Too much too young?
Galleries reselling works by young artists stand accused of breaching “hidden” codes of conduct
By Charlotte Burns. From Frieze daily edition
Published online: 14 October 2011
london. One of the curiosities of recent years has been the furore surrounding young artists whose works are being traded on the secondary market for gigantic sums. The secondary (or resale) market has historically relied upon dead or ageing artists for its supply, but the heat around contemporary art has fuelled a new phenomenon: an emerging resale market for artists in the early stages of their careers.
A new Mayfair space that opened this week with a whisper (there wasn’t even a press release) has, nonetheless, set tongues wagging. Modern Collections is a secondary market gallery with links to one of London’s most celebrated primary market dealers—White Cube’s founder, Jay Jopling. White Cube has a stake in the new business, which is directed by Inigo Philbrick, its former head of secondary market sales.
The opening exhibition of works by Kelley Walker (born 1969) and Wade Guyton (born 1972), whom neither White Cube nor Modern Collections represents, is proving contentious. Both artists are very much in demand. “Their values have skyrocketed. Everyone is talking about how this has happened and how it can continue,” says Filiep Libeert, the Belgian collector who was an early supporter of Guyton and Walker. Libeert says that works that were selling for $20,000 six or seven years ago are now priced over $800,000 on the secondary market.
The problem, as some perceive it, has arisen because the traditional role of a primary gallery has been to manage its artists’ markets and careers by placing works carefully with important museums or respected collectors. Secondary market galleries, like the auctions, arguably have little responsibility to the artist: their bread is buttered by serving the seller and maximising profits. This matters little when an artist is dead, or so established that their reputation and prices are stable—and can be a good way for collectors to gain access to their works.
Some, however, fear that shows like “Guyton Guyton Walker Walker” (until 20 December) could fuel speculation, which may damage the long-term careers of these younger artists. Others suggest that the business itself represents a new twist in the commodification of art. “It seems like a really irresponsible thing to do to young artists,” says Lisa Schiff, an art adviser, who adds that “prices are now so far beyond what they would be on the primary market”. Thomas Dane (F17), whose gallery represents Walker, says that it is “totally inappropriate” for such young artists to be sold on the secondary market in this way, and Sadie Coles (C14) says the venture is “confusing”.
White Cube’s involvement in this secondary market venture could be seen simply as a new strategy for coping with the pressure on the traditional gallery model. “Traditionally, there has been very little innovation in our trade, but now galleries are pioneering different business models,” says David Zwirner of the eponymous gallery (G13). “It’s an interesting move. Artists go from primary market to secondary so quickly now,” says Sarah Watson, the director of L&M Arts gallery’s Los Angeles branch, speaking at Frieze this week.
It could also be seen as a response to the auction houses, which became dominant during the boom years. “Everything goes to auction anyway. Why can’t a dealer do it? It’s the secondary market, so anything goes,” says another Frieze gallerist, who asked to remain anonymous. Just yesterday, a small “X” painting by Guyton, Untitled, 2007, sold at Sotheby’s day sale for £163,250, more than twice its upper estimate of £80,000.
Other dealers say the phenomenon is new to London but not New York, and that the stake in Modern Collections adds another string to White Cube’s London bow when major US galleries are moving into the British capital. Philbrick says Modern Collections is “doing the things you would expect of an Upper East Side gallery”. Pilar Ordovas, who opened a new space dealing in historic secondary market material last week, says: “It is a model that has been very successful in New York, and which has not really been adopted in London.”
White Cube is a proud advocate of London. The gallery’s vast, new, third space in south London measures 74,300 sq. ft. “London is a great creative hub, and we want to play a part in keeping that momentum going,” says Tim Marlow, White Cube’s creative director.
Whatever the reasons for the trend, the results remain to be seen. Will the hype taint these young artists’ careers or can their markets be sustained? “If [they] continue to make fantastic work, then the prices are worth it,” Libeert says. Philbrick says the show is just one part of the gallery’s programme, and that future exhibitions will focus on various generations of artists—not just the young.
"Guyton Guyton Wallker Walker" is on view at Modern Collections, 89 Mount Street, London until 20 December
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