Expert Eye

Welcome to the Garden of Forking Paths: Ed Winkleman on How to Navigate the Art Industry's Strange New Landscape

Welcome to the Garden of Forking Paths: Ed Winkleman on How to Navigate the Art Industry's Strange New Landscape
The dealer, author, and fair founder Ed Winkleman

There’s no question that contemporary art galleries are struggling these days. The market is sluggish, the essential handshake-based rules of the art trade are being confused by the proliferation of artworks on the internet, and, at the same time, competition for artists and a globalizing terrain are forcing dealers to take on more costs by doing fairs and upgrading their facilities. This summer, two darlings of New York’s Lower East Side art scene, the gallerists Lisa Cooley and Laurel Gitlen, had to close their doors. Other galleries are teetering on the verge of collapse as well. Dealers are wondering: what should they be doing differently?

When it comes to the challenges facing contemporary art galleries today, Ed Winkleman is an uncommonly expert authority on the subject. For one thing, he’s written two books about it—How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery and Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market—while also maintaining a popular blog where he opines on the art market and politics. For another, he operated an emerging-artist gallery of his own for over a decade, finally closing it in 2014. Now, as the founding director of the Moving Image video-art fair, Winkleman spends his days trying to help galleries with notoriously hard-to-sell merchandise find buyers through annual events in New York, London, and Istanbul.

To find out what solutions are at hand for dealers making their way through the choppy waters, Artspace editor-in-chief Andrew M. Goldstein spoke to Winkleman about the alternative business strategies that are emerging for dealers, and why the market has irreversibly changed.

Recently, after the New York dealer Lisa Cooley announced that she was closing her Lower East Side gallery with the explanation that an operation of her kind “is not a sustainable business right now,” you took to Facebook and called it a “bellwether statement.” The implication, you wrote, is that “more and more it looks like ‘the Leo Castelli model’ isn't keeping up with the world.” What was the “Leo Castelli model,” and how did it run out of steam?

The Castelli model is built around the notion that the dealer is representing a roster of artists who are mostly undiscovered and definitely underappreciated, looking at it from a long-term perspective— which means taking some risks in the beginning to help their artists build a strong foundation of interest and buzz, and then working toward recouping their investment in the second or third or even later solo exhibitions. That’s as opposed to thinking, “This relationship may end after the first show, so I need to recoup anything that I invest in the artist starting from the beginning.”

Now, there are a lot of people talking about the Leo Castelli model giving way, because artists and dealers aren’t staying together for the long term. The big thing that’s lost here is that these dealers lose the motivation to do exhibitions that can’t pay for themselves in the near term, but that become a different matter over the long haul. 

How does that apply to the Lisa Cooley closure?

Well, she built her program in a fortuitous time and place, and when she came out of the gate all the stars were aligned. What could have, or should have, ensured that she would be able to endure the ups and downs of the market and changes in the public’s taste is if the core unit—the dealer and her roster—would have stayed together to ride through any downturn. Then they would have come up together in the next cycle, because as you know this is all very cyclical. But the fact that she didn’t see how it was sustainable during a downturn suggests that this wasn’t the case.

From what I’ve heard, she was struggling to keep hold of some of her bigger artists toward the end, even though she had expanded the emerging gallery and staffed up to more of a mid-size business, leading to a cash-flow crunch and the need to raise prices. Toward the end there were said to be defections brewing. It sounded like a difficult position for the gallery to be in.

Sometimes, in these situations, you get to a dangerous place where the artists feel that it’s all moving so quickly, and there are other opportunities out there. The artists have to look out for their own best interests, and they can’t really rely on the gallery in the way they used to. One of the really disappointing things that I found in my research for my book is that the galleries that were most committed to throwing things against the wall and seeing what would stick were the mid-level galleries. But then, when times got tough, I saw examples again and again of these same dealers abandoning the Leo Castelli model and getting rid of the artists who once fell under their longer-term strategy. So I think the Leo Castelli model has really given way, but I wouldn’t blame it on the artists. I’d really blame it on the gallery system. 

Why? What about the gallery system makes maintaining a diverse roster less of a viable long-term investment these days?

