Art Gallery 101

978-1-58115-664-5-2This week marks the publication of Edward Winkleman’s How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery. For those familiar with Ed’s writing from ArtworldSalon—not to mention his own blog—the book may come as a surprise. Although fully qualified to speak as an art-world insider, armed with the requisite attitude and gossip, he chose the more difficult, and in my opinion braver path: To share basic, practical information with younger colleagues about the particular challenges of running an art gallery. Never has such information been more needed than now, when every penny counts and when dealers, both novices and veterans, must think anew about every facet of their business.

Part Bible, part user’s guide, Ed’s book offers calm and steady, and above all honest, advice on questions younger dealers always want to know about, but are often afraid to ask. How much should I pay myself? Where should I advertise? When do I need a lawyer? But even the best-laid plans can skid off the tracks because of the minutiae. One of the virtues of Ed’s book is that it delves into seemingly mundane, nevertheless important matters that others might have glossed over. No detail escapes his attention: from staff dress codes to the best choice of gallery paint color; from industry-standard salary levels to the wisdom of including packing tape in your “art fair survival kit.”

If you’re planning to open a gallery, buy this book. If you’re planning to stay in business, buy this book.

Lessons from Havana

cubaIt is useful to remember that there is a place, not far from here, which makes our Wall Street worries look like luxury problems. The average salary in Cuba is around $20 US dollars a month, which is the equivalent of a regular dinner in a tourist restaurant in Habana Vieja. Economic contrasts border on surrealism, and yet Cuban society manages somehow to survive through a system of inventive informal businesses and exchanges that involve outsmarting the government and permanently playing a game of intrigue and paranoia.

The Cuban situation in the art sphere has always been equally perplexing: Cuba doesn’t have private galleries, art magazines or independent art foundations. Internet access is heavily restricted if at all available. Only a handful of artists (who normally live outside of the country) actually get to make a profit of their art. And yet over the years Cuba produced as many or more consequential artists than other countries who may boast of far stronger infrastructure and support system for the arts. Which leads me to ask: amidst all this soul-searching after the fall of the markets, can the Cuban example help the art world re-envision itself?

In Cuba it is really hard to get quick answers to anything, though, as reality is so complex. For starters, the meeting of the art world and the Cuban reality is an awkward one. The Havana Biennial, which just opened its 10th edition last week, is an event that best exemplifies the contrasts and ironies of today’s art world. Officially entitled “Globalization and Resistance,” one could see the event as the ultimate anti-Dubai, anti-Chelsea event. Yet, there was a parallel show precisely entitled “Chelsea,” comprised of New York artists who show at Chelsea galleries. The event seemed to be quite successful, no one seemed to think it was a contradiction to the curatorial premises of the biennial, and everyone seemed happy. The biennial per se, however, as well as the theoretical forum I attended, were much more true to form. Continue reading “Lessons from Havana”

“Recessional Aesthetics” at Dia

recession-specialFrom Eva Diaz in New York City:

Speaking of the appropriation of empty real estate for art venues in Dubai and elsewhere, a fascinating mise en abyme is taking place at the former Dia space in Chelsea. Dia pioneered the Chelsea art frontier, then sold the building four years ago to a developer who, due to the bummer economy, failed to find tenants for a proposed “apartment gallery hybrid” (this according to the  NY Observer). The space has now been donated to the rechristened “X” non-profit contemporary art center for one year.

In a self-reflexive panel touching on new, non-market/real estate-driven hybridities in such improvised sites, Hal Foster and David Joselit last Thursday conversed about the current and possible future effects of the economic downturn on the wider field of art: its production, reception, distribution, and consumption; its educational institutions and institutions of display. Unfortunately it was an abbreviated session—someone in the audience fell into swoon half way through (an event later judged unrelated to the fraught topic at hand).

The evening was structured around as a series of insightful, speculative questions that posed tentative propositions about how to combat the privatization of cultural institutions and the financialization of art. Here’s quick telegraph of the five questions Foster and Joselit were able to cover, which involved some apposite participation from the large audience:

Will the social role of the artist change in the new “undercapitalist” economy?   Is the neoliberal art museum sustainable?   Will art biennials wither away?   What will be the effect of the economic crisis on art schools?   Will art criticism regain its place in the art world after being marginalized in the market boom?

