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Artists wield the power now: why Simone Leigh's departure from Hauser & Wirth (to join Matthew Marks) is indicative of a broader trend

As the whole art world starts to question traditional norms, the artist said she was "still figuring out what I want from a primary gallery relationship"—time will tell if she has now worked it out

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Simone Leigh

David Heald/© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Simone Leigh

David Heald/© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

Last month, the artist Simone Leigh, who will represent the US at next year’s Venice Biennale, left Hauser & Wirth gallery, her representative for just 21 months. Her reasoning was deliberately vague: “I’m still figuring out what I want from a primary gallery relationship,” she said in a statement. (Leigh has since joined Matthew Marks gallery)

The gallery was gracious, but there’s no doubt this was a blow, even for a business that knows how to play by some of the art market’s cut-throat rules. As part of the powerful machine around Leigh, Hauser was a key conduit in the Venice commission and had been proudly showing her work as recently as the Frieze London fair in mid-October. Its Zurich exhibition for Leigh, her first major showing in Switzerland, was ongoing when she left the fold. Ouch.

The details of Leigh’s departure decision may never come out, but what is certain is that it is part of a wider phenomenon—which goes beyond the art world—of pushing against the status quo. It has become about personal choice. The hand that feeds us is no longer automatically seen as friendly, or even ethical, and it is now some of the more successful players who are lending their voices to the cause.

For the art market, this has manifestations elsewhere. Thanks in part to the pandemic, and the power of technology, big-name collectors can choose whether or not to go to art fairs in person, browse online or any other possibility in between. They can keep their prized works forever or flip them at auction, with seeming success. Galleries themselves are not kowtowing to the system either—take David Zwirner, who despite a slew of sales at Fiac in Paris, pronounced himself “a little disappointed” by the French fair. Iwan Wirth, the president of Leigh’s erstwhile gallery, has vowed to halve his art fair commitments.

In many ways, the system had it coming. Art fairs have exercised too much dominance in a fragmenting world, controlling what dealers say about their events with the threat of exclusion. Galleries have also proved too powerful, expecting representation at all costs. I hear of major players blocking their artists from minting NFTs (non-fungible tokens)—which might be sound advice but is a recipe for resentment.

Artists now have alternatives. Showing with other galleries is no longer verboten for the sake of a good show—only one artist (Rick Lowe) of the 11 in Gagosian London’s ongoing Social Works II exhibition is represented by the gallery. There is also an increasing number of artist agents, such as Southern & Partners, who offer more fluid arrangements. Going it alone is not just the preserve of the most successful, now that social media and indeed NFTs mean that artists can go straight to market.

With choice comes opportunity. But I have written before in these pages about the paradox of choice—the more there is, the greater the need of mediators to cut through the noise. Appetite for art is growing, but the market still has its limits. Simone Leigh is well within her rights to reassess the field, as she has done before. The question this time is: will she make or break the mould?

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