Art dealers

Do contemporary dealers still need galleries?

Larry Gagosian has just opened a new, 1,400-square-metre space in London. But is such grandeur still necessary?

Over the last year, Swiss dealer Serge Ziegler has arranged for his artists to show their works with internationally respected colleagues such as Galerie Griedervonputtkamer in Berlin, Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot in Paris and Corkin Shopland Gallery in Toronto, alongside their institutional shows ranging from the nearby Kunstmuseum Luzern to the Gana Art Centre in Seoul, Korea. Installation artist Javier Tellez of Venezuela, one of the two artists Mr Ziegler represents exclusively (videomakers Minnette Vári of South Africa is the other) was selected for the 2003 Venice Biennale, and he is currently preparing a piece for this month’s Sidney Biennial. Funding the work of his artists, Mr Ziegler has also pulled off secondary-market sales with an ever expanding range of clients worldwide. Recently, he was encouraged to participate in the Cologne art fair, which hopes to propel its renewal through the inclusion of young, unconventional artists such as those in Mr Ziegler’s stable.

All told, that is a pretty good run for a dealer, especially one whose infrastructure consists of a storage room, a Powerbook G4 laptop and his mobile phone. A third-generation art dealer, Mr Ziegler closed his six-year-old Zurich gallery in March 2003, frustrated with having to pay rent for a space where he rarely spent much time and that, despite its decent proportions, failed to sate the sprawling ambitions of his artists. Impetuous and nomadic by nature, he posted a digitised version of his inventory online, placed the works themselves in storage and hit the road. “I originally planned to take a year off,” Mr Ziegler says, 15 months later. “But I think less and less about opening another gallery now. To suit the works of artists like Javier, Minnette or [installation artist] Nic Hess, I’d need a place with 20-foot ceilings. And it would not help me sell more works to my clients in places like Brazil and New Zealand. They’ve never even met me”.

Vári says Mr Ziegler’s move at first perturbed her, but, to date, she is surprisingly happy with the arrangement. “The geography as well as the identity of Serge’s practice, has just become more liquid, more adaptable, more agile,” she explains. “For me, this means that Serge can be more involved in my different projects; he is more free to move around and support me at art events around the world”.

Mr Ziegler is not a unique case. A self-described “galeriste sans galerie,” London’s Vanessa Suchar has mounted more than 30 salon-style shows in other people’s posh private apartments, mostly in London, but also in Rome, Brussels, and her native Paris. The business model started as a lark, aimed to keep up her connection with contemporary art while she was flogging much older work in a Bond Street gallery. “In my first ‘salon,’ I sold 22 pieces in four hours, at prices from £300 to £2,500, which was a pretty good return on a relatively small amount of time invested,” she recalls. “Today, I have a very faithful clientele of professionals, lawyers and bankers who like art, but are put off by the classic white-cube galleries”. Recently, Ms Suchar was offered a chance to use a Regent Street space in the heart of London’s prestigious West End gallery district. Best of all, it was rent-free. She turned it down. And at the highest end of the market of course, there’s Anthony d’Offay, who despite closing his gallery and “retiring” in 2001, has been actively setting up museum and gallery shows from his office in Dering Street.

Given the hassles involved in maintaining a gallery space—paying rent, keeping the phones manned and the desk staffed, mounting shows, dealing with logistics such as security or utilities, and so forth—it seems inevitable that other entrepreneurial types will follow Mr Ziegler and Ms Suchar’s example. Or perhaps even invent some entirely new form of virtual gallery. (For example, capitalising on the surging number of museums, the popularity of large-scale installation art and the hunger for young artists to build a roster filled with cutting-edge work unsuited for gallery spaces.) But what is even more interesting is the much broader transformation of the way in which art is sold and the role that the physical gallery space plays within it. At a time when London’s art world is obsessed with the opening of New York dealer Larry Gagosian’s massive new gallery near King’s Cross, it is worth noting that such spaces may belong more to the past than to the future of the art market.

Once the locus of all an art dealer’s activities, the gallery itself now often plays second (or even third) fiddle when it comes to cash flow. Consider the example of young Chicago dealer Monique Meloche, who had unexpectedly to seek a new space after negotiations with her landlord fell through. Her last show in the West Loop space opened and closed on 30 April, and her inventory went into storage until autumn. Ten years ago, this would have spelled disaster. Yet Ms Meloche says the interregnum has not affected her business. “I can show works by appointment at the warehouse and the online sales have not stopped,” she explains. “I just sold three pieces today. I was at the Art Chicago fair in May and I am participating at the Liste fair in Basel in June. So local and international collectors will still be seeing my artists”.

Indeed, the single greatest factor eroding the primacy of the gallery space has been the ascendancy of fairs as a nexus for art selling, especially when it comes to emerging art. “There are too many new galleries and too many young artists for most collectors to track nowadays,” says Rebecca Smith, owner of New York’s Bellwether Gallery. “Art fairs are like Cliff Notes for collectors”. Even at the more established levels of the contemporary market, fair visits often substitute for proper gallery tours. “Most of my major collectors have visited the gallery, but not all of them,” admits Matthias Arndt of Berlin’s Galerie Arndt & Partner, albeit a bit ruefully. “We would never be celebrating our 10-year anniversary this fall if we had to survive only from sales in the gallery itself”.

