The system of galleries cultivating specialized markets assumed its present form in Europe in the 1870s. Paul Durand-Ruel, the dealer of the French Impressionists, was an early entrepreneur in the field, and he developed tactics continued by galleries today: mounting spectacular one-person or group retrospective exhibitions; accentuating dramatic elements of an artist’s biography to raise collector interest and further legitimize a practice; and promoting work not only in France but also on an international stage, through a traveling exhibition circuit spanning Europe and the Americas. Over the past century, art dealers have built upon the methods originated by Durand-Ruel to dominate the distribution of art and the formation of taste.
Meanwhile, the monopoly of the gallery system has been questioned and challenged by the so-called “alternative space movement”—a movement generated mostly by artists and propelled by artists' desire to exercise greater control over the selection of art for public display, and the conditions under which work is shown and discussed. The majority of artworks presented at these alternative spaces has tended to be process-oriented and situationally specific, foregrounding a relationship between materials, concepts, actions, and locations. The art exhibited could be spontaneous, improvisational, open-ended, and often collaborative—the kind of work that galleries typically could not or would not recognize or accommodate. Out of necessity, artists created and took control of their own contexts.
Is the commercial art world only a coin with two sides, the traditional gallery and traditional alternative-space models? Some evidence from exhibitions in New York this fall may suggest the minting of a new hybrid coin: commercial gallery owners who simultaneously hold the full-time title of artist.
In New York, for instance, between the months of September and October, Eli Ping of Eli Ping Frances Perkins gallery exhibited his work at Ramiken Crucible, Ben Morgan Cleveland of Real Fine Arts exhibited his work at Eli Ping Frances Perkins, and Tyler Dobson, also of Real Fine Arts, exhibited his work at 47 Canal.
In the past, a number of gallerists—like Betty Parsons and William N. Copley—were trained, but inactive, commercial artists. The new development is the capability of Eli Ping, Ben Morgan Cleveland, and Tyler Dobson to maintain dual identities: full-time gallerist and full-time artist. (Other examples are Margaret Lee, co-owner of 47 Canal, and Emily Sunblad, co-owner of Reena Spaulings.)
Perhaps this new coin is born out of the growing indistinction between production and consumption. It is not surprising that galleries run by these artists are unafraid of inserting the openness and sensitivities of the commercial alternative spaces into the framework of the gallery system. Within the ecosystem of the art world, the implication of an intercrossed system is the pressuring of the market to accept and support unorthodox bodies of work, practices, and exhibitions.