Is this a golden age for art galleries?

Excerpt from the October 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

With art fairs still online or rather smaller when they take place – and dealers finding new ways to work together – is this the time for galleries with premises to thrive in ways they haven’t? done for years?

Georgina Adam

The creation of LGDR – a merger of Lévy Gorvy, Salon 94 and Amalia Dayan into a powerful consortium – has led to much controversy over whether it means the demise of all but the biggest art galleries. The awkwardly named entity – I’m tempted to call it “GDPR”, which is quite another thing – will see all four dealers working from one location, reducing attendance at art fairs except those in Asia, and offer a range of services, from artistic advice to the organization of exhibitions. But does this herald the end of all but the largest galleries? I do not think so; in fact, we could be entering a new era, perhaps not golden, but definitely silver.

When I ask the Society of London Art Dealers about it, its president, Nicholas Maclean, says he hasn’t seen any galleries disappear so far; in fact, the number of members of the society has increased. “Art galleries have been through so many challenges, like after 1990, after the dot-com boom and bust, and after 2008,” he tells me. “And they have always shown resilience.”

Indeed, the latest semi-annual report from the Art Basel/UBS dealers is rather optimistic. Of the approximately 700 dealers surveyed, 91% believe their sales will increase or remain stable over the next 12 months. While 2020 has been a tough year, with gallery sales down 20%, sales are said to have increased 10% in the first half of 2021, and anecdotally, many dealers have told me that they don’t care. were doing pretty well, given the circumstances.

What has changed is the way they do business. The most dynamic adapt quickly and find new ways of working, from strengthening their online presence to launching a secondary market activity (eg, Perrotin in Paris) to creating their own local events. .

At London Gallery Weekend in June, for example, 40,000 people visited the 140 attendees over the three-day dealer-run event. The pattern – of collaboration between galleries based in the same city – is repeated around the world, from Warsaw and Beijing to Santiago and Mexico City. In Germany, dealer Johann König launched an art fair in 2020 – Messe in St Agnes (MISA). For the second edition, he partnered with Berlin Art Week, and continued with an online sales platform, offering primary and secondary works to collectors.

And since collectors may be hesitant to travel for some time to come, some galleries follow the money to posh vacation spots, hold pop-ups – in the Hamptons, Palm Beach and Aspen – or open permanent spaces, like Hauser & Wirth made in Monaco.

Another trending initiative is the “shared space” concept. Frieze’s No.9 Cork Street and Cromwell Place in London (disclosure: I am Chairman of the Membership Committee) offer exhibition space in the capital without the costs of having a ground floor gallery all year round. This concept is so promising that a similar venture, organized by art investment and consultancy firm Artvest, is launching in New York in November, and Cromwell Place is actively looking to take the model to other cities around the world, starting with New York.

One of those exhibiting at Cromwell Place is Matthias Arndt, whose art agency has offices in Melbourne, Berlin and London. He organizes exhibitions of his artists around the world and is optimistic about the future of galleries, but with this caveat: “The new world will be made up of many locals”, he says, which means that dealers will focus more on their backyard. “Because people won’t be traveling to fairs as much, they’ll be going to their local galleries more, which is great because it’s a much better way to see an artist’s work in depth, as well as learning how to know the merchant.”

The best indication that art galleries will survive is probably another conclusion of the Art Basel/UBS report. Surprisingly enough, he found that Gen Y collectors – defined as those between the ages of 25 and 40 – spent more on their collections than any other generation in 2020, and that art tended to be a more large proportion of their assets. Significantly, 55% of millennial buyers surveyed cited the “expertise and guidance” of art dealers as their most important role, and 61% said they preferred buying from local galleries.

My conclusion, then, with my apologies to Mark Twain, is that reports of the death of art galleries have been greatly exaggerated.

Georgina Adam is a journalist and author. His most recent book is The rise and rise of the private art museum (Lund Humphries).

Andrew Russeth

Is this a golden age for art galleries? For very few large, well-capitalized galleries, absolutely. The larger ones have opened many branches around the world in recent years, and lately they’ve been heading straight for their customers, stopping in Aspen and the Hamptons, Monaco and Menorca. These companies have strong publishing branches, fund museum exhibits, and pursue ambitious extracurricular activities. Gagosian has an art consulting branch and a sushi restaurant. Zwirner supported a promising space that aims to operate at a slower pace, similar to that of a kunsthalle in New York. Iwan and Manuela Wirth have restaurants and hotels. Pace mounts digital extravaganzas through his start-up Superblue.

In short, business seems to be going well. David Zwirner’s father, Cologne dealer Rudolf, told Artnet News in March that his son had had his best year during the pandemic. How? He didn’t spend millions to attend countless art fairs.

There’s something to cheer about in all of this: more exhibitions (and bigger ones), more lavish art books, and more well-paid artists. But there are also plenty of reasons to be skeptical.

In 2008, the Big Four had 219 artists on their roster, according to a recent Artnet poll. They now have 366. Part of the increase is positive: the market behemoths are finally diversifying their lists. But new additions are almost always successful figures leaving smaller galleries. You can’t blame people for preferring more lucrative environments, but when these moves happen at such volume and pace, they have a deleterious effect on the ecosystem.

A hot artist can keep an adventurous dealer afloat showing non-commercial art, experimenting and holding a position. Joining a Big Four gallery, they become a new brand at a luxury retailer that offers a little something for everyone. (Robert Irwin and Robert Nava on the same list: yuck!) Huge galleries host succulent exhibitions, but despite the means to take risks, conservatism reigns. (Note that wealthy dealers who traveled to Seoul, where I live, didn’t rush to sign unproven Korean artists.) with more modest representatives.

So, to state the obvious, the life of the vast majority of galleries remains precarious. Retail rents have fallen in many cities, allowing new sites to open, but how long will that last? While established dealers, like supergroup LGDR, have considered cutting back on fair stands, fairs remain a key way for fledgling gallery owners to reach new customers and one bad outing can be disastrous. (I once congratulated an upstart dealer on their acceptance into a prestigious fair. They replied, “Thank you. We won the chance to bet on our business.”)

Art may be becoming like other cultural industries, with an oligopoly floating above everyone else. I sometimes think of a 1993 essay, “The Problem with Music”, by producer Steve Albini, which details the expenses that cut into a band’s profits, as middlemen keep popping up in the art, promising to help resellers to compete. There are publicists and fairs. There are flexible rental outfits: Cromwell Place and No.9 Cork Street (Frieze) in London, Art House (Artvest) in New York. And there are the online marketplaces: Artsy, 1stdibs and, now, David Zwirner, whose platform sells works from certain galleries, with an “add to cart” button (Zwirner’s commission is 20% ). A collector who spoke to The New York Times explained that Platform is great because “I don’t have time to go to all the young, up-and-coming galleries.” But isn’t this the bare minimum that we should ask of contemporary art collectors?

There are more dealers, artists and museums than ever before. Large sums of money are spent. It’s a golden age for galleries, in a way, but it could be so much better.

We know the genius artist without buyers and the visionary merchant who cannot sell. If we’re not careful, we could find ourselves in a world dominated by big box chains, immersive experiences and online viewing rooms, confusing art simulations with reality. Then we deserve to be scolded by an old phrase from David Lynch: “It’s so sad that you thought you saw a movie on your fucking phone. Be real.

Andrew Russeth is a Seoul-based writer.

Excerpt from the October 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Mildred D. Field