When times got tough, the galleries that were developing artists who weren’t selling enough panicked and dropped them to try to pull in new cash cows, for lack of a better term. The generation of dealers that I came up with were opening up from around 1999 to 2007, and I would say those galleries had it much easier than any previous generation of dealers—ever—at that moment in time. It really was like shooting fish in a barrel. During this time, the cash-poor, illiquid, labor-of-love kind of galleries were able to survive entirely off the primary market.

But because it was so easy, they never learned the lessons of socking away money for a rainy day or building their strengths in the secondary market. It was just about working with the best artists that you liked personally, and the rest fell together very easily. Then, when the market started crashing in 2008, they didn’t know what else to do other than look at the artists who were paying the bills and start dropping the ones who weren’t. So, this sent a message to the artists: “If the dealers aren’t going to be standing by us, why should this be a one-way street?”

There were only a few mid-level galleries during this time who weren’t doing this, and who were staying true to their stable and hanging tight together no matter how tight things got. One of them is Greene Naftali, which has never swapped out one of their artists—she [Carol Greene] has been very, very loyal to her artists. She’s rare, and there aren’t a lot of others like her who really stick to their program. Maybe, for the ones who didn’t stay true to their artists, there wasn’t another way for them to stay in business. But for her, it helped her business to stay true.

inside galleryInside Winkleman Gallery before its closure

It seems like the long-term business model of the Leo Castelli-type gallery has really been assaulted from two different directions. One of them is the entrenchment of the class divide between the smaller and mid-size galleries and the richest, most professionalized galleries, with large teams and multiple spaces, that can grow through downturns by following the money wherever it shifts around the globe. Then, the other was is the widespread adoption of the internet in the art business, which has started giving collectors so many choices for low-to-mid-priced material, creating enormous competition for these kinds of price points. These two factors have combined to make it harder and harder for any traditional, Leo Castelli-model gallery that is not a blue-chip operation. Meanwhile, dealers have been hoping that somehow these disruptions—of globalism and the internet—would also yield some new tools to level the playing field. Do you see that happening?

It depends if you’re talking about leveling the playing field for galleries or dealers, because the difference is getting pretty stark. But if we’re just to talk about the art market generally, it’s important to remember that the gallery itself as a model is not even 100 years old, and yet we’ve managed to convince ourselves that it’s the quintessential model. But maybe it isn’t the quintessential model. I mean, I like it a lot, but perhaps the brick-and-mortar gallery isn’t the thing we should be trying to defend. What an art-seller is, really, is an intermediary between the artist and the collector. The blue-chip gallery model does a really good job of saying, “Give me x percent of every sale because I’ll do all these other things for your. I have a huge advertising budget, I have networks of collectors, and I have a beautiful context of not just a big space but also other artists you respect.” So, these services and the prestige they can supply for the artist are their selling point for getting the commission on the sales. That’s looking at it very unromantically, but that’s the bare-bones model. 

And that’s not something that scales down to an emerging or mid-level gallery, meaning that they always feel pressure to grow in order to keep their increasingly successful artists happy, requiring them to assume more overhead and additional costs. That isn’t the kind of business that can endure a downturn easily.

Also, on the other hand, the element that dealers previously used to attract collectors is also giving way. Dealers could continue to stick to their guns and nourish artists through good and bad times, but what they used to give to collectors was exclusive inside information about what was available and what the appropriate price would be. But the transparency of the internet is chewing away at that. Dealers have to make up for that imbalance by hyping their artists more and more, with another space in another city and doing all of the big art fairs. They have to do all these things, basically, that push them into making bad business decisions. 

I won’t name any names, but if you look at the lists at art fairs there are quite a few smaller galleries that clawed their way in to Basel or Frieze and then very quickly went out of business within two years—and it’s all because they felt the pressure to get in there and continually expand, or else some other gallery would take their best-selling artists. But doing those fairs is so expensive that it caught up with them, or they felt that they stopped being the gallery they were able to be before they got into Basel or Frieze because they became so busy trying to pay the bills.

Then, there’s another way that the internet has pulled away the authority that dealers used to be able to trade on. They can still convince an artist to consign everything to them to get representation, but when a gallery gets a call from a collector they’ve never heard before who says, “I’m interested in getting x artist’s blue painting that I saw on Instagram,” well, the dealer may not have ever heard of that painting or seen it in the studio, and that chips away at their authority. Compounded with the fact that all the prices are already out there on the internet, you can no longer make the argument that the dealer is the best person to go to for that information.

