The Art Newspaper leads today with a piece by Louisa Buck about “Artists Clawing Back Control From Dealers.” If the title is a bit hyperbolic, the article itself is a measured account of how artists such as Kieth Tyson and Gavin Turk have begun hiring financial advisors and forming their own companies in order to maintain better and perhaps more centralized control over, and so creativity in, the production of their work. For a long time, galleries served this purpose for their artists, functioning as the business and finance arm of their activities, which often meant that a gallery would front significant amounts of money to realize an artist’s particular vision. (It was Jeffrey Deitch’s financing of Jeff Koons’ Celebration series of sculptures which nearly bankrupted the gallery and ended in Deitch’s temporary partnership with Sotheby’s.)
The sticking point in the gallery-artist relationship comes, of course, when that production money comes with strings attached; namely in claims to ownership of the work or some percentage of it, or, perhaps more difficult for artists to accept, sometimes a say in the ultimate outcome of the piece. Such is the case with Emmanuel Perrotin’s new venture, ‘Artists’ Dreams’, which will use an outside pool of investment capital to produce works which will then be exclusively consigned to his gallery for sale.
So it makes sense that artists who have the means to do so might choose some measure of economic autonomy from their galleries when it comes to questions of production. But “the means to do so,” as we well know, would seem to exclude a large number of working artists, whose only business outlets are the galleries who stand to profit from the sales of their work, and whose markets and operations are too small to warrant hiring the likes of Frank Dunphy (Hirst’s business manager) or his firm, Hogbens Dunphy, which manages Turk and Tyson among others.
The idea that this move is one of “clawing back control” from dealers is a bit misleading then. After all, if you can finance it yourself, why would you take on outside obligations? If you can handle the risk, you get the control. (It’s actually surprising to me that more artists haven’t made this move sooner.) I know one artist who finances his own work and then backs those costs out of the sale of his art before splitting anything with his gallery. Of course, the market for that work had better already be there, or else one may soon be faced with a Celebration-esque economic disaster. And this question is not limited to the relationship between artists and their dealers. Many non-collecting institutions underwrite all or portions of the produciton of new works for exhibition. But often the associated “ownership stake” involves the negotiation of tricky contracts, in which small musuems and kunsthalles have only their prestige to serve as leverage.
So the question is: Are there other options out there that we’re not seeing? As the economy continues to slide, and production costs become ever more onerous, will the majority of artists working today become ever more indentured to production funds, whether these come from galleries, museums or independent sources? And might we not also see a change in the scale of operations taken on by artists in the coming months and years as well?