The last question raised the very pertinent issue of what constitutes expertise in the field of criticism, latterly turned into generalized judgment or appreciation on the part of dealers, collectors, etc. Is there a place left for the common set of terms that a critic provides?Or has the globalization of the art world meant that a form of market-driven relativism supplanted criticism—disguised in the pluralism of purchasable media, the near ceaseless ahistorical plundering/pastiche of prior practices as fodder for new work, and the surfeit of MFA-equiped contemporary artists and surplus of biennials and art fairs?

Recession strategies for commercial art galleries

survival-kit-items-latest2Survival has replaced art fairs as the topic dealers discuss most when they meet in New York (how galleries are going to survive, or not, seems to be among the topics most on the minds of critics as well, as evidenced by recent offerings by Charlie Finch and Jerry Saltz to mention but a few). There are, of course, some universal business strategies to a downturn (cut your overhead, advertise more strategically, do more with less, etc.), but some of the responses I’ve heard dealers indicate they’re following are near opposites of each other, reflecting perhaps a personal philosophy about adversity more than any conventional wisdom to the best path to take. The following 4 categories summarize what seem to be the current thinking among the dealers I’ve spoken with in New York about how to respond to this extraordinary economic climate:

1. “Closing” (yes, in quotes)
2. Money shows instead of concept shows
3. No guts, no glory
4. Consolidation

Unquestionably galleries are closing in New York, but very few are reporting that the decision is related to the economy. If the outlook for the market were not so tough, I suspect the percentage of current closings might plausibly seem normal (partnerships do dissolve, dealers do move on to other interests, etc.), but given how U.S. businesses across the board are filing bankruptcy or going belly-up, it’s difficult to imagine financial difficulties haven’t contributed somewhat to the decisions to shutter their spaces.
Continue reading “Recession strategies for commercial art galleries”

Summer reading: The Art Critic

Just in time for late summer, Newsweek and Artforum critic Peter Plagens has started publishing his new novel, The Art Critic, in weekly installments on Artnet. The “book” is about a slightly cranky male critic of a certain age who has seen enough and done enough in the art world to call it just like he sees it. The writer clearly has the home court advantage on this one, and readers can look forward to some straight-up acerbic commentary on contemporary art. Here’s a teaser, a rumination on recent art in the voice of the novel’s proto-autobiographical protagonist, Arthur:

Worse, all those current artists who indulged themselves in actual words — paintings with words in them, “photo-text pieces,” video works stuffed with dialogue, and other works requiring more didactic printed material slapped up on the walls than you’d find in a science museum — weren’t the worst of it; the sin of language was a misdemeanor compared with whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus, installations with more electronic equipment than an arena concert, and hugely expensive wannabe architecture in which designer drugs were somewhat mitigated by the assistance of a structural engineer. Although the artists boasted in the accompanying press material that the art — what a big tent “art” was now! — “forces the viewer to confront” some geopolitical issue or another, the local stuff, at least, seemed to be made by upper-middle-class kids who could afford the tuition for a Master of Fine Arts degree and then a studio in some rapidly gentrifying quarter of Brooklyn. The bar for “oppression” had apparently been lowered to anybody looking cross-eyed at them on the subway. Between the lines, so to speak, their art told whiney stories about putative victimhoods, or self-congratulatory stories about their empathy for other people’s misfortunes. And they didn’t want their messages to be confined to mere galleries, either. You could feel them looking toward wider, more glamorous horizons. “Face it,” the film critic at the newsweekly where Arthur plied his trade had once said to him when he took her along to a couple of exhibitions, “they all want to direct.”

Vanishing lines: the collector as curator?

For those who follow the sometimes tempestuous marriage between art and finance closely, there was not much new in “Wall Street meets the art world” (via Culturegrrl), even if the language was appropriately mercantile for an article in Fortune magazine. Describing her husband’s relationship to art, Chelsea dealer Marianne Boesky recalls, “He had never been in a contemporary art gallery until we met. But as soon as he started understanding the numbers and seeing the margins, he became serious about art.”