That holds even truer when it comes to galleries off the main art-market axes. “At best, I only sell 30% of my work in Turin,” says Luca Conzato, owner of Galleria Maze, whose international reputation has risen rapidly in recent years. “I sell almost all the rest at fairs. I remember one show by [multi-medium artist] Pablo Vargas Lugo that did not sell a single piece at my gallery. At the Berlin fair, we sold it all, including some that went to Italian collectors. It’s a very strange situation: To get into fairs you need to have a gallery, so you must do all the work of organising shows and maintaining the space; but in the end this work is more a cultural activity than something that is commercially profitable”.

Not surprisingly, Conzato plans to reduce the number of shows he organises in Turin, and he is applying to high-end fairs such as the Armory Show in New York. He is not alone in his logic. “People are planning their exhibition schedules around the fairs they get accepted to,” explains Ms Meloche. “I have noticed a lot more galleries extending shows from five weeks to eight weeks in seasons when they’re doing a lot of fairs”.

That said, there is a widespread feeling that the number of fairs has reached saturation level and a harsh triage is not far off. But the second major new factor in today’s market—the internet—seems far from reaching its apex. Much as people may like to mock those who lost millions in online ventures such as the Eyestorm website, there is an increasing amount of business that is taking place online. Once widely trumpeted, the maxim that art must be sold in person has been quietly strangled by the realities of an art market where the spoils go to those who act rapidly, rather than wait until their travels next take them to a gallery on the other side of the ocean. “I was talking with some other dealers during the New Art Dealers Alliance fair [in Miami last December] and everyone finally admitted that they spend whole days sitting at their desk sending out JPG images,” recalls Choire Sicha, co-owner of New York’s Debs & Co gallery. “At some level, we’re all running virtual galleries these days. But it still helps your business to have an actual gallery. It gives collectors confidence in you, even if many of them are too lazy actually to bother seeing your shows”.

Aside from gaining collector trust, there is a second major function of the gallery space: recruiting for the roster. No matter where a gallery is located, the people to whom the physical confines matter most are artists, whose egos and ambitions tend to be stoked by the possibility of working on an impressive scale. To them size still matters. When Cosmic Galerie in the Marais district of Paris launched its efforts in late 2002, its founders opted for a massive space occupying two floors of a high-ceilinged hôtel particulier. The building helped it amass a roster that includes stars such as Vanessa Beecroft, Mat Collishaw, Martin Creed and Annika Larsson. “We wanted to make things happen, and fast,” explains Frédéric Bugada, one of the gallery’s founders. It worked: Cosmic’s openings regularly draw 1,000 visitors and it has benefited from massive media support. “The size of our space has saved us thousands of dollars in advertising,” Mr Bugada continues. “And I’m convinced that it helped us get accepted to FIAC and the Frieze art fair despite being such a new gallery”.

Clearly the era of the big gallery space has not ended. But in the current art market, savvy dealers are thinking carefully about their needs. As with most businesses, much depends on location. In places such as Berlin where rent is cheap, why not go big? But in small markets with high real-estate prices, it’s a trickier issue, especially once a gallery has built its stable of artists and a healthy inventory. Geneva’s Pierre Huber of Galerie Art+Public, for example, recently scaled back his operations, abandoning his huge gallery space and paring display areas down to a project space and the antechamber of his personal office. In fact, Huber’s Art Basel fair booth this month could easily engulf his combined exhibition spaces. “A lot of people will do the same thing,” Mr Huber predicts. “In the old days, we mounted the exhibition and waited for collectors to visit. But what matters now is having a hyper-efficient back office, not an enormous showroom. Our competition is worldwide, so we need to focus our efforts on tracking what’s going on everywhere, locating pieces and keeping collectors happy. I don’t need a 5,000-square-foot space to deal secondary-market Andreas Gursky photos”.

Even the galleries in the art market’s two main centres, New York and London, no longer function as boutiques geared towards the sale of luxury goods. They are more like the flagship stores that designers such as Polo, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani erected along Madison Avenue, Bond Street and the Boulevard Saint Germain. There, minimalist installations and spacious showrooms function as a form of branding for their products worldwide; the real money comes from smaller outposts crammed with merchandise. In the art world, of course, most galleries only have one space; their “franchise stores” are either ephemeral (the fair booth), portable (the portfolio bulging with transparencies) or virtual (the gallery website).

Like most changes, this recasting of the gallery space’s market role has both positive and negative ramifications. On the upside, having multiple sales channels means established galleries can take bigger risks with the exhibitions that they do hold. “We can reach the market in so many other ways now that it takes some financial pressure off the show itself,” Mr Arndt says. “I don’t get so depressed anymore when we fail to sell much—or even anything—at an opening”.

But in the broadest sense, what is going on is the globalisation of the market, with collector interest and money focusing on international artists and events such as fairs and biennials rather than local exhibitions. The potential for corrosion of regional art centres seems strong. “Taking focus away, from the gallery spaces is bad for the artists, because the best way to engage with their work is still the solo show,” observes Zurich dealer Victor Gisler of Galerie Mai 36, “There are tons of galleries today that don’t really seem to have a strong connection to their hometowns. Look at what happened to Berlin. Everyone had such high hopes there, but galleries are running around to so many fairs that the Berlin art scene never really materialised”.