Gallery system is structurally weak
A new report by the non-profit dealers’ federation Cinoa finds that fair-led and online business is taking over as the main source of revenue
By Charlotte Burns. News, Issue 226, July-August 2011
Published online: 28 July 2011
BRUSSELS. The traditional gallery model is in decline, according to a new report by the non-profit dealers’ federation Cinoa (Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvres d’Art), which found that fair-led and online business is taking over as the main source of revenue.
Gallery visits are declining as the art market expands to new international centres served better by art fairs or electronic media.
“We do much more business at the fairs than at the gallery—no question,” said Dominique Lévy, the co-director of L&M gallery.
András Szántó, consultant and contributing editor to The Art Newspaper, said: “The fairs have done very well in exploiting a structural weakness of the gallery system—it is inchoate and based on local markets.” With the withdrawal of those markets during the downturn “the overall weight has shifted to clients who don’t live where you work—so you service them through art fairs,” said dealer David Zwirner.
According to a recent report from Capgemini, the Asia-Pacific region has overtaken the west in terms of the number of individuals with investable assets worth $1m or more. It is no coincidence that the Hong Kong art fair, Art HK, in which Art Basel bought a 60% stake in May, attracted such a stellar line-up of western dealers this year.
The growth of fairs brings with it huge pressures for dealers to fund travel, staff fairs and find enough material. Whether the traditional gallery model can sustain all this outreach remains to be seen. Some think not. “It is more convenient and inspiring to work in a more unconventional format, having an office and platform, and doing temporary projects and pop-up shows,” said Berlin dealer Matthias Arndt, when he announced earlier this year that his gallery would now open only sporadically for shows.
“We are in a major systemic shift,” said Szántó. “The expansion of the auction business and art fairs is adding a whole layer above the gallery system as it evolved in the 20th century.” A handful of galleries, including Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner “have pulled away from the pack, but the question is, where does that leave the regular rank and file gallery?” he added.
Dominique Lévy is sanguine. “The proliferation of fairs is ridiculous. They will strangle each other in the end,” she said. She suggested that the old-fashioned benefits of a gallery may, in fact, be key to their survival. “The secret is to inform new buyers of all the options—and galleries offer a special service, whether it’s taking care of shipping, hanging works, advising on exhibition loans, reframing or insurance. Collectors will realise [this],” she said, but added that it “may be later [rather] than sooner”.
Several web-based ventures, including the VIP art fair, Art.sy and Paddle8, have recently emerged. However, dealers remain to be convinced that online business will work for expensive art. “There’s a lot of potential for cheaper works…but nobody is going to spend a huge amount on a work without seeing it,” said the New York-based, secondary market specialist Christophe Van de Weghe. “The comfy price limit is $100,000,” confirmed Alexander Gilkes, the co-founder of Paddle8.
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