Tuesday, June 04, 2013

An Interview with Elizabeth Dee about the Contemporary Art Gallery Model, Part I

The idea for the following interview emerged from a conversation Elizabeth Dee and I had recently about a panel we'll both be on with the very insightful Josh Baer at Art Basel next week. Here are the details (come on by if you can!):
Art | Salon
Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 1pm 

Art Market Talk | The place of mid-level galleries in the age of the mega-gallery

Elizabeth Dee, Founder and President, Elizabeth Dee Gallery, and President, Independent, New York
Edward Winkleman, Founder and President, Winkleman Gallery, New York, Co-Founder Moving Image Art Fair, New York, London
Moderator: Josh Baer, Publisher, Baer Faxt, and Art Advisor, New York
Elizabeth and I were discussing the panel's theme, "The place of mid-level galleries in the age of the mega-gallery" (yes, I know, even that title raises lots of questions), when it occurred to me that the old narrative about why people open galleries (what drove them to do so, what they hoped to achieve in doing so, how they measured their success, and why they choose to close when they do) seems to be shifting as we watch. 

The best example of what I mean by that is perhaps the surprising rationale behind Nicole Klagsbrun's decision to close her New York gallery after 30 years. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Nicole summed up the sentiment that sits like the 800-lb gorilla in the room whenever I think about the upcoming panel's theme. Nicole said:

I’m not sick and I’m not broke. I just don’t want the gallery system anymore. The old school way was to be close to the artists and to the studios. Nowadays, it’s run like a corporation. After 30 years, this is not what I aspire to do. It is uninteresting.

There are other factors at play here too relating to the relationships between mid-level galleries and mega-galleries, but we'll save some of that for the panel.

About the gallery model in general, though, I should first say, no contemporary art dealer I know got into this business only for the money. It's not a fast or easy way to make money; you have the often-impossible task of keeping happy two sets of strong-willed clients (artists and collectors) with very different priorities (unlike other businesses in which you have only one set); and yet, yes, if you're among the lucky few in this world who feel passionate about your day job, your life isn't all that bad. 

Still, every time I talk with other dealers about the panel discussion, the question that keeps gnawing away at the back of my consciousness is "what is the realistic narrative that motivates any gallerist in the age of the mega-gallery"? 

The old answer to that question was a narrative something akin to what's known as "the Leo Castelli model": discover the best young artists you can, nurture their careers, carefully guide their markets (don't push their prices too high too quickly), and, if all goes well, you grow old and successful together. And it was realistic for quite some time. Moreover, implicit in that model was a task that seems to be central to the question of the role of the "mid-level gallery," which is to support artists through the years between their initial splash on the scene and their acceptance into the canon. For many artists, those can be frustrating or even anxious years, when they're watching younger artists come along and steal the spotlight, but they're not yet "blue chip" enough to ensure their place in the history books.


All of this came out in my discussion with Elizabeth. I got rather animated about it all, and, well, Elizabeth very graciously agreed to be interviewed as "the gallerist" in my desire to flesh out these issues in preparation for our panel discussion...to set a foundation of where things stand in my own mind, if you will. As always, I hope you'll offer feedback!

Part I of the interview focuses on what the 21st Century contemporary art gallery model does/should look like.

Winkleman: Would you say the reasons you started your gallery in 2002 are the same reasons that motivate you today? If not, how have they changed?

Dee: I apprenticed in a 20th Century gallery system, working for other galleries where I was extremely fortunate early on to have a number of important mentors. I was raised professionally on a philosophy that the context for an artist’s work in a curatorially rich program is the essential base from which the recognition and business for an artist would be built. My own gallery began in this method—what I call
the 20th Century modelenvisioning that our artists would all be internationally recognized and be with us long term. With this future in mind, certain risks can be taken that otherwise would be un-economical. We created a family built on that shared philosophy at the gallerywe lived the life of our gallery artists completely and the vision for the gallery was a collective one. Faith in the artists and a vision for our own version of the Castelli model was what drove the post-9/11 generation of gallerists like me to sacrifice and risk everything for the program’s evolution in the early 2000s. It was an exciting time.