One thing you said that is very provocative is that the white cube isn’t the quintessential model that has to be defended, because once you step away from that as your last line of defense you start to question: what are the essential attributes of the gallery/dealer business, and how are these possible to continue outside of a white-cube setting?

Exactly. The important things that a gallery can give an artist that they can’t really get anywhere else right now is press. The collective press that goes into our art history is tough to imagine happening outside of exhibitions, and maybe there will be a day when only the artists who get into museum exhibitions and nonprofit-space exhibitions will get into art history, and that would be too bad. Blake Gopnik wrote something about that a little while ago, how if we don’t have brick-and-mortar galleries to give us these shows then we don’t have a true dialogue where we’re collectively deciding what is and what’s not important to preserve.

But Peter Schjeldahl said it better than anyone I know, which is that the solo show is really about pleasing the artist—there’s no true financial justification for it otherwise. You have dwindling traffic to the galleries, and a lot of sales are increasingly happening at the fairs and online, and a brick-and-mortar gallery is a very expensive endeavor. Maybe you can get some press, but even that’s not a guarantee anymore. So, a solo show is really just to say to your artist, “I’m giving you this space so you can have a celebration with your friends, and your family and maybe some collectors, and maybe some press.” But it just doesn’t make financial sense for everyone anymore. Having said that, you’ll still walk into a few shows and they’ll be sold out if it’s a really hot artist. But it’s not working the way it used to work. 

So what is the alternative? Instead of renting a beautiful brick-and-mortar gallery in a cool neighborhood where you can showcase your artists and invite a crowd, how else can you present and contextualize an artist’s work and build a community around it?

Well, there are numerous challenges, and a lot of reasons why it might not work. But, look, art history existed long before the gallery did. For a while, this was predominately through systems like the salon, where a grand academy would hold an exhibition once a year and the public and the critics would come and praise or tear it apart on a regularly scheduled basis. So, do the art fairs provide a substitute for that? I would say no, they’re not up long enough. 

They also don’t get reviews. Most of the time the press just focuses on the sales. Artspace Magazine is one of the few places to write about the art at fairs, with the sales very much secondary.

It’s important to point that out. I remember when the press used to come on the first day of the Moving Image fair and say, “What’s new?” and my knee-jerk reaction would be, “Well, the art? You haven’t seen any of this art before.” But what they meant was, “What sold?” and because videos are a slower-burning sell than other art, I have some really good friends in the press who would start not writing about it at all if things were slow on the opening day. And I think, well, they could have written about the work. You need journalists who understand that there is a parallel between the art fairs and the old academy shows, and it’s perfectly appropriate to critique the work and not just talk about the sales. 

So if that was a practice that could be inculcated, that would be an opportunity to get press outside of a brick-and-mortar setting?

But then you still have the problem that fairs are far too short.

I have this theory that, when it comes to the art market, the internet and art fairs are both technologies to do the same thing but that are glitchy in different ways. On the one hand, the internet will instantly bring all the artworks in the world directly into your home, but only as a flat facsimile and without the in-person, social context. Art fairs, on the other hand, will bring you a lot of artworks together with an appealing social context, but at great expense—and, at best, it’s only somewhat near your home, perhaps in the same region. Neither is completely satisfying. I wonder, do you think virtual reality will be able to bridge this gap?

We just did an exhibition in Istanbul with virtual reality artworks, so I think there’s certainly a potential for virtual reality in art. There’s an artist named Ziv Schneider who has a virtual reality piece called The Museum of Stolen Art, and she had a very conceptual idea to reconstruct stolen artworks from available data in this virtual museum. If you actually recognize an artwork, you can use the program to contact Interpol and say, “Hey, I know where this is.” It’s a very cool sort of thing, but she’s also working out some of the logistics of what this kind of virtual experience of viewing an artwork could be. But all you’re really pulling in from the experience is a digital representation of something, so if it’s a digital work of art itself it probably works really great, but if it’s a painting that has texture or sculpture, even if you have a great 360-degree scan and you can walk around it…. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make that a really great substitute for seeing the real thing in real life.

