In the face of economic fluctuations, not to mention the whirlwind of popular taste, how do galleries survive, adapt, evolve, and thrive?
On September 15, 2008, contemporary artist Damien Hirst took an unprecedented risk. Bypassing the normal protocol enforced by his partnering galleries and dealers, Hirst took 223 of his own works to auction at Sotheby’s Auction House (London), resulting in a two-day sale marketed as an ephemeral, high-stakes solo exhibition titled Beautiful Inside My Head. The event was strictly all-ticket and limited to 656 clients, arguably ironic considering this was Hirst’s attempt to “democratize” the sale of his artwork. The high estimate for the combined sales of Hirst’s works was £98 million; by the end of the second evening, the lot had totaled £111.5 million—and represented the peak of the contemporary art market.(1) Simultaneously in New York City, Lehman Brothers was in the process of processing the largest bankruptcy filing in U.S. history— revealing losses of $639 billion, kickstarting what would shortly become the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. In this environment, how would any business—much less the small niche of contemporary art galleries—survive?
Welcome to the Knowledge Age, a term coined by social ecologists John H. Falk and Beverly K. Sheppard. Unlike the Industrial Age, in which mass-manufactured goods led to demand based on a limited set of choices available to a domestic consumer, the Knowledge Age involves highly personalized and globalized services and experiences, as well as new consumer behavior and expectations. This paradigm shift is as relevant to cultural institutions (like galleries, museums, and nonprofit art spaces) as it is to the commercial marketplace, and it’s defined by three characteristics: a superabundance of international goods that leads to a multitude of options, multiple solutions for product or service customization, and relentless competition due to rapid global communication and information sharing. Any gallery that did survive the recession (and continues to do so) has manipulated Castellian ideologies to incorporate and reflect these characteristics, updating modes of “provincial” collaboration by using new technologies to further expand their network and visibility, and maintaining a careful balance of physical and digital presences to appeal to new and old collectors alike.
Partnerships have served as one successful facet of the coping strategy devised by dealers to survive the tightening scope of the art market. In forging a well-regarded community brand, Culver City galleries had the advantage of being able to address some of the early needs of the Knowledge Age consumer by providing multiple options in one location. At the same time, because of falling real estate prices, the prospects for both large and developing galleries to buy space instead of renting became increasingly feasible, along with a lessening of the strain on midsize and emerging galleries in the same area, thereby creating a more solidified network of eclectic art spaces. Being in Culver City allows the galleries and the consumers to be part of a more diverse art community, and not just one gallery.
At the same moment, the advent of additional technologies expanded the Castellian notion of the provincial gallery network: in fact, the very idea of a province could be taken online, where it could be defined as a part of a localized or branded gallery culture. One of the more successful examples of this is Artsy, founded by Princeton undergraduate Carter Cleveland after trying to search for a “cool” piece of artwork in a gallery-deprived New Jersey town.(2) Cleveland wanted to fill the void between gallery communities and non-local budding collectors, making all the world’s art available to anyone with an Internet connection. With the help of partners, advisers and backers like the infamous gallerist Larry Gagosian, the Russian art-world celebrity, Dasha Zhukova, and John Elderfield, the former chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, Cleveland was able to quickly develop a product that offered a user-friendly platform and global interconnectivity at essentially zero cost to either user (gallerist or collector).
With 275 galleries and fifty museums and institutions as partners, Artsy has digitized twenty thousand images into its reference system, which it calls the Art Genome Project. Each partnering gallery or institution retains full control over the images uploaded to their individual profiles, and can maintain an easily accessed, online active inventory of their available works or exhibitions. Once uploaded, a team of art historians “tag” the work with terms associated with certain genres, movements, techniques, or styles, which then enters that work into dialogue with like-minded works listed in the index. The average browser can be introduced to thousands of artists, galleries, and institutions simply by defining his or her general preferences within a given image gallery. From the gallerists, Artsy simply asks for 3 percent of the net sale price of any work sold through the website, which is less than the average gallery salesperson earns on a sale commission. Furthermore, with no required membership or listing fees, Artsy offered an attractive, progressive alternative to pre-existing online inventory listings and databases like ArtNet, which do not ask for commissions on sales, but require monthly hosting dues upwards of $350. And Artsy is merely one brand within the groundswell of economical online art platforms.
This new way of conducting business is less a viable replacement for the gallery business model than a compliment to it, but in the post-2008 economic climate, access has become an infinitely more critical aspect of the gallery world than what the original “White Cube” attitude may have prescribed. Today, access is about availability in both time and space. “One hand washes the other,” says Bennett Roberts of Roberts and Tilton. “You must have both [an online presence and a physical space] to reach the audience you want.”(3)
In the Knowledge Age, access is about being there when the individual wants you to be there; there is no single method for being there for people. In other words, access can be achieved through physical location [as well as] by the use of technology. The arts province of Los Angeles (as developed by the Ferus-era galleries) is divided into sub-provincial states of encounter, which includes the brand of the Culver City gallery community, and that sub-province is divided further into multiple forms of online presence and collaborative byproducts. In testing and implementing the adaptive gallery model required for sustainability and advancement, contemporary art galleries in the post-2008 recession environment (like those in Culver City) have managed to navigate and make use of various avenues for interactivity and exchange.
Of course, this leads us to question where galleries will find themselves as the economy continues to shift. Will physical gallery culture, which responds to the unique socioeconomic environment of a given time, eventually be rendered obsolete? Art dealers today claim not, but many feel that the traditional boundaries of the brick-and-mortar gallery are beginning to feel strain. The desire to be everywhere at once with inventory for every possible configuration of collector, coupled with the increasing advent of art fairs in every city in the world, will ultimately take its toll. Yet despite the hardships, the changes made within the Culver City gallery community represent an advance in the methodologies employed by contemporary art dealers—not mere temporary adjustments—and as technology and consumer expectations continue to develop and change, so will gallery culture, as it always has.
Catlin Moore is currently the Director of Mark Moore Gallery in Culver City, CA. Some citations have been eliminated for the sake of brevity.
(1) Interview with the author.
(2) Some of the details specific to Artsy’s operations have changed between the writing of and publication of this article.
(3) Scott Reyburn, “How Monet, Freud, Hirst Records Led Art-Market Bubble to Burst,” Bloomberg, December 28, 2008.