I love the creativity involved in playing a supportive role inside the studio as a strategist, agent, and dealer. I’m extremely fortunate to have this dynamic with many of the gallery artists today. I think this is how most gallerists became addicted early on to gallery life as a calling rather than a career decision.

Faith in this model began to erode for me after the gallery had established its first stars after 7+ years of work and countless sacrifices on the gallery’s part. In 2011, we painfully lost Ryan Trecartin, a central artist to our gallery. This situation was like many others in the field, and the issues were not unique. In retrospect, this indicated that the system was at odds with some real factors facing today’s artists. The new hyper-connected world is moving at a pace faster than we can maintain. This creates tremendous pressure for artists and galleries alike. We are all part of a system that isn’t working
which is a very unpopular topic but deserves to be addressed honestly.

The emergence of a 21st Century context has demanded gallerists and artists to professionalize and adapt, often to less personal, uncreative results with non-existent critique and no loyal commitments. Nicole Klagsbrun is right. It has led to transitions in the model that we are seeing in effect today. This model is more of a talent agency than the “Leo Castelli” gallerist model. I am very interested in the hybridity required to navigate the new environment, but I also find it problematic. It interests me see if we can make something new from this time. 

In 2012, we rewrote our gallery mission to reflect how we are working, which can be found our website. It establishes that now as a gallery, we represent “projects and ideas, joint venturing with artists and co-producing works and exhibitions, both in and outside the gallery." There are still a handful of artists who we represent in the 20th Century gallery model, and in our case, the majority of those artists are more established. These various forms work for the spectrum of artists we are collaborating with
we can tailor what representation means when certain milestones are reached.

The other change is that we now have contracts with artists even for short-term co-productions and exhibitions, which we hadn’t had previously. This had lead to more productive relationships. I find artists appreciate knowing what to expect from us and vice versa.

W: There's a bit of chatter online these days about the move away from the consideration/appreciation of "art" as an object into the realm of "art" as an experience (which parallels a cultural shift toward the elevation of the now above other more traditional and contemplative [i.e, time-consuming] arcs within narratives). Museums have recently made a big deal about their attempts to accommodate that shift for their visitors, but I haven't heard much about galleries systematically changing their model to do the same, at least not in a way that contributes to their bottom line. Your thoughts on how galleries respond to this?

D: This is an interesting question. Glenn Lowry recently said the 20th Century museum was about collections and the 21st Century museum is about experiences. Essentially, even MoMA has hopped on the event culture trend, spearheading a big top initiative and engaging artists as the cultural entertainment. The massive over-programming of the museum may help make museums relevant to popular culture, but with regard to their collaboration with contemporary artists to produce these events and offer this cultural content, the museums are fueling the fire of a “here and now” mentality which is having an adverse pressure on artists. For instance, if an artist is performing at MoMA, attending conferences, panels and lectures, going to benefits as a complimentary guest sitting next to their collectors, traveling to art fairs and biennials, it’s very hard for artists to gain perspective on their long-term career narrative.

Additionally, artists are increasingly overwhelmed by the risks/rewards of these “opportunities” and trapped by the politics of what to accept and the risks of saying no. As a committed gallerist, I find all of this a major threat to creativity and personal respect, not to mention building a sustainable model that supports the artist long-term in collections and makes a legitimate market. Don’t get me wrong, I like incorporating event culture strategically to ignite energy around major projects, and the social community is essential, but that energy needs to go into production of works that can be sustained by patrons. We cannot build practical sustainability by trading social trends or running a popularity contest. We’re not publicists.

Creativity is so important, and it requires time. As gallerists, our job is to protect and promote the possibility of creativity, both for our artists and ourselves, in order to deliver a quality program. Gallerists advocate and protect this for the artist so that they have the space they need to develop their work and ensure the quality remains high.

In nearly every instance at major museums, artists are not adequately paid for the intellectual property and social currency they are being “invited” to provide. Museums aren’t supporting these artists by inviting them to VIP dinners, asking for art donations for auctions, and not collecting their art. Curators are bewildered and overwhelmed about how to evolve from exhibition culture to event culture—with dwindling funding sources for both. Collectors are spending more time socializing with artists than engaging with the work in galleries, the studio, or in a context that truly supports the artist’s long-term practice. Many artists become known in the system but are not financially secure and living month to month. It’s a real problem masquerading as a very glamorous party.

