Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gallery confidential

Last week I donned yet another hat, that of art advisor, and took collectors from out of town on a daylong tour of galleries in Chelsea and Uptown—and into a world that seems completely unschooled in normal business practices. I was left with the feeling that if anyone sells any art at all it’s by accident, or because a collector wants something so much s/he is willing to overcome any obstacle to obtain it. I’m grateful to the galleries who treated us with warmth and professionalism—they do exist, and at least one will be rewarded with sales—but others were dysfunctional in the extreme, a situation of special concern to me as I’m also an artist with an interest in finding the next gallery to represent me. Highlights: waiting for more than 20 minutes while gallery assistants looked for someone who could give us a price (all the pieces in the exhibition were priced the same—$200,000). The impeccably dressed young woman who rattled off a canned speech about the artist’s political intentions for the work without regard to the glazed-over look of her audience. The gallery associate who referred to my clients as “You guys” and told us the price was “like $75,000.” The dealer who joked about the price of a painting and another who asked my clients how they felt about the elections. And finally, in a gallery rife with assistants, asking to see work by a particular artist and being told that anyone who could show it was “in a meeting.”

In addition, there seems to be a paucity of proper viewing areas. We saw paintings (priced in the tens of thousands) propped on blocks, held up by assistants, in their cartons (this after calling ahead), leaning against other paintings.

So if anyone wants to know why art fairs (and auctions) are overcoming galleries, it’s because at an art fair you can immediately see the work, the price is out in the open, and you can talk to someone who acts like a grown-up and who may actually know something. There was a time when galleries served a valuable purpose in developing artists’ careers while educating and advising collectors, and kudos to those who still take this role seriously. However the interface that used to be helpful is now often an impediment—as well as a missed opportunity.


Pretty Lady said...


I have to say that this post is a comfort to me--it proves that galleries aren't rude and unhelpful to me just because I don't look like a collector--they're rude and unhelpful to collectors, art advisors and art critics TOO. Seems as bizarrely clueless as all those Fox News 'economics experts' who made fun of Peter Schiff over the last two years, for predicting a major recession.

I'm starting to think that there's a paradigm shift happening in the art world, as well as the financial world; it seems not only necessary, but inevitable. You can't sustain any meaningful enterprise on fantasy. The financial industry appears to have consisted of 95% imaginary money, which has now vanished like leprechaun gold. The gallery system seems to be built on hubris, snobbery, 'value' by fiat, and the illusion that some mythic Collector will magically snap up objects with $200,000 price tags, in spite of overt rudeness and stupidity on the part of the gallery.

Meanwhile, I've had several collectors buy works from me directly this year, because they like the work and keep track of my doings through the Internet. Artists are starting to make a living through websites like We're providing our own press through our blogs, to the point where galleries which have snubbed us in person for years are now sending us press releases, begging for our attention.

I take little pleasure in this. Rather, I'm sad that a system which has so much potential for joy and mutual fulfillment is, instead, a slave to pointless game-playing and disconnection. There's nothing I'd like better than to work with a gallery which was enthusiastic about art (mine in particular), and good at business. It's too bad that so few of them seem to exist.

CAP said...

I wonder if the profusion of art fairs hasn't exacerbated this disdain and snobbery in galleries?

Perhaps galleries feel they need to establish a two-tier approach to sales/promotion, now. At art fairs they go all out for the general public and frank sales, while at their own space they 'compensate' with highly selective treatment of potential customers/clients.

In my experience there have always been galleries that would rather ignore the casual or new collector in favor of the big fish and public collections. Obviously there are not that many of them (big fish, as well as anglers of big fish) but I assume the priority is to establish that prestige in order to then bump up prices and draw the more status-conscious collector.

Unfortunately art trades on a certain amount of snobbery.

highlowbetween said...

you poor thing, what a nightmare. I'm embarassed just reading about it.
Not surprising though.Unprofessional practices are far too commonplace. Makes artists look bad. There's whole book waiting to be written about this...

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I'm having a hard time seeing any of the situations described here as either snobbery or hubris.

True, none of it sounds like what a hotel concierge or private banker or someone else in the service industries targeting high net worth individuals would do or say. Isn't that just as likely to be indicative of a self-consciously unstudied attention to the economic aspects of the art world? The casualness you describe could just as easily be interpreted as friendly insider patter, which consciously de-emphasizes the cash-on-the-barrel-head transaction in favor of, say, the artist's intention or practice.

Is it telling that so many of your complaints were about price-related questions? Did you attempt to discuss anything about the work besides price? How'd that go?

I suspect that if a gallerist treated you as slickly as, say, a Lexus salesman, it'd raise as many hackles, just of a different sort.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this mainly because so few sales happen off the street? I would assume that a majority of transactions happen from phone calls and pre-arranged meetings. I agree that their business practices towards walk-ins is outrageously bad but they could probably get away with it because there were so few serious walk-ins. Times may have changed but prices will have to be adjusted accordingly. It will be interesting to track.

Carol Diehl said...

I agree with Greg, that certain behavior could be "indicative of a self-consciously unstudied attention to the economic aspects of the art world." However being professional does not mean you end up acting like a Lexus salesman--far from it. Being professional means being available, knowledgeable, friendly but not familiar, and having an ability to gauge and speak to the interests of the prospective client.

I was especially surprised on this venture because when, as a writer, I inquire in a gallery about an exhibition I'm immediately put in touch with someone who can answer my questions and give me all the material I need. A buyer, I would think, could expect no less.

Peggy's assumption that few sales happen off the street, is simply not so. They may be, yes, a small percentage of the people who come through, but collectors make the rounds like everyone else, inquiring when they are interested. My experience working in galleries has been you can't sum up anyone by looking at them. I'm sure gallery assistants have to answer a lot of silly questions from people who are not serious, but that's the nature of operating a public space. And in this case, there seemed to be little difference between those galleries I contacted in advance and those I didn't.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this is primarily a NY thing? I have also walked into high end clothing stores there that immediately told me they were closed (on Friday afternoon).

I know many new yorkers who pride themselves on being able to size up other people at a glance, but I think this backfires more often than not.

Of course your criticism is more profound than this. The problem is not just the child sitting at the front desk, it is the whole structure of how they operate.

Anonymous said...

"I know many new yorkers who pride themselves on being able to size up other people at a glance,"

That speaks volumes right there. Why would anyone be proud of the fact that they regularly make stereotypical assumptions about people?

Anonymous said...

Sizing people up.. last year, some unnamed gallerina shooed designer Marc jacobs out of the gallery because she thought he was a homeless person!

Jacobs has become a passionate and voracious collector of art in recent years, money seems to be no object to him, he buys what he loves. Sounds like an ideal client for a gallery space!