do to get in the right fairs should be obvious (to anyone who deserves to be in Fair X, anyway), but constructive feedback from the committee (and again, the fee to apply is often not insignificant) would send the signal that the top tier is encouraging the middle tier to keep working at it and/or help them understand when it's pointless to keep spending money on certain objectives.
I don't expect this to be a popular idea among committee members or art fair organizers who know providing feedback opens up countless hours of arguments from rejected applicants, but perhaps something as simple as a checklist ranking (from one to five) the committee's impression of, say,
The quality of the art proposed : 1----5
The quality of the booth concept : 1----5
The gallery is ready for this fair : 1----5
etc. (this could be fleshed out a bit, I know)
and the crystal clear declaration that neither the committee nor the organizers will discuss the rankings -- and perhaps give each applicant the option to not receive the rankings if their proposal is rejected -- will at least help the middle-tier dealer gain a better picture of where they stand in the eyes of that fair's committee. No information at all, which is what they currently receive, is more discouraging than an honest appraisal of one's application.
It's probably even more important for constructive feedback when a gallery who was once admitted into a fair is rejected for a subsequent edition. Again, the fair committees are predominantly the domain of the top tier galleries. This provides them a simple way of helping the middle tier via their experience and expertise. And again, the rejected gallery shelled out a chunk of change to apply, so it's not like this is charity.
OK, so obviously I'm enjoying musing on this topic, but this post is long enough at this point. I think I'll give more thought (and ask around among dealer friends) to a few other ideas, and share them in Part III.