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Great art needs an audience

Art dealers who believe galleries are no longer necessary have forgotten an essential reason why works are valued

Christian Marclay’s The Clock, 2010, at White Cube Mason’s Yard

As the virtual replaces the physical and the world gets globalised, we’ve been hearing that art galleries, material and settled in a single place are bound to be on their way out. Collectors are now more likely to buy at a fair than from a dealer’s home base; some may do their art shopping online. A few mid-range dealers, especially, are already closing their galleries, to conduct all their business in private, at fairs, or by jpeg. Some newly prominent art middlemen, such as Vito Schnabel in New York, have never even opened a permanent space. I believe that these changes put art itself at risk.

Nicole Klagsbrun is one of the more prominent New York dealers to close up shop recently. She has cited the fact that art fairs have siphoned attention and attendance from galleries, and that online sales negate the actual art experience a physical show provides. Why should she pay rent on a gallery, when clients care less and less about the kind of art-viewing it allows?

“I just don’t like the gallery system any more… If nothing is working, there’s only one way to change this—that’s to stop it,” Klagsbrun said in a podcast.

When I talk to contemporary dealers who have chosen to stick with a gallery space, they often tell me that they have no choice but to do it “for their artists”, who demand exhibitions for the reviews and attention they bring. “What artist wants to show with a gallery that can’t offer them exhibitions?” says Marc Spiegler, the director of Art Basel. This fair, incidentally, only admits dealers with physical spaces. “We stand for a gallery-centered vision of the art world,” Spiegler says—although I’d say that fairs themselves risk undermining that vision.

Spiegler also suggests that an impressive new space can coax new and different work out of artists who might otherwise repeat themselves. And even though the gallery may no longer be the place where art gets sold, dealers still need to have one as a social space for clients to visit, and for the prestige.

Spiegler points to the “geopsycho­graphics” of gallery space: “The space and architecture that a gallery chooses, and its location in the city, tells you a lot about its approach. Some collectors may never come to the gallery itself, but they still want to know it exists.”

Thinking in these terms, we risk imagining the gallery more and more as some kind of extra-fancy and impressive office space, such as a private banker might do business in. 

I think this is a mistake, even in the most crass financial terms. Fundamentally, art acquires its market value because it has cultural worth. The central sales pitch of any auction catalogue, for instance, revolves around its objects’ art-historical excellence. Even if art is being bought as an investment, as seems to be more and more the case, auction houses don’t commission catalogue essays from economists and analysts, who could comment on future prices; the big writing bucks go to scholars and critics, who weigh in on history and aesthetics. The assumption clearly is that future value is closely linked to past and present delight. “Masterpiece” is the art market’s magic word, and the only way some paint on canvas, or video on disc, becomes a masterpiece is when the culture as a whole embraces it. If the term means anything at all, that’s what it’s about.

And the culture, of course, can only embrace something it has good access to. We need to see the art before we can proclaim it excellent. The real reason galleries need to exist isn’t to help their owners’ bottom lines or to coax work out of artists; it’s not about those artists’ profile and pride; it’s not even about collectors and clients. It’s about the general public—or at least a dedicated public of art lovers—who in the long run, maybe the very long run, will be the most powerful players in the art game. The masterpiece status already acquired by The Clock, Christian Marclay’s great video projection, clearly has something to do with the acclaim it received and the huge crowds it drew at White Cube gallery in London in 2010, and then again in 2011 at Paula Cooper’s gallery in New York. 

I’ve often heard dealers talk about the “special favour” they do by presenting their shows, free, to all and sundry—and the average punter is certainly made to feel as though they’re only in the gallery on sufferance. But the truth is that the art that’s on view, and for sale, doesn’t mean much unless there’s a public there to receive it.

Yachts and other elite consumables are designed specifically to appeal to the super-rich. Such objects gain status by being largely unknown to the masses. But even the richest consumer of art wants what they own to matter more broadly, even if it’s only so their investment will last. And if collectors buy into the modern ideal that art should be challenging, maybe even raise hackles, then there need to be hackles around to go up.

If Courbet’s Origin of the World or Titian’s Venus of Urbino sat hidden as a naughty image in a bachelor pad, the pictures would mean very little. They only started to matter once there could be broader talk about them. A new work that moves without friction straight from the studio to the middleman’s warehouse then onto the collector’s wall is art that is never given the chance to matter, and is probably so digestible that it never could. As the rest of society and culture gets gradually privatised, art, by its nature, demands community.

