Artists Commercial galleries Market United Kingdom

Dealing direct: do artists really need galleries?

Successful artists, as well as some smart youngsters, are in no rush to secure big-league representation

Joana Vasconcelos made Lilicoptère, 2012

When Haunch of Venison closed in March 2013, the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos was left without a gallery in London or New York—the two cities where Haunch, which was bought by Christie’s in 2007, had spaces. Since her gallery closed, Vasconcelos’s career has been on an upward trajectory: she has represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale, unveiled public sculptures in Porto and Lisbon, and produced several new works for a retrospective at the Manchester Art Gallery. Vasconcelos is not alone. Rising stars such as the British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara have successfully negotiated the intricacies of the art world without major gallery representation while others at the peak of their careers, such as Anish Kapoor, regularly bypass their galleries to sell direct to clients from their studios. So do successful artists need galleries?

Joana Vasconcelos made Lilicoptère, 2012 (above), a Bell 47 helicopter decorated with ostrich feathers, gold leaf and Swarovski crystals for her 2012 solo exhibition at Versailles. The work, conceived as a helicopter for Marie Antoinette, was sold by Vasconcelos’s then gallery Haunch of Venison to an unnamed collector. But when this collector failed to pay for the work and Haunch closed down, Lilicoptère was inherited by Christie’s along with “hundreds” of other works by Haunch artists, according to a spokeswoman for the auction house. These works have been offered privately and at auction over the past year.

Vasconcelos, who employs a team of 45 at her studio in Lisbon, says she would like to join a large gallery but is in “no rush” to do so. “I have had a lot of invitations, but it has never seemed the right [match].” For now, Vasconcelos says she will continue to work with her existing network of smaller spaces: Casa Triângulo in Sao Paulo (which currently has a show of her work, until 3 May); Galería Horrach Moya in Palma de Mallorca, and Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris and Brussels.

“Vasconcelos already has all the necessary connections in the art world,” says the London-based curator Olivier Varenne. Her work is in major collections such as the one assembled by the French luxury goods magnate François Pinault, she has had prominent solo exhibitions including a 2012 show at Versailles, she is able to raise funds for the production of new works through her studio, and she communicates directly with collectors via a regular newsletter. “Why would she pay 50% commission to a gallery when she has her own network? She doesn’t need a major gallery,” says Varenne, who works for the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, and says he bypasses galleries whenever he can to work directly with artists.

Meanwhile, younger artists who have grown up in the era of instantaneous communication ushered in by the internet and photo-sharing applications such as Instagram, are incredibly savvy about promoting their own work, says the London dealer Kenny Schachter. “One day technology could obviate the need for full, traditional gallery representation. There are unsigned kids, like the Los Angeles-based painter Alex Israel [who is represented in Berlin by Peres Projects, in Paris by Almine Rech and shows with multiple galleries in New York but is not exclusively represented by anyone in the US] selling their art for hundreds of thousands of dollars…they’re not going to join some rinky- dinky gallery just for the hell of it.”

Artists therefore expect much more from galleries today, says Varenne. “Many galleries are signing artists and not doing enough to promote their work.” And in today’s hyper-charged art market, there are many alternative ways of promoting your own art such as working with a manager or hiring your own staff to take on the roles traditionally performed by galleries.

Such ways of working are, however, fraught with danger, says the London-based art adviser Emily Tsingou. “I don’t think these models work. Navigating the art market is very complicated. Galleries have experience doing this; they can control supply and demand with sophistication. There is a lot of price distortion and an artist’s studio wouldn’t necessarily know how to deal with that. It’s very hard to work alone.”

“Artists need galleries to sustain their work on the secondary market and buy their work at auction,” says the London-based collector David Roberts, who adds that buyers are reassured if an artist is represented by a well-known gallery. “A lot of collectors ask artists: ‘who are you with?’. If a big gallery doesn’t want to sign them up, they ask ‘why?’. It makes them nervous about investing in the work.” Roberts says he always prefers to buy through galleries rather than directly from an artist because savings from dealing direct with a studio are “minimal”, while for buyers good relationships with dealers are crucial.

And young artists who can prosper without a gallery are the exception rather than the rule, says the London dealer Joe La Placa, who runs All Visual Arts, a hybrid gallery and arts commissioning organisation with funding from a hedge fund billionaire. “When you’re developing, you definitely need a gallery. Artists are usually cash poor at the beginning of their careers; they can’t deal with production costs, shipping, insurance, promotion—people underestimate what galleries do. But I think once you’re a blue-chip artist, although you need close associations with galleries to show your new work, you can operate independently.”

A case in point, says La Placa, is Kapoor who “operates independently from any gallery although he has a profound relationship with Lisson [Gallery]”, with whom he has worked for decades. A spokeswoman for Kapoor says the artist has shown Nicholas Logsdail, the director of Lisson Gallery, every sculpture he has ever made to canvas the dealer’s opinion. Such relationships are extremely important for an artist’s development, says Tsingou. “There is a degree of mentorship when working with a gallery. It creates a context [for an artist’s work] and a critical discourse.”