W: Ahem...and Amen! But in this complex context, how do gallerists create productive solutions (plural, because it certainly doesn't look like it will be "one size fits all") for the representation model that are true to the gallery's belief of what is means to support artists but also remains flexible enough to adapt as artists' needs continue to evolve? 

D: As an artist becomes more successful, there needs to be space for them to explore their careers without some of the dynamics of a gallery. The mid-level gallery struggles with navigating this position. In the beginning, it’s an intimate working relationship: gallerists are coaching, advising, advocating, thinking and talking about the work and its place in the market and in the dialog. If that yields success and more projects, this leads to the professionalization of the studio; subsequently, as the artist builds a studio team, there are more people involved as well as more opinions, pressures, and confusion about roles. This is a very vulnerable transitional time for gallerists. A gallery has to adapt and initiate new models of working with the artist. An agent model could be developed, a producer model, or a hybrid approach that best accommodates the artist’s specific career path.

The way to give artists a sense that a gallery is not hindering their opportunities is to open up these types of conversation with artists in order to explore the nature of the dynamic as they grow, ultimately establishing milestones in the collaboration that generate a sense of independence and a narrative of progress. Giving such things before they are asked for is a good strategy and allows for gallerists to maintain a sense of balance with objectives that are about mutual contributions, rather than expectations that might be impossible to deliver. For instance, if something can be contributed reasonably in line with growth, the gallerist can be generous and proactive, encouraging an open discourse in tandem with the artists needs.

[Part II of the interview, which deals more with specifics on how artists and gallerists can better collaborate in the new landscape, will be posted later this week.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well-reasoned criticism, especially of entrenched norms, will never be as glamorous as the "party" so just operate in parallel.

6/04/2013 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Stephen said...

Thank you, Ed and Elizabeth.

Stephen at Platform, Seattle

6/04/2013 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ed,
I read your book and am a big fan of best business practices. I wonder how that figures in on how galleries can retain artists. There must be a reason why some galleries hemorrhage artists.

Is hard to tell cops and robbers apart now? Makes me wonder ....

Maybe answers in second part of interview.

6/04/2013 09:45:00 PM  
Blogger A Rose by any other name... said...

Y'all might...um...perhaps not quite enjoy reading this, but perhaps will find it interesting, vis a vis the grave new world you have to navigate;
Mary Meeker Highlights 2013's Internet Trendshttp://preview.tinyurl.com/l3uqm3n

6/05/2013 12:48:00 AM  
Anonymous D Nightshade said...

Ahhh. yes. he interview is interesting and Elizabeth Dee points to a real problem for artists beyond financial security. For one who can remember and took part in the 20th C art world, I see the problem as a loss of community. Something that cant be replaced by social media. A loss of physical presence. This has been going on for many years. I remember in the late 70s older artists complaining that there were no longer artists' bars where ideas were hashed out. ....what has changed now in the 1st decade of the 21st C is the end of the gallery space which was a direct reflection of the artists' studio and with it the idea of seasons and new work that would inspire other artists to compete, even change direction. In the old days the art world would anticipate each fall season to see what new directions etc the art would take. All shows were experimental. Each one striving to out do the last. Of course a lot of it was hollow and all about showmanship, but it worked for the artist if not for the dealer or collector....

6/05/2013 08:33:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Edward , Be on guard for those Swiss Pickpockets in Tailored Suits. Well Dealers you need to sign your artists to contracts like owners of sport teams sign their athletes. Its always about the money in anything.

6/05/2013 11:45:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


thanks for reading my book, but to be honest, I don't trust anonymous comments...especially ones that seem to be steering the conversation off topic with a between-the-lines wink and nudge.

If you'd like to make a direct comment, with your real name, I promise to publish it...otherwise, let this stand as notice to everyone that this is, of course, a rather personal topic for gallery owners and, more than that...it's my blog.

If you don't know already, I'm stubbornly committed to deleting anonymous comments of dubious value toward a constructive conversation (I have deleted a few already, and yes, if you wrote one, my not publishing it does indeed mean I think you need to "grow a pair and sign your name or fuck off" ..just in case you wonder whether it simply got lost.)

Everyone is, of course, always free to insinuate snarky things about cops and robbers on their own blog and build their own audience for it.


