Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Conversation with Elizabeth Dee on the Contemporary Art Gallery Model, Part II

Part I of this series, which took place before our panel discussion at Art Basel June 13 (see full video of the discussion with Josh Baer, Elizabeth Dee, and myself below), was an interview designed to set a foundation for the panel's topic: The Place of the Mid-Level Gallery in the Age of the Mega-Gallery. Here in Part II, Elizabeth and I offer summaries of the conversations we had with artists, collectors, dealers, and writers before and after the panel, as well as some of the conclusions we have come to from those conversations.

One of the things we have agreed on since the panel is that the term "mid-level" gallery is too problematic. In general we feel it suggests "second class" when in actuality there are smaller galleries with much stronger, more interesting programs than some of the "upper level" galleries, which is often more a designation of size and/or longevity than quality, per se. We think the terms "mid-career gallerist" or "mid-sized gallery" is more clear.

But first, the full Art Basel | Salon panel, moderated by Josh Baer:


I'd like to add a personal thank you to all the folks who attended the panel. The room was packed, and the questions were thoughtful. Merci, as they say in Basel (don't think I'll ever figure out when you're supposed to use German vs. French in Switzerland :-).

Forgoing the archaic tradition of ladies first, I'll start with my impressions and let Elizabeth have the last word here, although we both believe this is just the beginning of this conversation.

Winkleman:  Before and after the panel, quite a few dealers wanted to share their thoughts on this topic. Quite alarming and a bit disappointing for me were the number of younger galleries who were happy to talk off the record but were not at all interested in asking questions publicly at the panel. Also, a number of younger dealers cautioned me when we talked beforehand that I "shouldn't say that on the panel" (especially those from Berlin, I might add) and so, to be honest, I feel I was especially diplomatic while I talked on stage because of their appeals. Given my (let's call it) "passion" for this topic, that's probably not the worst thing that could have happened, of course, but in hindsight I feel it's important to flesh out some of the things that went unsaid.

I thought Josh Baer introduced another very useful distinction between "top-tier" galleries and "mega" galleries during the conversation. He used the example of Marian Goodman (seen by many people as one of the, if not THE, very best galleries in the world) as a "top tier" but not "mega" gallery because they have only two locations and a more "mom and pop" shop feel to the way they run their space than some of the galleries with 4-5, or more, locations and a more corporate feel to them. (I should note, that in my opinion, being seen as a "mom and pop" shop-style gallery is the very highest of compliments.)

Many of the more established dealers I spoke with before and after the panel tended to have little patience with the idea that it's harder for mid-career gallerists to rise today than it had been for them (unless you're talking about their relationship to the mega-galleries, in which case they sound quite a bit more like mid-sized galleries). The advice they tended to give mid-career dealers is that all it takes is to be "more determined" and "more ambitious." While I agree with that advice in general, I think it's also important to truly understand the landscape in which you're attempting to be "more determined." As the recent TEFAF Art Market Report by Clare McAndrew indicated, things have significantly changed since the current top-level galleries first clawed their way into their lofty positions. In 2012:

  • Dealers with sales under €500,000 in 2012 reported that average turnover fell by 17 percent year-on-year.
  • Dealers with sales of between €500,000 and €2 million reported a decline of one percent.
  • Those with sales between €2 million and €10 million also had a decline of two percent on average.
  • The top end of the market, where dealers generated sales of over €10 million, reported an average increase in turnover of 55 percent.
And, again, while "be more determined" may still be the best business advice you can give any mid-sized or smaller gallery, it's not very likely that an accurate interpretation of McAndrew's sales statistics is that all the top-tier and mega-galleries became that much slicker, or more competitive, or smarter in 2012 while all the mid-sized and emerging galleries became less ambitious or dumber. Unquestionably, something has fundamentally shifted in the contemporary art market that can't be explained away with adages on ambition.

And because something has fundamentally shifted, simply being "more determined" is probably not going to be enough to break through into the top tier. An understanding of why collectors are spending so much more at the top end of the market and so much less at the mid and lower end than they used to must be a central part of the new strategies that emerge. Moreover, innovation in the way mid-sized and emerging galleries operate would seem to be the order of the day.


“It’s an extremely complicated trade and you can very fast become a slave to your gallery,” -Emmanuelle Perrotin (The New York Times, June 11, 2013)
With the recent New York Times article on the widening gap between the mid-level gallery and the mega galleries, with dealers from Pace to Nicole Klagsbrun voicing publicly the contradictions required to sustain this current environment, an opportunity has presented itself to think about solutions. At Art Basel Conversations, we discussed a bifurcated system of specialization in gallery practice, breaking down the three zones of representation of artists: as a) the gallery as exhibition platform where curatorial/dealing takes place b) co-production of works for that platform or the museum platform, and c) artist management and agenting to venues. In this extraordinarily competitive environment with the mega gallery dealer big box model flourishing in front of us, to achieve and stay competitive means to move from a "gallerist" status to a "dealer" status, placing works aggressively in the market that can only then attain "legitimization and value".

