No Condition Is Permanent
I had specific, personal reasons for closing my gallery, but I also saw ominous, unavoidable changes in the art market which are analogous to changes in the broader economy.
First, abundance plagues our industry. In January 2016, I was discussing the over-saturation of artists with some clients. Forty minutes later, one checked her phone and realized she’d gotten no less than ten sales offers during the time we’d been talking. One PDF every four minutes. In January.
The globalization of the art world means that galleries have contact information for the same set of collectors, who are then deluged with offers. I know a number of collectors have been so discouraged by the volume of offers that they just stopped buying. Collecting involves varying amounts of emotion and fantasy which are destroyed by the kryptonite of Too Much, as oversaturation becomes the defining feature of our entire economy.
Second, collectors are not well informed because information is siloed and fragmented. Traditionally, gallerists provided a wealth of education to new collectors, making introductions and helping to navigate choices. Marty Eisenberg and Susan Hort have warm stories of Jack Tilton walking galleries with them. Mitchell Algus recently exhorted gallerists to return to this practice and he is categorically correct.
However, gallerists don’t have time to do this anymore. The push to close sales is all consuming, because #GrowOrGo. I felt this deeply and I regret that it affected the quality of the work we did. You can scale almost every aspect of a gallery, except relationships, which are crucial to creative and entrepreneurial survival. Scale is a time burglar.
It’s not just gallerists. A senior curator at a major NYC museum told me that Development always asks why she’s not walking the galleries with board members. Her response: No time! The nature of collecting has also changed. Collectors today work around the clock, since the nature of work has changed, too. Old school collectors were either anonymous workaday professionals or collectors who had so much money that they didn’t have to work. Both groups had a lot more time to invest in learning about artists and forging relationships with gallerists.
The attention economy has transformed the art world just like it has transformed other industries. The volume of information that an individual needs to make critical choices is overwhelming, in the art world, in politics, in buying seafood, in everything. And yet, the rapid growth of information shrinks attention. We skim instead of reading. We forget yesterday's news while reading about today’s news. This explains our surreal politics—the loudest, simplest message gets through to our lizard brains.
David Joselit describes the current speed of the art world as “art velocity” and I think this term is useful to describe conditions that affect our entire ecosystem.
Finally, the financial risks to collecting have risen, which shrinks the volume of collectors who can participate. It’s serious money with serious risks. A medium sized painting from a promising young artist’s first show at a new LES gallery was offered to me at $24,000. That price would have been $5,000 fifteen years ago. Every collector takes financial aspects into account because the prices are so high. How could they not?
Collectors run the market now, like big business runs most of society. For an artist, joining Zwirner, Hauser, or Gagosian will cement your market like Clement Greenberg reviewing Pollock. That’s the indicator of a successful market.
I’m not anti-big gallery. I think deep resources are required to produce the results that artists demand, otherwise they wouldn’t level up. Plus, big galleries provide their employees with health insurance, 401ks, generous pay, and a professional, supportive work environment.
But our ecosystem only incentivizes large scale success, in the art world and in the larger economy. That’s the essential problem. The challenges of the art world just reflect the inequality of the wider economy.
Just as we are raising our awareness about political journalism’s failures, we need to critique what kind of information is getting to collectors. Just as we criticize media outlets for amplifying President Hate’s tweets without fact-checking, we should criticize media outlets for amplifying auction results without providing art historical context. Market value and art historical value eventually align, so why not discuss them together? Where’s the Nate Silver of the art market?
Just as we are considering Medicare for All, we should consider progressive pricing for galleries. If art fairs can spend to fly in collectors, then they can pay for transport, flights and even lower booth costs. An ArtBasel Miami Beach Positions booth should be $2,000. The same goes for shippers, ARTbinder, advertising, and storage. Auxillary art businesses can’t grow at the expense of the bottom of the food chain.
Just as political candidates are finding success in forgoing PACs, galleries have to figure out how to mitigate the sales push and reclaim their time. They must grow in depth, not breadth. They must innovate new cash flows. They must grow their psycho-geography before growing their material footprint.
Furthermore, the art world must acknowledge the deep disparity inherent between artist, collector, museum goer, and citizen. I believe this is a strategic value misalignment that will become a liability as younger generations begin to collect. Just as consumers care about how restaurants source their food and treat their employees, patrons will care about every aspect of museum and gallery operation.
As I look back on my time running the gallery, I feel grateful for the wisdom I gained. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to find a way to repay my business debts, although it will take time. I’m grateful for the friends and colleagues who have treated me exactly the same before, during, and after the gallery’s existence. Mostly, my love of art has deepened. Art is essential to survival, to creating change, and to imagining how you want the world to be. No condition is permanent.
Lisa Cooley is an art advisor. She lives in New York.