Sam Gilliam's Moment, Pat Stier's Big Commission, and Jeffrey Deitch Back in LA
Art Fairs Can Help Galleries
Dutch academic economist Olav Velthuis has an opinion piece in the New York Times blaming art fairs for the structural stresses on middle market galleries. Let’s break it down:
Why does Velthuis think smaller galleries are closing?
- “Art fairs are [to blame], to a large extent. Because of the recent changes in how art is viewed and bought, smaller and midsize galleries are in a vicious bind: How can they possibly participate in the fairs? At the same time, how can they not?”
What’s his evidence?
- “Almost half of all gallery sales are nowadays conducted at the fairs, up 16 percentage points from 2010. Gallery owners on average participate in five fairs a year. Not because they like them so much as because they have to.”
It is not clear where that data comes from, possibly Clare McAndrew’s Art Basel report cited earlier in the essay. What about gallery shows?
- “Few buyers still make the effort to visit galleries in city centers on a Saturday afternoon. In droves they now go to the fairs, where they can view a swath of art in little time and socialize at the much-coveted V.I.P. openings and afterparties.”
No chance Instagram or the broader trend of declining retail traffic is having an impact? But let’s say that’s right. What’s the solution?
- “the major art fairs should acknowledge that the nature of artist representation is changing and that the traditional model of a fixed gallery is losing legitimacy, in large part, ironically, because of the popularity of the fairs. A concomitant decrease in gallery visitor numbers has led several art dealers to turn to alternative, hybrid or nomadic galleries that depart from the traditional model centered around a fixed, expensive, exhibition space. The biggest art fairs should relax their admission criteria and open up their events to more curators and directors behind these new gallery models.”
This last suggestion isn’t a bad one. Pulling it off is far more complex than Velthuis’s superficial analysis would suggest. Art fairs thrive on a delicate balance between cultural currency, exclusivity and commercial appeal. Changing those criteria to include private dealers without exhibition space or education programs won’t necessarily make it easier for smaller galleries. It might make the selection process even more opaque. As with almost everything in the art world, money doesn’t necessarily get you to the front of the line.
…But Transfer Fees Won’t
We lost our patience with Velthuis and his argument when he trotted out this idea:
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