In this environment for 99% of galleries, what is getting left behind is significant: co-production of work with artists (fair costs have eaten into the gallerists production abilities with a small booth at Basel at $50,000 for five days, equaling the average annual rent of a European emerging or mid level gallery space) and artist management (which is leaving artists increasingly frustrated at lack of opportunities for critique and dialog, risking commiditization with their own galleries that are designed to support them).

To preserve the "gallerist" concept, i.e. the entity that introduces and develops work holistically on a curatorial/market level that would be otherwise unknown, requires a commitment to that model, #1, and a realistic assumption that all three forms of gallerists work listed above that were once possible, are now are simply impossible or done less well because of a lack of time and capital.  This broader acknowledgement could yield an interesting solution and potentially preserve the important work that gallerists do that dealers do not. If gallerists explore the specialization possibilities of their practice, choosing between operating the platform/gallery/art fair, co-producing the works and exhibitions with the artist or alternatively to work as an artist's agent, there could be a working model or one way to simply divide the many roles gallerists have. With a balance between specializations, gallerists again have the potential to be dynamic and influential, a refreshing contrast from the lack of imagination we are seeing at this moment.


As always your thoughtful responses are appreciated. 


UPDATE 1: David Zwirner, whose gallery is recognized as one of the world's top mega-galleries (and who is known to have very generously donated to the ADAA Hurricane Sandy relief fund that helped save many smaller spaces, despite his own gallery sustaining quite serious damage), was interviewed recently by Josh Spero. The topic of the state of the mid-level/smaller galleries came up. I think there's a lot that could be said about his statements on the subject, but I will leave that for another post. For now, I'll just say  I'm very happy to see mega-galleries joining the conversation.

UPDATE 2: News out just today: Harris Lieberman, another excellent younger gallery makes the decision to close, with one of the founders choosing to work as a director at a more established gallery.


Blogger John said...

That was a great discussion, and I'm glad that you both were willing to share.

I thought Elizabeth's points about the necessity of a brick and mortar gallery were right and are important points. I also thought your comments around the 36m mark about the relationships you work to cultivate with artists are also very important.

When it comes to the models you're working with though, have you considered some sort of hybridization of the entertainment/gallerist model? If the problem is losing artists that want to bounce around and you've got a very good relationship with other galleries why not work as a mediator between the two?

An artist that is making moves and doing well in your space and you get the vibe they are going to move on. You work with a larger gallery to secure them a show, but in helping them transition you receive a percentage of their sales for a predetermined period of time, lets say at a 50gal/30art/20you split. The agreement is between you and the artist, but you are paid by the gallery in a way that doesn't effect their margins.

You are helping a larger gallery and develop positive relationships with them. The artist progresses, and you get a cut for a while, and your reputation grows as well as your client network.

Obviously it's not your goal to lose an artist, but if they are being poached, maybe pre-empting it isn't crazy.

6/28/2013 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger John said...

I tried to post and I think it ate my comment.
Thanks for sharing, I think it's valuable insight.

I especially appreciate that ED acknowledged the importance of the brick and mortar galleries. I liked that you talked about the relevance of a dealer/artist relationship and what that means to the gallery as a whole.

Onto models. What about some sort of hybrid mediator model.

An artist is doing very well and you talk for a while and get the vibe they want to move on. You work with the artist to examine possibilities, support the decision and help secure the deal with a larger gallery in exchange for a percentage over a predetermined amount of time.

Currently you get 50/50 when they are with you. And 0 when they leave.

What if the new split is 50new gallery/30 artist/20 you for working out the deal.

When work sells you get a check from the new gallery, they never feel the difference, the artist gets what they want, and you still have something coming in that buys you time to find and nurture new talent.

Obviously it's not going to work for everyone but getting something is better than nothing especially if you know they are going to leave.

6/28/2013 02:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Aservais said...

Wrong split proposal in my opinion
The original gallery has been grooming the artist for years sometimes and bringing him or her to this level through time,knowledge,emotional and financial investment for years.
The new gallery should acknowledge this 'nurturing' by contributing too in a more realistic 45,45,10 split plus access to new and old works for a while.
This access would provide the benefit of the new gallery's 'marketing' to the forming one.

8/10/2013 04:51:00 AM  

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