Art fairs may be fine places to sell art, and just-adequate places for experts to see it. (Although I’m still surprised by collectors who tell me they do most of their viewing at fairs.) But fairs are, by definition and design, exclusive venues: they happen for a few days, charge a bundle for admission and essentially cater to insiders. They can’t introduce art into the larger cultural conversation. To the extent that fairs and websites are pushing galleries to the margins, they are also marginalising the art their clients present.

I’m sorry for Klagsbrun and other dealers who can’t see how running a gallery still makes good sense. But I’ll feel more sorry for art lovers, and for art itself, if art becomes merely about private exchange.

Blake Gopnik is an art critic who is working on a biography of Andy Warhol for HarperCollins. His Daily Pic appears at

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24 Apr 14
15:12 CET


I hear you. Great article that I feel speaks for the artist and what the value of art should mean for an artist and his audience. As an artist, I've seen a lot of the gallery's true colors, and it's not to say they won't accept innovative work but I think there is a problem to be said for the contemporary artist. As Carol mentioned, one must see art from their own growth and from a viewpoint not an institution per se. Without a gallery the artist is still an artist, but without the artist what is the gallery? In a contemporary society it's strange to think of the mainstream galleries not keeping an open mind to the edgier contemporary work. One must always be overlooked by a Banksy, Koons or Hirst these days? What does the gallery know about art today other than how to be pretentious.

19 Feb 14
16:20 CET


A photographic representation of an artwork is not a reliable re-presentation/experience of this artwork. Photography, in other words the science of vision, is based on geometric principles which are excluding the viewer hence it provides only a partial experience of what it represents. Hence, it is vital for viewers to experience the artwork directly, with their own eyes and body, to engage all their senses.

18 Feb 14
22:44 CET


As an artist, and one who gets more out of art by being with it, I know the importance of the presents of art work. Galleries provide a visceral experience, online does not. The ephemeral must be physically experienced. Fluxus events, happenings, interactive art, etc. depend upon real space and time. Galleries are the stepping stones to the museums. They are in the forefront where as museums follow. Yet, unlike museums, private for profit - American galleries don't receive subsidies to keep their doors open. This is creating the problem, some what.

17 Feb 14
15:19 CET


Artist run space/fairs are another solution. Artists using the net, social media, networking and other skills that galleries have "patented" are other ways forward. Why even bother with people who does not care for art as an artist? A lot of the "art" discussed within these settings are not very highly regarded among practicing artists, but high bidders. Just avoid this context discussed here, and there is plenty of fine art to see. Just look more at other spaces than internet sites that share the same art works like vogue gossip etc.

17 Feb 14
15:20 CET


Well written, Blake. Art is sliding out of sight. It can't be truly appreciated at an art fair. The fairs seem to be more about the audience than the art.

14 Feb 14
20:50 CET


If Museums show all their work on the Internet and Galleries do the same we will be living in a Virtual Art World where Art will only be seen in actuality by the owners of the Art. We'll be returning to a long ago time when Art was for the elite - or are we there already? Blossom

14 Feb 14
15:55 CET


Perhaps we should also stop going to museums and just look at museum shows and collections on line as well? There is no replacement for the up close and personal experience when viewing artwork. The emotional impact of this type of interaction can never be replaced or imitated by the internet.

14 Feb 14
15:22 CET


One of the best functions of a gallery is to provide context for an artist's work. At art fairs artwork is mashed into a small space with a lot of competing styles and 'voices'. It's like trying to hear several opera's at once. But in a gallery, as you stroll by the artwork you gain context and you begin to see and understand what the artist and/or curator is 'communicating'. This is invaluable to both the artist and the collector because by its nature, it's creating a relationship.

14 Feb 14
15:22 CET


Dear Blake, take it easy, Art isn't private exchange and there is simple reason behind Klagsbrun decision - no money to pay the gallery space rent or wish to save which will on long term will bring negative results. Again, Art Basel doesn't accept galleries without spaces, where should they go? To art fairs without traffic?

14 Feb 14
15:22 CET


Gallery exhibitions also give context, allowing work (particularly complex or difficult work) to be understood more fully, thereby creating an opportunity for it to achieve significance. Seeing one or two pieces at an art fair is not the same as seeing an entire exhibition that fleshes out an artist's investigations over a period of time. Without gallery exhibitions, reviews, and dialogue, an artist is a manufacturer. Artists stand to lose the most in this new paradigm, and don't think it won't affect the quality of the art. I dare say it already has.

14 Feb 14
1:50 CET


For art to grow, artists need to see art. Otherwise they're just making trading cards.

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