6/05/2013 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

My comment was to Anonymous @ 6/04/2013 09:45:00 PM, by the way...in case that's not clear, who, again, I sincerely thank for reading my book. :-)

6/05/2013 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Vedada Sirovica said...

I'm about to begin the "curator" journey myself and have read endless posts on all the negative aspects of it. However, (maybe this is my 29 yr old naivete) I do want to believe that those who truly appreciate art and want to foster artists careers can still make a difference. There are some artists whose talent is so obvious that I'd go down in flames standing up for it!

Your book has opened my eyes to the amount of work necessary in order to make a gallery successful and thank you for making it so easy to digest. (Not always the case in the art world.)

Do you think if the new generation of curators/gallery owners collectively focused more on the "Leo Castelli" model, there would be less frustration and hopelessness in the field? The art world treats artist like commodities, buying low and selling high in order to gain attention and momentum. I could go on but I'll stop here...looking forward to part 2 of this interview.

6/05/2013 05:55:00 PM  
Blogger Jerry Saltz said...

Amen and Amen, indeed.
Thank you Spirits of Art.
Jerry Saltz

6/06/2013 09:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I'm curious. As Ms. Dee's sit states "Elizabeth Dee is an American gallery that represents exhibitions and ideas. " how does that fall on the curator/gallerists purvue versus the artist's 'territory'? Does it redefine what the galleries intentions are?

Is it all simply an upheaval in the redefinition of who does what? ...Particapatory art where the artist becomes a 'co-ordinator' and the viewers the creators ... (artist becomes curator?, viewer becomes artist, gallerist becomes museologist, museologist becomes ...

I mean if it is only about playing musical chairs ..., or are we actually redefining whom can better fulfill a given role/need.

Nice interview Ed and Elizabeth. the panel should be thought provoking!

6/06/2013 12:37:00 PM  
Anonymous r krupp said...

Is this the new model? Artists that hide in plain sight. (http://tinyurl.com/krftwne) Pop out of the rabbit hole, sell out the show and then run for shelter. I wonder how many times an artist can do this in a career? As far as stimulating non-studio time being a salesman at Macy's might be more exciting than another VIP dinner. I think the bottom line here is that this artist controlled the pace although it seems like a radical way to do it. Or is it?

6/06/2013 12:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old model, New Model nothing has ever changed . Its like this in any line of work if you are ambitious. You go with the best company or start your own to achieve your goals.

I see auction houses filling a void for top quality work that from superunkown artist who cant get a gig with a Gallery .

Mongol General: Hao! Dai ye! We won again! This is good, but what is best in life?

Mongol: The open steppe, fleet horse, falcons at your wrist, and the wind in your hair.

Mongol General: Wrong! Conan! What is best in life?

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

6/06/2013 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Anonymous @ 6/06/2013 01:36:00 PM,

You're getting at the heart of the personal decisions to be made here, sure, but this equation--

"ambition = being with or actually being THE BEST"

(especially where "best" is increasingly measured mostly in financial terms)

--seems to have replaced other just as valid equations that might motivate an artist or their gallery in which ambition doesn't equal being "the best" but rather "ambition = being important" or "= being innovative" or "= being true to one's self," etc.

Oh, and despite being around for many, many years now, no author of a Conan tale has ever had the character die. He lives on and on, crushing his enemies indefinitely.

Art can surely aspire to something higher than that, no?

6/06/2013 02:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now I know you had Frank Frazzeta prints in your bedroom when you were a teenager Edward. Frank Frazzeta belongs in the Met.

Yes, Art can go God Mode. The Greatest art does .

Look, I can live in a cardboard box and eat rice and rat meat.

all that matters to me is getting in the Met. that's it!!!!!!!!!

6/06/2013 03:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Money frees you from doing things you dislike. Since I dislike doing nearly everything, money is handy." -Groucho Marx

6/07/2013 01:25:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

"Money frees you from doing things you dislike."

Seems a bit circular that logic, no? Money's not so great if it requires you to keep doing things you dislike to have it.

6/07/2013 01:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been critical of the (non-blue chip) gallery system for years, but this raises and interesting point which is that contemporary art has become a backdrop for all sorts of cultural "events" rather than the subject of concentrated focus, albeit by a small audience.