museum of stolen artScreenshot from Ziv Schneider's Museum of Stolen Art

I was just in Tallinn, Estonia, and I came across an intriguing alternative to virtual reality, which was a virtual gallery space called Konstanet. It’s a tiny, one-room office in a former factory building where the two founders built a miniature white cube that is about three feet tall and maybe 10-by-10 feet in area. They use this cube to stage miniature shows, either using small artworks or scale models of larger pieces, and then photograph them for distribution online. It’s a bit of a dollhouse concept, but it also suggests interesting potential now that the vast majority of people experience exhibitions through install shots online, on sites like Contemporary Art Daily and others. And, obviously, it operates at a fraction of the cost.

I think there’s something there. I was recently half-heartedly joking that a viable model would be to do something very similar—to get the cheapest space you could in the middle of nowhere, put on an exhibition that virtually nobody would see, and take really great installation shots that you could take to art fairs and use to sell the work. So, people would be able to see the artwork in person at the fair, but also if they wanted to they could see it in an exhibition context, which provides some provenance and also gives the confidence that someone found this work worthy of exhibiting. But that kind of goes hand-in-hand with a model that already exists in the art world, which is to have a gallery in a place where you can make connections in a serious way and then move out to a much cheaper place, do exhibitions there, and, again, do most of your sales at the art fairs or online. There are some galleries that have been doing that extremely well. 

Like which?

Bill Brady was my next-door neighbor for a while on 27th Street at ATM Gallery, and several years ago he moved to Kansas City, where he now runs Bill Brady Gallery. Then there’s Jeff Bailey, who moved up to Hudson and still does art fairs like NADA New York. Monya Rowe is another example of a great gallery that moved away, to St. Augustine, Florida. They all have the relationships and credibility to get really good artists—and, as Bill would tell you, he can represent artists out in Kansas City that he couldn’t in New York because they already have a bigger gallery there. But he can show up at the fairs with their work because he represents them in Kansas City. So that, I think, is actually a very workable currently existing model, though you probably want to invest some time in one of the major art centers, because you wouldn’t get really great artists to show with you in Iowa City if they’d never heard of you, if you hadn’t built that kind of credibility.

One thing about the art market is that it really feeds off the richest winners in an economy that has a huge gulf between the rich and the poor, where the froth on the top can painlessly be converted into art and the ability to fly to art fairs year-round to find the best work. But what if someday soon, or down the line, there are meaningful economic reforms in this country that raise taxes on the rich to the extent that the froth starts to subside? Is there a potential mass-affluent audience for art out there that could be catered to?

Definitely. A German gallerist friend of mine points out that a lot of your solid middle class in Europe will make the effort to buy one original work of art for their home, for their legacy, in the same way an American might buy a sports car. It might not cost as much as a sports car, but it’s important culturally that you buy real art. That doesn’t exist that much in the States, and maybe it doesn’t exist that much in Europe as it used to, but I think there is potential there.

But one thing that would happen if the froth starts to dissipate for the richest rich is that we wouldn’t see them able to bid up artworks to ridiculous heights at auction, to set the top of the market as high as it’s been. It’s just evidence of a massive pissing contest—it’s not evidence of anything more than that in terms of the actual value of the art. I think if that stopped and everything calmed down a little bit, the prices across the board would probably settle down, and you’d see some settling down in terms of artists’ expectations for how much they should make off their art. There would be more sanity all around.

There’s a deeply embedded notion, especially in the United States, that art is for everyone, not just the elites. But I think the blame goes back to Joseph Duveen for suggesting that this pursuit is really only the domain of millionaires and billionaires. We don’t have the same pride in out visual art as they do in, say, Holland or Italy, where it’s combined with their national identity. Your average American really doesn’t have a keen sense of identification with their country’s art, because it’s always been a rich man’s thing here. 

I think that could change, and that’s the mission that I’ve been on since I opened my gallery. It’s hard because at the same time you want to work with the most interesting artists you can, they’re competing with art history and don’t want to necessarily dumb down their work to appeal to a wider audience—I don’t think that would be a good thing for anybody. The thing to do would be to convince the country at large to take pride in what its artists are accomplishing. The big challenge there, of course, is this perception that, “If I don’t get it, it makes me feel dumb—so I should reject it so I don’t feel dumb.” As opposed to, “If I don’t get it, maybe it’s worth investing some time so I do get it.” 

