The great ‘whether to separate’ debate
Galleries are increasingly splitting their sales and curatorial teams. Some, however, are sceptical
By Julia Halperin. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 13 June 2013
As the marathon run of international art fairs that began in New York in May, then moved to Hong Kong, now comes to an end here in Switzerland, the last thing that art dealers may be thinking about is their gallery shows. And indeed, some of them won’t have to. Traditionally, gallery staff work with artists, collectors and museums simultaneously, making no distinction between the sales and exhibitions departments. But the onslaught of trade events has led many dealers to restructure their businesses, spinning off specialised sales teams to work at art fairs while the exhibition team stays to mind the gallery at home. Which structure is chosen is an important expression of a gallery’s identity, albeit one that is invisible to the public at large.
The move towards the newer model is fuelled by the growth of the art market: galleries are taking part in more international art fairs and biennials than at any other point in history and many have spaces in more than one country. “The success of a gallery’s expansion often has to do with how they set up the structure internally,” says the art adviser Lisa Schiff. Some are hiring management consultants to streamline operations, while others are bringing in freelance curators to organise exhibitions rather than creating them in-house.
Dealers in favour of the new model maintain that it makes galleries more efficient and competitive. Goodman Gallery (2.1/N12), based in Capetown and Johannesburg, recently decided to convert. “The old model works for small galleries, however there is no accountability” for individual staff members, says the owner Liza Essers, who is presenting new work by William Kentridge, Gerhard Marx and David Goldblatt at the fair. The new model, by contrast, offers each employee a strictly defined set of responsibilities. “I found that, as the gallery has more than doubled its turnover as well as increased its activity at international art fairs, restructuring, with curators responsible for artists and exhibitions, and separate from the sales team, is the way to go. Another key reason is that artists require attention, and so I feel that a dedicated team working with artists is important.”
The São Paulo-based Galeria Nara Roesler adopted a similar model after collaborating with an outside consultant and experimenting with different structures for two years. “I think that as galleries grow into bigger enterprises they are forced to specialise staff,” says Daniel Roesler, the gallery’s co-director.
Small galleries are converting as well. “We saw bigger galleries structuring themselves this way, so we thought, ‘Let’s try this,’” says Edward Winkleman, whose New York gallery now employs a sales director as part of its four-person staff. The new structure “really comes down to the old school capitalist idea of specialisation as a means towards efficiency,” he says.
David Leiber, a director at the New York-based Sperone Westwater (2.0/E10), likened the division between exhibitions and sales to a “separation between church and state”. (He notes that his gallery, which is presenting historic pieces including a red punctured painting by Lucio Fontana from 1960 and a large charcoal drawing by Gilbert & George from 1971 priced at over $1m each, operates “somewhere in between”.) At its “least nuanced”, he says it means that the sales staff is “given a list of works at the end of the day”, while the “curatorial staff works only with the artists, almost like a museum”.
The SoHo model
Devotees of the traditional model maintain that it is one of the few factors keeping the art business from becoming corporate. To prevent art dealers from becoming like “so many investment bankers, churning deals when and where they can to make the numbers… both the selling and exhibiting of art need to be a single pursuit”, says the London-based dealer and art world commentator Kenny Schachter.
Refined in the 1960s and 1970s when dealers ran smaller, more localised operations in neighbourhoods like SoHo in New York and Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, the traditional model places a premium on close communication among artists, collectors and dealers. Staff members work with artists on all aspects of their careers, including gallery exhibitions, museum shows and publications, as well as sales.
“The newer model is not necessarily in the best interest of the artist or art and its greater audience,” says Finola Jones, the director of the Dublin-based Mother’s Tankstation (1/S16), which is presenting a series of paintings by Mairead O’hEocha in the Art Statements section. She says it encourages the idea of art as a “branded product”.
“We adhere to the ‘traditional’ model,” says Joost Bosland, a director at the Capetown- and Johannesburg-based Stevenson Gallery (1/S8). “Our clients wouldn’t have it any other way.”
A handful of larger international businesses, like Sprüth Magers (2.0/B19), have also consciously rejected the new model. Although the gallery has 31 staff members spread across Cologne, Berlin and London, its founders Philomene Magers and Monika Sprüth prefer a holistic approach. Directors from all three locations are on hand at the fair, presenting an untitled bristle and wood sculpture by Rosemarie Trockel from 1994, for €300,000 and a digital print on vinyl by Barbara Kruger, Made for You, 2013, for $250,000. “We give the structure a lot of thought, for example, if people only sell, they may be too detached from the content,” they believe. “By structuring the gallery in this way, we can bind different locations together and make information travel.”
Is there a limit?
As a gallery gets bigger, however, “there is a tipping point where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and you become inefficient”, says the New York-based dealer Sean Kelly (2.1/N2). (His gallery employs 20 people who are involved with both sales and artist services.) “We hear this from our artists who work with other galleries that are at that stage, and it makes them very uncomfortable,” he adds.
“Most dealers and artists would love to have a firewall between the grind of sales and challenge of producing art,” says the New York-based artist William Powhida. “As an artist, it’s very important to work with people who have an interest in the development and trajectory of the work beyond sales. It reminds me of the relationship an author has with their editor, versus the relationship they have with their agent.” But he adds: “I can’t imagine an art world—well maybe I can—where wealthy collectors would be entirely happy dealing with a sales person, and not someone who is intimately connected with the development of the work.”
It is unclear how much the division of labour shapes the buyer’s experience. “I don’t feel like there is any lag or lack of information because I’m not dealing with someone who is directly involved with the artist,” says the art adviser Wendy Cromwell. “If the gallery is well-run, there isn’t a difference in service.”
Ultimately, most galleries must be flexible because the needs of artists and collectors are not uniform. Jose Kuri, of Mexico City’s Kurimanzutto (2.1/N1), says: “We operate in a very different way for each project—there is not a model that we follow.”
The commission question
Commission (the portion of a work of art’s sale price that goes directly to the salesperson) is another question. “If it is a fierce commission-based structure, you’re all ruthlessly fighting for material,” says Lisa Schiff. “If you all share a portion of the total profit, you might make less money, but I think it’s a healthier model.”
Sean Kelly (2.1/N2) says his directors do not work on commission for that reason. “It isn’t beneficial to the artists because it pits people against each other,” he says. “Everyone understands that if the company does well, there will be bonuses handed out and they will do well.” Each of the five partners of David Zwirner Gallery (2.0/F5) has a stake in the business. Although there are “commission incentives”, according to the marketing and press director Julia Joern, “they are more like bonuses”.
Gagosian (2.0/B15) takes a slightly different tack. “Everyone gets paid the same commission rate on sales,” which is usually between 10% and 20% on secondary market material, according to court depositions by gallery staff, “but for those who sell less and spend more time working with artists and exhibitions, the base salary is higher,” according to a 2011 Vogue magazine article. A spokeswoman for Gagosian says that this information is not entirely correct but declined to comment further.
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