Amusingly, late last year in the arts pages of a major Australian newspaper, an esteemed and deeply thoughtful national art critic pondered long and hard as to why a particular fifty-something contemporary artist was not more widely known and appreciated. Page after page of large colour-plate photographs illuminated with elegant text (in the art world that means long sentences and multiple commas) combined to extol the painterly virtues of a very good artist.
That weekend, art industry telephone calls flew hither and thither. On reading the article, a legion of the more grass roots art professionals – that is, the art dealers- shat themselves with laughter. You could hear their shrieks of mirth in Antarctica as they alternately fought for breath and convulsed with meltdown hilarity. The simple answer to the art critic’s bemused ponderings was that the artist in question was one of the most difficult people ever to have walked the planet.
Simply skimming through the artist’s CV should have made almost anyone realise that no fewer than a dozen different art dealers have represented the artist in twenty years. It was widely known in the industry that the artist had spent the better part of their career “dealer-hopping”. The artist, for any number of reasons, had fallen out with every art dealer they had ever worked with. Such a radically inconsistent artist-dealer relationship had translated into no art dealer having (nor likely to have in the future) the inclination to invest their time, money or emotional energy in the artist’s career. The talented contemporary artist had long ago fallen into the art dealer “too hard” basket. The dealers – whose job it was to promote the artist’s work – had washed their collective hands of that difficulty and consequently our broader understanding of that artist’s work is all but a vague memory.
Collectors would be well advised to look to and analyse a contemporary artist’s CV. In the art market there exists a hierarchy of art galleries and dealers and the best artists inevitably move up that hierarchy. A reasonable amount of movement across galleries and dealers during an artist’s career is both healthy and to be expected – but not too much.
At the foundation of the art exhibition pyramid are those student- and artist-run spaces that traditionally accept art school all-comers. There are many such art spaces springing up around the country, often formed by artists wishing to stay as far away from commercialism as possible (that is until the credit cards are refused). Artist-run spaces are often highly (dis) organised collectives that showcase artists at their cutting-edge best, before they have to conform to the financial constraints imposed by some dealers and agents in later life.
One such group space is Westspace in Melbourne. Having started life in 1993, it is one of the longest running artist-run organisations in Australia (they open and close with some regularity). Here, artists are encouraged to have creative freedom, and their direct relationship with the Melbourne viewing community means that the artist-public relationship is open and stimulating for both sides of the dynamic. Buying from such spaces can be an extremely exciting way of purchasing tomorrow’s art world big-hitters – albeit a one in a thousand success rate. Validation of this argument comes readily in the form of contemporary art giant Damien Hirst. His career began as part of a London artist collective aiming to sidestep the constraints that the traditional white cubes of London’s gallery districts might have placed upon them. Hirst graduated from this arena to a top flight contemporary art gallery. Now the artist regularly sells works for many millions of dollars (still- and do not be cynical) and works from his early career are now museum pieces.
This is not to suggest that every artist-run space is a gold-mine of earning potential for the interested art buyer. Nevertheless, an artist’s early works usually contain a visual dynamism that is hard to recreate later in their career. It is these early pieces that will always have kudos among the collecting community. So if you like your art to be challenging and experimental then an artist-run space is well worth a visit. However, as good as many artist-run spaces can be, all quality artists move on, and a collector should note and expect this on an artist’s CV.
The next level in the exhibition pyramid is characterised by those “commercial” galleries led by a loveable yet wacky director with an eye for art and no head for business. This level of gallery – the lower-middle on the hierarchy – is invariably located where real estate is relatively inexpensive (somewhere on the periphery of the city) and importantly will provide many a contemporary artist with their first solo exhibition or two. And then the artist moves on.
Why? Because the gallery director is generally welded to his or her artists, estranged from their bank manager and a mystery to their collectors. Inevitably and somewhat ironically, the lower-middle rung galleries come unstuck with their better artists- who are, one and all, compelled to leave – because the gallery director focuses all their attention on the artist and neglects the collector.
Like all professionals, contemporary artists enjoy feedback, particularly when they are young. However, as they grow more assured, what contemporary artists really require from their art dealer is less feedback and more money and prestige. The “I spend my life getting into the headspace of my artists” style of gallery director has generally scant time and little desire whatsoever to service collectors. Being unwilling to help collectors form their collections, these lower-middle rung dealers are unable to attract or keep moneyed clients – they either never come in or walk out in disgust – and the gallery director is left with clients that mirror his or her own circumstance – desperately arts interested yet cash poor. The gallery’s artists in these circumstances are confined to selling into a static, financially somewhat shallow pool so the value of their work can never move beyond say $20,000 a painting.
Not unsurprisingly the art trade refers to these lower-middle rung galleries as “feeder” galleries. That is, they pick up and nurture the better contemporary artists only to have them fed on through at a later date to the major galleries who have the eye, the business savvy and the clients needed to take the artist to a new level. Feeder galleries are regularly stripped of their best artists every couple of years or so, and it is disheartening to see that most of them have no understanding as to why this keeps happening.
As much as anything it is the gallery director’s own taste which determines the market position of an art establishment. There are enormously talented and important gallery directors who do not have major standing within the art hierarchy simply because they only sell artwork to their own taste. As such, sales may be limited. Taste can be ahead of its time, or yesterday’s news and one of the more important distinguishing features that differentiate the major galleries from all others, is their ability to sell a broad range of quality art works designed to appeal to many. The major galleries and art dealers provide a diverse exhibition schedule – an art strategy designed to appeal to most collectors every three or four exhibitions and to nearly everyone at least once a year.
The major dealers, almost only ever handle established contemporary artists, who have years of exhibition history behind them – artists that have defected or have been poached from the feeder galleries. The major galleries sell a variety of art works at prices that range from many hundreds of dollars to many, many hundreds of thousands of dollars. The major dealers are collector focused, not artist-centric and, from my experience, that is the way most quality contemporary artists in the end want it to be.
Given then the hierarchy of art galleries and the professional stages through which any and all good artists move, it is to be expected that an artist will move up and on within their exhibiting career. What, however, should be of great concern to all collectors and a major storm warning alert to most art dealers, is if an artist jumps around from gallery to gallery without an identifiable, that is upward, direction. If this is seen to happen too frequently, leave well enough alone.