The Diminishing Landscape Of The Mid-Range Art Gallery

A few weeks ago Christie’s New York and Stropheus Art Law hosted a panel dialogue entitled “Letting go of Brick-and-Mortar: The Future of the Gallery “The evening’s speakers included well-respected gallery owners who, having recently closed their galleries, now work as advisers, agents and even pop up impresarios! The panel also included an art lawyer who spoke about the transactional and fiduciary legalities of art advisers and art agents working outside the system. The event couldn’t have been timelier, as every day there’s news of another beloved gallery’s closure.

Nicole Klagsbrun, who started her highly esteemed Nicole Klagsbrun gallery in 1989, was the first to speak. I personally discovered some of my favorite artists in her Chelsea space before she closed her doors in 2013.   Candida Hofer, James Nares, Rashid Johnson and Billy Sullivan, were among the notable artists she represented. Klagsbrun recalled her early career when the role of a gallery owner included nurturing artists. She spoke joyfully of her many studio visits to fledgling  artists, how the artists she engaged with developed their aesthetic and how she and the artists grew together. “I used to feel a reciprocity with artists,” she said. “In today’s world, artists look to the gallerist to perform. A process that took years now takes three months to go from the studio visit to the auction house. It’s alienating. ” She lamented, ” living through the creative process is gone!  I find this not only from my relationships with artists but also in my relationships with collectors.”  She recalled a time when  collectors would come in person to see shows and potential buyers would make phone calls or write letters to learn more about works of interest. She seemed to long for the joy she found in furthering a client’s connoisseurship. Today, in the fast-paced world of art fairs, it’s hard to foster a meaningful rapport with clients and art fair participation has become the integral part of owning a gallery. “With the wind of evolution” she said, “the role of art fairs is non-negotiable fairs are a binding must and artists love the exposure. 60,000 people are viewing a booth as opposed to a much lesser amount of visitors to a typical gallery show.” Art fairs are an economic necessity for today’s gallerist; about 40% of their business comes from art fairs.

Today, real estate prices and diminishing speculation in the emerging art market make owning a gallery more of a challenge.

After Klagsbrun formally closed her Chelsea gallery, she opened what she called a small “project space” showing a limited number of artists. She tried again to capture the magic she found discovering and developing contemporary artists.  Sadly however, “the project space still felt like part of the, machinery of the system”.   She now has a small office and spends her time collaborating with existing galleries to mount one-off exhibitions. In 2015, along with Jeffrey Deitch and the Cameron Parsons Foundation she presented an exhibition of work from the estate of Cameron entitled Cinderella of the Wastelands. In January of this year, in her office space, she organized the show Twenty-One Watercolors, by Peter Schuyff, Currently Klagsbrun is promoting work by a young exciting ceramic sculptor Brie Ruais, while also representing the estate of street artist Lee Quinones. She plans to continue doing pop up shows for both young and mid-career artists. ” I’m back to a flexible pace that I can dictate. I can enjoy having relationships and not feel like a mere conduit within the art market “.

For 30 years, Jay Gorney, another giant in the industry, worked in galleries. He too, has recoiled from the confines of a brick and mortar structure and is now an independent art advisor and curator. Gorney entered the art scene in the 1980’s, an exciting time. He began his career working at  the Sidney Janis gallery, before opening the Jay Gorney Modern Art gallery in 1985, During the gallery’s 13-year run, Gorney mounted exhibitions of Richard Prince, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Barbara Bloom, Joseph Kosuth, James Welling, Haim Steinbach, and Sarah Charlesworth. In 2000 he partnered with John Lee and Karin Bravin to form a new venture, Gorney, Bravin and Lee. Five years later he became director of Mitchell – Innes & Nash’s Chelsea gallery. In 2013 he decided to leave the confines of a gallery and become an independent art adviser and curator.  A longstanding friend of the Sarah Charlesworth family, “I’ve known the children since they were babies,” Gorney’s work includes acting as a special advisor to the estate of Sarah Charlesworth.

Today, real estate prices and diminishing speculation in the emerging art market make owning a gallery more of a challenge. Gorney exemplifies the new normal for esteemed and now private dealers – pop up and collaborative gallery exhibitions. He’s participated in the Independent Art Fair for the last two years. The Independent,  housed in Dia Art Foundation’s original Chelsea building, is a unique fair of quality presenters that present single-artist booths.  In 2014 Gorney presented the young artist Mathew Cerletty while in 2016 he shared a booth with Derek Eller gallery collaborating in a show of Karl Wirsum drawings from the 1960s. Gorney believes that focus is shifting from young new talented artists to undervalued, under the radar and more established artists.

Consumers flock to the global art fairs with a frenzy that mimics the gold rush. Media coverage about the booming art market is endless. What has caused this monster of a market? Does the newfound fanfare in the art market emanate from the popularity of the art fairs? I think it comes from the clever maneuvering of power driven mega galleries. Artists and collectors are  both scrambling to do business with a small handful of glitzy international galleries.  Consequently,  big box ,”gallery brands” are defining the focus of our attention . Even museums are turning to them for direction. Once critics like Clement Greenburg shaped and influenced the art scene. Today it’s the mega dealers who, by having access to the largest share of the market, now determine the standard by which we value art. Are mega dealerships becoming our time’s art historians? Are mega galleries determining the history of art?

Of the 600 galleries still alive in New York, how many will actually flourish and survive? Even the best of the mid-size galleries seem to be struggling. The opportunities to wander through edgy exciting exhibits of works from emerging artists are diminishing. Where will the public go, free of charge to discover new talent? “ Browsing the Internet to view art is like having a wine tasting online,“ in the words of Anthony Hayden Guest.

Ultimately, artists need to have exhibitions. The “what’s in it for me?” attitude driving today’s artists, collectors and dealerships need to change.  As Nicole Klagsbrun said “Artists need to have a home for their work. Artist’s can only develop fully with representation that builds a base for their story.”  Perhaps a cooling down in the art market will inspire a return to connoisseurship.

Words: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2016 Photo:  Barbara Bloom, The Reign of Narcissism, 1989, Mixed media installation, dimensions variable installed at Jay Gorney Modern Art, New York Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

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