Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Losing Control over Perceptions

It's funny how long it can take something you do every day to reveal itself as perhaps unusual. Even more so for it to reveal the wider impact such a habit has and lead you to consider that it might be something you want to change.

For example, for many years now I have participated in the shorthand common among art world insiders of indicating the perception of a gallery's rank in the system by noting which art fairs it participates in. It has become perhaps the quickest way to communicate not only where in the pecking order a gallery stands in one's estimation, but perhaps even how ambitious and likely successful that gallery will be in promoting its artists and securing long-lasting value for the artworks it sells. This in turn translates into shorthand when talking with collectors as to how comfortably they might rely on any acquisition from that gallery being a "good buy," which is of course a valid consideration in any context.

It's a much more finely calibrated tool than one might at first realize, especially when incorporating multiple art fairs into the calculus. In much the way the police can identify the exact location of your Android through the triangulation of signals picked up by cell phone towers, using three art fairs to position any gallery is highly effective: "They do the Armory Show, NADA in Miami, and Volta in Basel." Indeed, with some triangulations, it's possible to often identify the exact gallery from that information alone (which reveals far too much attention being paid to who's doing which fairs, I'll admit).

I have always been somewhat conscious of those implications in using the shorthand, but it had never dawned on me how that eventually contributes to a weakening of the power of galleries themselves until I heard Clare McAndrew note in the video in the previous post that "buyers' loyalty has shifted to the fairs itself, rather than to the gallery" [see the 36:35 minute point]. 

Then it clicked: not only are the galleries essentially letting the fairs brand them and their artists, but in doing so they're forfeiting some of their power to brand themselves outside the fair system. What does it say about a gallery that doesn't do any art fairs, within the context of this shorthand? It might convey they're successful enough or simply adverse to the fairs, but it might also suggest a lack of ambition or even a lack of quality in their program (no fair would have them). 

None of this is the fairs' fault, mind you. Some of the power fairs have absorbed from galleries was willingly handed over; in fact, the fairs didn't originally seek to have it (this is something I delve into a bit more deeply in my upcoming book). Much of it though is a result of how successful the fairs are (or are not). I know collectors, for example, who have a short list of fairs in Miami they will visit and those they either won't visit or will only go to if they find they have extra time. 

Also, fairs can lose their ranking in the overall system as well. Galleries that invest heavily in this or that fair, perhaps joining their selection committees or otherwise being strongly identified with them, can suffer if that fair's seen to lose its way or lose prestige to a newcomer. Galleries jump ship as a result, of course, but how closely they're associated with another fair may make that more difficult.

Now none of this has a hard-and-fast impact on galleries or artists. It's not like if you don't get into the top fair, you're doomed. Some artists will have work in more than one fair, and that's fine for attracting a wider range of collectors. Some collectors know very well, that it can take artists and galleries time to climb through the ranks, and so by not visiting the "lesser" fairs, they're possibly missing out on a chance to discover something really interesting before everyone else does.

But it does all make me wonder how galleries can take back this power. Like I said, some of it was power the fairs didn't even want. It's in each gallery's interest to have collectors' loyalty shift back to the galleries. I can't help but suspect some part of that may require using other metrics to discuss the perceived rankings within the gallery system.


Anonymous Kelani Nichole said...

We intend to crowdfund the booth fee if our proposal is accepted to the Armory 2015 – this isn't really 'taking back power' in any way, but here's to hoping by hacking the system we might at least engage it enough with new ideas to help keep it interesting : D

Also, intrigued by your idea of using other 'metrics' – its true there is a stock-market like trade of 'reputation' in the artworld. Would be very interesting to articulate these mental models towards uncovering how they are bought and sold. Kudos for starting here with the fair rep situation!!

6/24/2014 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why Don't the Blue chip Galleries and mid lvl lower lvl put on there own art fairs? How Much Hassle is it to rent a building and put up some walls ?

The art fairs make money whats the profit margin?

You should know the numbers Edward.

6/24/2014 02:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Edward... and I'd add the corollary that once on the fair treadmill, it can be difficult/detrimental to hop off/make changes. And what of the fairs which can't seem to settle down, either in "curatorial direction" or location?
The only way to seize the power back is to stop participating, or create your own fair... sound familiar?

6/24/2014 06:39:00 PM  
Anonymous J.V. said...

Or in other words, fairs are now to galleries what galleries are to artists.

6/26/2014 10:47:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Why Don't the Blue chip Galleries and mid lvl lower lvl put on there own art fairs?

More fairs than most realize were in fact started by art dealers. Basel, The Armory Show, ADAA, Independent, Moving Image, Aqua, NADA, etc...all started by art dealers. Many of them end up being sold (because running both a gallery and a successful fair becomes exhausting).

6/30/2014 09:09:00 AM  

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