6/08/2013 01:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I'll toss this out as maybe we arent looking at the pressures being exerted on the gallery space. I'm not certain of any conclusion, butthis might also add into the mix.

When considering the impact of the telegraph on journalism, McLuhan had noted that as the telegraph speeded up the geographical reach up the daily stories coming into the newsroom from across the world (continent), that the papers could no longer maintain the literary editorial control as had been the norm. The newspaper with a single literary viewpoint had become a mosaic of multiple viewpoints that jostled each other. The newspaper lost its cohesiveness. To address this, journalism morphed from the literary to the objective voice - just the facts m'am. (many voices from afar sound than like the same one, and the new technology cost per word as well)

With the internet speeding up how fast a collector can research the biography of an artist, or see the trends across the world, maybe the gallery as purveyor of refined taste is facing a similar structural form’s impact. Maybe the literary voice of the gallery space is becoming squeezed much like the newspaper world had, so many voices from afar - might this be part of the rise of the art fair popularity – finding a means of fitting them all into the same space? Are guest curators within the gallery space a means to be inclusive of these diverse voices?
Is the uneasy feeling in the gallery space, the hesitation that the internet has assumed part of our/their prior role and expertise? Might the movement of artists to other galleries simply a seeking out of this new realm, where the collectors collect their thoughts?
An even scarier thought is McLuhans view that the audience, no longer exists. Maybe galleries need to become studios so that the protagonist as artist has a means of production.
Not certain what I think here, but most likely the structural form is what we need to be aware of. Maybe easy money isnt the bogey man but might be more the perceived easy dissemenation of artistic access via the internet.
Passion (of art) still seems to be the key to any degree of success.

6/10/2013 07:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Im just still not convinced the problem is artists moving on, but that the collectors have moved on to where they get their fix as collaborators.

...so if its true the audience is dissappearing by becoming a participant/protagonist, maybe then the gallery needs to refocus on the collector instead of the artist (which have become one and the same)

so some possible ways to address the audience as art participant?
To brain storm here only.

DIY art – more about the how of art creation then just the art or the artist
Art hanging workshops
Art framing workshops
Art assessment workshop (bring in your work and be among 5 people selected from the audience for a free assessment (after people pay for the service)
Artist coaching art creation sessions – the gallery space as a studio space
Have an artist in residence for a week (the how of art)
Art critique workshop (different emphasis then the $ assessment)
One night hanging – bring in your existing works and have a show with the collectors collection – so a theme – artist, style, size ….

so really just a shift from “gallerists (who) are coaching, advising, advocating, thinking and talking about the work and its place in the market and in the dialog” to doing this instead for the collector . The difference being more so for the public "group" instead of privately for the individual.

If the collectors come, the artists will stay.

i hope thats not too naive

6/14/2013 10:17:00 AM  
Anonymous Bernard Klevickas said...

Came across this:
Basel Art Talks

Congratulations Edward and Elizabeth on engaging this topic.

6/18/2013 05:47:00 PM  
Anonymous markcreegan said...

The Basel discussion was wonderful. The idea of a retrospective organized in 4 hours at Basel was interesting to me as an example of the various activities that go on at fairs beyond the commercial aspect. The end was a highlight for me in that it mentioned discussion of finding best practice cohesion and regulation. I think Elizabeth began to make a case that it is happening organically, but maybe a further discussion would help elaborate.

There was one question from the moderator that got lost (because he went in a different direction) but that of social media and how that is changing the system ( I think this was in context of finding ways to open up discussion, collaboration, and critique- things that artists are finding they need more of), I think that one of the models that could have been mentioned is this blog which has been a vehicle for promotion but also an entry point for the public. I live in Florida and I know that my main entry point into your gallery, its program and artists, is via this blog (this is also a fact that was lost in the client binary as artist/collector question, those may be your main responsibility but there are multiple publics you service via your enthusiasms), and I think the blogosphere has certainly lost steam over the years (because of Facebook? I dont know), but if a new non-brick and mortar model is the future, I dont see how that would work without a robust, active online social media, but one perhaps different from its current form.
Anyway, great discussion which opened up so many others questions for me!

6/19/2013 10:33:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home