Great art needs an audience
Art dealers who believe galleries are no longer necessary have forgotten an essential reason why works are valued
By Blake Gopnik. Comment, Issue 254, February 2014
Published online: 13 February 2014
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 BlakeGopnik.com
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