Some of the celebrity collectors who have come to the forefront may help a bit in that regard, if people look to Leo DiCaprio or Steve Martin, for instance, and say, “They’re interested in art, maybe I should look at it more, too.” But then they’ll see the auction prices and think it’s not for them. So I think that the expectation should be set lower across the board about what art should cost.

vrA Moving Image fair attendee tries out virtual reality

We’ve been discussing a number of ingrained assumptions here—that the white-cube gallery is a necessary format, and that art should necessarily be inaccessibly expensive and remote. There are many others too. In one part of your book, you write that an impediment to smaller galleries being competitive is that they have fewer artists, and “artists can’t be rushed.” Some of the most appealing, romantic values of the art world are embedded in that sentiment—that artists are these elevated creatures, above the exigencies of business and the mundane worries of making a living. That’s great for them, but not necessarily for the businesses trying to support them.

I think there’s a nice middle ground on that, and there are a few artists I know who navigate it pretty well. The model for me is that artists ideally create two lines of work, one line of work that supports their practice and pays for the studio and makes them able to avoid taking on a day job, and then another line of work that they are building as their legacy—their masterpieces, if you will, that will end up in museums. The public at large is supporting them through buying that first category of artworks, and when they go to museums they’ll be proud when they see the masterpieces, but the idea is that you don’t necessarily have to have enough money to buy the masterpieces to collect their art.

Artists should get comfortable with the idea that not everything that comes out of the studio has to be a masterpiece. But at the same time, you can’t just turn artists into tchotchke-makers, because at that point a lot of the best ones will lose interest, and we’ll lose something culturally important. But, as I said, there are artists who are managing this kind of balance very well—they have their popular work, and it’s accessible and affordable, but they’re also involved with more challenging work too.

In fashion, you have the idea of the diffusion line, where a luxury designer will have the couture-level clothes that go down the catwalk, but they’ll also have far less expensive works that you can buy off-the-rack in stores. Or, they have a wide range of handbags and other accessories, which are often the profit engines for famous labels like Celine and Gucci, keeping those companies in the black.In the art world, this kind of differentiation is still looked at askance. While you have people like Koons, Hirst, and Murakami who mint a fortune through editioned tokens of their most famous work, I’ve noticed that many cool younger artists seem to make it a point of pride of making their editions exceptionally weird and experimental or even offensive, in a way that’s often a far cry from the work that people like them for.

My first job was with a print gallery, and some of the best artists in the world made some of the most exquisite prints you’ve ever seen. Picasso is one, Diebenkorn is one—these guys could paint like nobody else, and they could make prints like nobody else, too. So the artists who make these prints are probably not spending enough time learning how to make good prints, and I think that’s a failing on their part. Because what they’re really saying is, “Fuck you, you should be buying my paintings,” or videos, or installations, or whatever. Well, I don’t think Picasso or Diebenkorn ever felt that way—they spent far too much time making their prints, and they enjoyed it as its own complex and rewarding art form.

We actually did a series of editions and multiples once back in 2009 as part of the strategy to keep some cash flow in the gallery, and when we talked to artists about it we said, “Rather than have these editions confuse anybody that your work should be at this price, maybe make editions of something that is still clearly your work but is distinct enough from your major work that nobody would get confused.” The artists actually came up with some fantastic ideas, and that project was the only reason we were able to keep the doors open through the crisis into 2010.

The goal for the gallery, and for the artists in particular, was to not let their markets dry up completely just because nobody’s paying five or even six figures at that moment, while they would pay three or even four figures for something. The idea was to keep collectors used to buying one or two or even three pieces from the artists every so often, so that when the market comes back the big, expensive works are still there, and the collectors have gotten used to getting their fix of those artists on a regular basis. So, it was a challenge to convince the artists that they wouldn’t be producing tchotchkes, but in the end it worked out pretty well. I’m proud of those editions. 