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30 Apr 14
22:59 CET


@fransjones. Would Vasconcelos then fall into the artisanal art category? And Kapoor "real"?

28 Apr 14
15:57 CET


In my experience, galleries are most useful for developing an "artist's career." Either they do that job well, or they don't. Given their huge "rosters," I truly wonder how long such an artist within such a "roster" ever gets his/her career adequately tended. Regardless, galleries "make artist's careers." It is just this simple, and this complicated. One has to thoroughly research one's potential dealer before deciding that such & such a dealer is a "good fit." It's all in the contract with the gallery/dealer/owner. Strongly recommend EVERY artist w/a gallery retain own Visual Arts Lawyer & Accountant prior to "signing" with a reputable art gallery who he/she expects to be "making his/her career." Otherwise, you stand to lose everything!

24 Apr 14
15:12 CET


Well, gee, I thought artists like to have shows of their work, and it's funny but all the "big" galleries like Gagosion etc don't seem to care much to show emerging artists, but hey lots of small to medium size galleries give a chance for young artists to show, and also sell their work for decent money to enable the artists to buy supplies and eat while they are developing as artists. Or maybe all artists should just rent office space and a big huge studio toWhy don't artists just have a second job selling cars or something too, so they can make their own money without relying on these greedy galleries that take their work to the plethora of expensive art fairs around the world, where lazy curators and collectors pop through to see stuff. Yet another idiotic article about the "market" and artists selling their own work. Unfortunately with the state of most western economies and lack of government funding, I would love to see where young and mid career artists could show.

14 Apr 14
3:23 CET


"Artists need galleries to sustain their work on the secondary market and buy their work at auction,” says David Roberts. That's an example of the tail wagging the dog. The artists get nothing, not one penny, from the secondary market. They don't need it at all. Only dealers and investors, not artists, need the secondary market to make a profit.

11 Apr 14
15:6 CET


In the end, it is all down to the observer. Real art (communicating new ideas and exploring social concepts), as opposed to artisan art (investment art), will always need a platform and forum to interact with those whom they wish to communicate with, e.g. the public. The more market specific the artist is in their creativity projects, the more successful both the artist and the market will be. Real art and their makers should be fostered and nurtured in a special way, because their acts usually engage society at large in the act of transcendence, With investment art, the artists motives lean towards the financial value from the onset. Big or small the artist, the size that matters is the art itself, and not in comparison to the artist, but the impact culturally. Collaboration of the social and financial worlds is a given like the double helix of DNA. Without this status quo artists will denigrate to simple pyramid builders and art will be functional only. Each to his own.

11 Apr 14
15:5 CET


I have been selling my work directly from my studio for years with great results! Because of the Internet & frictionless sharing though social media my audience grows continuously. I make a good living and I have left the secondary market of my work to its own devices. Works of mine reselling have not hurt my primary sales and in fact they have often led to new sales with new collectors. For me the Internet has brought sales and new freedom to show in alternative ways online and in alternative spaces offline. Another great freedom is that one can show less work so for me there is less pressure on putting together a large show.

11 Apr 14
15:5 CET


I have been successfully selling my artwork right out of my studio especially during Annual Open Studio Exhibit each summer for the past three years. I like meeting and interacting with my collectors in person and getting to know them. It seems to be a two way street.

11 Apr 14
15:5 CET


I've been oil painting for about 6 years, have no track record and am 73 years old. I remember when galleries charged a 30% commission... so now, at 50% I hesitate. I hesitate, but do not really know how else to proceed, though you can bet I am exploring ways and means.

10 Apr 14
15:5 CET


I agree with you.i think without gallery a artist is unable to reach to more art lovers.thank you

10 Apr 14
15:16 CET


The concept of “…do artists really need galleries..” has existed since the time of the artistic academies and salons. With the advent of the internet this discussion emerges once again. The most difficult thing an artist is required to do, besides create, is to find individuals who believe in, and most importantly can afford to acquire one’s work. Artists do not have the luxury of being independently wealthy, or of having married well, as a result they must seek out buyers, most often significantly outside their own socio-economic sphere. The idea that because of technology, the gallery can be extricated is a valid one, but valid “Only” for those Artists who survive at minimal economic level ( ie Etsy or eBay ) or the small percentage who have an existing body of buyers at a Regional Level, or greater. For the vast majority of MidCareer and Emerging “Un-recognized” Artists, the Gallery is a requirement as a common transaction point to be found, supported, and purchased.

10 Apr 14
15:15 CET


According to David Roberts Artists need galleries "to sustain their work on the secondary market and buy their work at auction"? This sounds like artists need galleries to artificially prop up their prices at auction. If people want it, they will buy it.

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