To me, however, the most interesting part of this article was the very end:

Glenn Fuhrman, who manages Michael Dell’s family money and has become an active collector and philanthropist, is opening an exhibition space in Chelsea to display works from private collections, including his own.

What’s noteworthy here is not the fact that a collector opens an exhibition space, something Saatchi et al have done, though rarely (never?) smack-dab in the middle of a gallery district. The weird part would be the showcasing of multiple private collections in that space. Assuming it actually happens, this is an interesting development and one for which I cannot easily think of a precedent. Although apparently, a Swiss friend just informed me, it’s an idea also being mulled in Europe by some loose coalitions of collectors.

When Los Angeles collector Dean Valentine curated “Now is a Good Time” at Andrea Rosen Gallery, it ignited a fair amount of private grousing among artworld insiders about some ethical-moral line having been trespassed. Then again, that was in 2004 – a long time ago in today’s amphetamine-speed ConArt world – before Charles Saatchi Continue reading “Vanishing lines: the collector as curator?”

Clippings swept from the salon floor, #2

New term alert: China fatigue. The Telegraph’s Art sales: Rampant market, rising fatigue used the phrase “China Fatigue” in two quite different ways: 1) The Chinese churning out of tired but highly saleable work, e.g. “Tate’s Simon Groom believes that the rampant market may have produced what he calls ‘China fatigue,’ encouraging artists to make saleable pastiches rather than ‘genuinely good, creatively interesting art’. 2) The seemingly inevitable state when the current high demand for Chinese ConArt falters, e.g. “Over the next 12 days, contemporary Chinese art will be auctioned in Paris, London and Hong Kong. No one doubts that the speculation will continue, but some will be watching out for signs of China fatigue.” I’d propose another, synthetic, definition: 3) The market condition arising when demand for Chinese ConArt finally flags, because people tire of endlessly seeing similar pieces.

Chris Burden, Shoot, recreated by  Eva and Franco Mattes Tech Gone Wrong: “Synthetic Performances,” in which classical pieces of performance art – Joseph Beuys’ “7000 Oaks,Valie Export’s “Tapp und Tastkino,” Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” Chris Burden’s “Shoot” – are recreated in Second Life, the newest machinima platform. An odd project made even odder by the gym-bot physical culture in Second Life – Burden and Acconci look like buffed-out surfer dudes and Export is working a Daisy Duke/Pris look. (See also at Art Review Blog, via Ed_W.)

Those who can’t make, sell? While there are some New York dealers who are also active artists (Guild & Greyshkul ‘s three founders – Sara Van Der Beek, Johannes Van Der Beek, Anya Kielar – all had shows at other very solid galleries in the last year), apparently Chelsea and LA are larded with artiste manqué dealers. The Kantor/Feuer Window gallery (literally a window on 10th avenue, open 24/7) will be featuring the work of 20-plus such dealers starting today. Those include heavy-hitters and hot young names such as Roland Augustine, John Cheim, Zach Feuer, Continue reading “Clippings swept from the salon floor, #2”

Chelsea evacuates to Miami, due to cash tsunami

vice_city.jpgInteresting press release I received yesterday, in which …

reported today that no less than 116 Chelsea galleries are going to ten different art fairs in Miami the second week of December, making 2006 the largest such migration ever, up 25% from just a year ago. “Chelsea’s presence in Miami will be significant”, says Alessandra Almgren, editor at “More than one sixth of all galleries participating in any of the art fairs, and 43 out of the 247 galleries at the main fair, Art Basel Miami Beach, have a Chelsea address.”

Four questions:
– Clearly, Chelsea is an art fair every day, and yet dealers still feel compelled to drag their asses and their art down to Miami. Why? And no, “mojitos by the pool” does not explain it.
– Does anyone think that all these galleries can possibly break even, given the competition?
– Will any art at all be sold in Chelsea come January?
– 10 fairs, 686 galleries. Does that sound doable to anyone except a compulsive collector with a sunlight allergy and no artworld friends to distract him?

Interesting point, not noted: While Chelsea’s representing Continue reading “Chelsea evacuates to Miami, due to cash tsunami”