To be totally ruthless, we were talking about the mass market’s aversion to art that they don’t understand, that’s too complex—I wonder if it would be strategic for a gallery to work with one or two less-exalted artists, like a Mr. Brainwash or Alec Monopoly, who don’t have any critical acclaim but who sell like crazy to a vast audience. So, instead of seeing the gallery’s roster as a beautiful arrangement of perfectly chosen Biedermeier dolls in a glass case, to see it as a diversified portfolio across a variety of collector bases, some being the mass-affluent.

Possibly… I mean, you have lots of galleries in China or in Europe that instead of just selling fine art also sell books, or design, or some other things. In the U.S., you have some mom-and-pop shops that are doing that as well. I think that model has a lot of potential, but the one thing you need to do if you want to go for the gallery model is that you can’t kill the context. You can’t put anything in that gallery that would be so incongruous with your artists’ masterworks that they wouldn’t want to show them there.

Would that still hold true in a post-white-cube scenario?

That’s an interesting question. It depends on how you’re positioning yourself as an intermediary. I would say there are two kinds of post-brick-and-mortar intermediaries, one who is simply so connected they can just get you what you want, and the other who is still taking a position in the art world by saying, “This is more important than that.” 

I like these kinds of post-brick-and-mortar intermediaries, and I think there are some really great ones. I think Mari Spirito of Protocinema in Istanbul is one, I think Jeffrey Deitch is one. Even when they don’t have a full-time space, when they show an artist you will trust that that artist is important because of their reputation and their eye.

So, you can still do that in the post-brick-and-mortar environment, and I can imagine that would be a lot more satisfying for more curatorially minded dealers than simply saying, “OK, you want artist x? I know how to get that for you.” At that point, I think private dealers wind up being more like consultants than gallerists, so I hope there’s some scenario that allows the post-brick-and-mortar dealer to still create a context, even if it’s virtual. 

moving image fair londonThe Moving Image fair in London, 2013. Photo by Joe Clark

That reminds me other another interesting thing I observed in Estonia. So, Tallinn is a post-Soviet capital city with a thriving art community, and where capitalism and socialism intermingle fluidly throughout society. There, galleries operate through a combination of sales, the auctioning of what they call Old Masters from the 20th century, and government arts funding. Sometimes they even charge artists rent for shows. They have a very multipartite business model that doesn’t make tons of money, and it’s out of step with what we think a gallery does, but it’s sustainable.

So those galleries were born right out of the artists’ unions from the Soviet Union, except for one gallery, Temnikova and Kasela, which is trying to do the more traditional Western gallery model. I was actually there for three days giving a series of lectures for the local galleries to help them adapt to the international art market, and there were a couple of these artists’-union galleries that were maybe interested in trying the Temnikova and Kasela way, but they were afraid that they would collapse if they didn’t continue to use those funding methods you’re describing, where they’re renting out the gallery or charging the artists, et cetera. I was saying to them, “You’ll never break through and get into Frieze like Temnikova and Kasela if you continue to use that model. You won’t be respected in that circle of the art world.” 

I think one of the biggest questions out there is whether the big fairs will begin to allow some of these unconventional galleries and especially post-brick-and-mortar galleries to show in them, because the fairs have so much power and they’ve got such large audiences that, if they don’t, then I think people will still cling to the white cube. But if the big fairs start to loosen up on that—and some of the satellite fairs have—then I think we’ll start to have more interesting fairs, and this move toward post-brick-and-mortar will accelerate. 

Would you allow a post-brick-and-mortar gallery to show in Moving Image?

Absolutely. We’ve been thinking about this long enough that we really solely judge it by the work—is this work good enough to be in this fair? 

To go back to the Estonian galleries and their multipartite funding streams, it seems like everywhere you look these days, people are being forced to do more with less. In every profession, if you had a core competency that used to be the driver of your business, now all of a sudden you have to have two or three. You see this everywhere in the media business, where publications need to complement traditional subscriptions and advertising with sponsorship, events, and even ecommerce. Since the United States is not a socialist country like Estonia, and since our government funding dried up long ago, maybe there’s a way for galleries to look to the private sector for revenue, either through sponsorship collaborations or tools like Kickstarter. Have you seen anything like this?

