Fairs Market United Kingdom

Galleries stake their claims

Competition for top artists is hotting up as art market goes global

Peter Doig puts the finishing touches to a painting just before the opening of his show at Michael Werner Gallery, London,

The rules of artists’ representation are being rewritten as the market expands. As dealers open more spaces abroad, artists have to decide who to show with, and where. Anselm Kiefer has created new works for both Larry Gagosian (FL, D7; FM, C5) and Thaddaeus Ropac (FL, F4) to launch their vast new venues in Paris next week. The New York gallerist Michael Werner (FL, F8) opened his Mayfair space last month with a show of paintings by Peter Doig, who until this point was represented in Britain only by Victoria Miro (FL, D2; FM, C10). It remains to be seen how artists’ territories will be divided in emerging cities such as Hong Kong—fresh ground for most Western dealers.

Traditionally, artists worked on the primary market with dealers in different regions, who respected each other’s turf. Unspoken codes meant that American dealers did not encroach on the territory of their European counterparts, and vice versa. But “the art world is changing. It seems that anything goes, and there’s no such thing as exclusivity any more,” says Victoria Miro, who adds that Peter Doig is “only with Michael Werner, for now”. She is philosophical, however. “You can just do your best for the artist; you can’t be rigid. Maybe it’s a good thing, as long as everyone is bettering the artist’s career,” she says.

Previously, “local galleries showed local artists, but it doesn’t work like that any more. It’s become really corporate,” says Pilar Corrias (FL, H5). “Galleries don’t work with artists in one country any longer.” Collectors are less dependent on their local dealers, too. The proliferation of art fairs means that buyers can access works by one artist at several galleries.

The empire-building of mega-­galleries like Gagosian has also changed the natural order. Gagosian’s unprecedented business model has led to 12 permanent galleries in eight cities. White Cube (FL, F7), which has spaces in London and Hong Kong, will expand to São Paulo in December, while the New Yorkers David Zwirner (FL, G9; FM, F6) and Pace Gallery (FL, G8; FM, D1) are flocking to Mayfair.

“Nothing fundamentally has changed, except that budgets got bigger and there is more competition for the best artists out there,” says Iwan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth (FL, C8; FM, B5), which has spaces in London, Zurich and New York. “The market forces ­galleries to expand their business models and their expertise. Galleries are no longer just a ‘shop’ but must be highly professional in many ways, while at the same time keeping a dialogue with the artist and the public.”

This is a consequence of the boom between 2000 and 2008, according to the adviser Todd Levin, the director of the Levin Art Group. “There was so much money flowing into the system that many larger galleries would look at their more remunerative artists and not feel as complacent about giving up that kind of control and monetary return,” he says.

The art world is based on gentlemen’s agreements, rather than contracts. Most of the galleries we spoke to do not have formal arrangements with their artists. “The art world is like the diamond trade because it’s totally based on trust. If you abuse that trust, then you’re out, but this does mean there is an enormous amount of flexibility,” says the artist Luc Tuymans, the subject of David Zwirner’s opening show in London. He has worked with Zwirner for 18 years, and with the Belgian gallery Zeno X (FL, A1) for more than 20. “I trust these people. We have grown together,” Tuymans says. “As an artist, you have to be taken care of, and they will, for instance, buy back my works at auction to protect me.”

So who is in the driving seat? Like any relationship, it depends on where the power lies. Dealers are under pressure to keep up with their rivals, and a new space in a major centre enables them to be more competitive, although this puts pressure on their artists; certain artists, such as Damien Hirst, can set their own agendas, but emerging artists are less likely to be in control. It also depends on the kind of work being created. “It is very different for painters, who tend to be more exclusively represented than sculptors, where huge production budgets might force an artist to work with more galleries,” Iwan Wirth says.

There are other changes afoot. Smaller galleries may need to team up. “You have to have alliances so you have strength in numbers and can share costs,” Pilar Corrias says. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see more artists hire managers who represent their interests among their various galleries, keeping the artist focused on their work and letting their managers handle any tense negotiations,” says the New York dealer Edward Winkleman, the co-founder of the Moving Image fair in London ­(October 11-14).

The consensus is that every arrangement between artists and dealers is unique. But until new codes of behaviour are agreed on, “there are no rules”, says Rachel Lehmann of Lehmann Maupin Gallery (FL, F12).

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