So, the model I like the best is the Minnesota Street Project. The genius of that initiative is that Andy and Deborah Rappaport went around talking to a lot of galleries and found out that a lot of them were spending money on resources that they barely use on a day-to-day basis, like a packaging room—why waste the money on space on your own packaging room when you can share one with a few other galleries. So they built a state-of-the-art gallery complex with all kinds of shared amenities and services, charging the galleries below-market rent as their form of patronage. That kind of clear-eyed pursuit of efficiencies has a lot of potential, I think, and I’d like to see a space like that in New York. They’re not really disrupting the model so much as really enhancing it.

minnesota st projectThe Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco, CA

From what you were saying before, it seems like the internet is playing the role of a disruptive force, but not in the way that one might expect.

The model of a gallery where you have the proprietor’s name on the door was really built out of this notion of exclusive access to information, which is what you were really selling as a dealer. Now that that’s all out on the internet, that model doesn’t really make that much sense. I mean, I’d hate to see everyone start acting more or less the director of a mega-gallery, where it’s no longer about the dealer’s vision—like with a Paula Cooper or a Marian Goodman—but instead about the visions of the artists they’re selling, and moving product. But that’s just me talking as a dealer—that’s the one part of it that I would miss. 

I don’t think many dealers have really been that important to art history. I think some have. I think the system that has evolved has been important, and enabled some artists who otherwise would have been lost to art history to have a toe in the game and finally get recognized for completely amazing work that would have been completely lost. So, I like the gallery system for that reason.

If you look at Nicole Klagsbrun’s awesome letter when she was closing, or if you look at some other galleries that shared why they were closing with the public, they all say that it was a motivation to be a part of art history that drove them to make all kinds of crazy sacrifices and take huge risks to show their artists. If you take that motivation out of the game, then what you’re left with becomes very results-oriented, and sales-driven. “Only show the artists who are going to pay the bills.” What gets lost is the dealer who is going to take a chance on something—the Colin de Land model of saying, “This is really great and I’m going to do a show of this.”

The galleries in New York in particular became incubators for ideas, with the artists telling their dealers what was important. As Joel Mesler said, these dealers had the artists as their first-and-foremost clients, and now their first-and-foremost client is the collector. When you’re serving what the collector wants, or thinks she wants, you get a lot more boring art. It’s really a catch-22.

It often feels like there’s far less business innovation in the gallery system than there is in other fields, like the film industry or the fashion industry or even the restaurant industry, where a chef like Danny Meyer proved that you can run one of the greatest restaurants in the world and also run a fast-food hamburger chain. The categories and strata are so fixed in the art world that this kind of innovation seems impossible, but it’s clearly exactly what is needed now.

I think the issue is that the art world needs innovation at the same time that everyone thinks innovation means a disruptive online solution. For expensive physical objects that you have to see in person and then go home and think about before coming back to see them again and pay for them, that isn’t quite working yet. What I’m afraid of is that the innovation will come along and prioritize a certain kind of art over other types.

But if there could be a kind of innovation that was not simply digital, then that would be spectacular. To some degree, the art fair is the solution that the art market came up with. To be honest, when I finished my research for my second book I really thought that I would have some epiphany about what the perfect combination of approaches was—what the new model should be—and the solution just didn’t appear. Either that, or someone is already doing it and we just haven’t recognized it yet.

It may take a crisis. And I keep telling artists, you’re going to have to tell the market what you absolutely need. Not what they want, like, “Oh, I would like to have a solo show, with a particular brand of wine at that solo show.” What they need. And then they’ll come back and say, “I need cheap rent. I need feedback. I want, and because I want it so much I actually need it, a critical response.” If you’re looking at what the collector needs, you’re looking at it backwards, and I think we’re doing a huge disservice to the long-term best interest of the art world.

Last question: as someone who has deeply studied the art market and written two books about how to run galleries, what led you to stop operating your own gallery?

I ran out of resources, and I couldn’t figure out how to get them back without turning the gallery into something that I never had any interest in it being. So I thought when I first let my lease go that I was on the brink of some combination of ideas, but the truth of the matter is that I just never had that epiphany. I didn’t know how to be a better dealer, and the dealer that I was wasn’t good enough. That’s why, now, I’m focusing on Moving Image.


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