In a series of Tweets this weekend, two critics criticize five artists for moving to the global gallery.
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Married art critics Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz spent the weekend working themselves up into a lather of indignation over Hauser + Wirth taking on new artists formerly represented by other galleries. Saltz + Smith were mad but it wasn’t entirely clear what they were mad about. Over the weekend they seemed to be workshopping ideas, targets and metaphors to express their anger.
First, they tried the big box retail metaphor. Hauser + Wirth, according to Smith, were “killers of smaller businesses & local vitality” like Staples and Barnes & Noble. Saltz added an image of a superstore to his first tweet.
Later, the couple switched to a unique complaint, captured best in this Tweet from Smith:
The next day, Saltz added his own twist on the theme. “Is a gallery with a 90 artist roster a talent agency,” he tweeted, “a multi-national conglomerate, a petting zoo, super-entitled department store, too big not to fail, or the way of the future eating much of the rest of the art world?”
The couple seem to think that they are standing up for something against Hauser + Wirth. What that something might be, they don’t seem to be able to put their finger on. Is calling an art gallery, even a global one, a talent agency really a put down? And what does it mean to compare Hauser + Wirth to Barnes & Noble when the book chain is a declining company drifting off into irrelevance at a time when independent bookstores are blossoming across America?
Perhaps we can sort out for Smith + Saltz what they’re so chagrined by in Hauser + Wirth’s actions.
For many years, Gagosian Gallery was the art world’s bogeyman. The first gallery to build a global footprint, Gagosian had pioneered a different way to sell art. Gagosian focused more on the buy side, as they say in the financial world, than on the sell side. This meant that Gagosian and his team of aggressive directors thought first about the collectors, their needs and desires, and second about the artists. Finding art to sell to that group was secondary to amassing a network of wealthy, dedicated and motivated buyers. And, of course, once Gagosian had buyers it was easier to attract artists (or simply acquire their work through arrangements other than the standard gallery model.)
Gagosian’s ‘disruption’ of the gallery model—inverting the old formula of gallery as guardian of an artist’s career and legacy—caused a great deal of anger and outrage at the time. Curiously, the formula has not been easy to replicate (though one could make the case that the auction houses have followed Gagosian here more than any other gallery has.) David Zwirner and Hauser + Wirth have grown to rival Gagosian in recent years more on their ability to attract artists than having amassed a devoted client base.
Hauser + Wirth has expanded to many of the same cities as Gagosian but the gallery has also moved in a different direction. The H + W outposts in Somerset and Los Angeles are mixed-use complexes that offer visitors more than just a venue to view art. Their new hotel venture in Scotland points further to a future where art as an experience is as much as what the gallery sells as the artworks themselves.
Not that sales have been a problem for Hauser + Wirth. Last Fall, the gallery held a series of shows featuring African-American artists like Ed Clark, David Hammons, and Amy Sherald—that saw easy sales and demand that far exceeded supply. So it should surprise no one to see them sign up Simone Leigh and Henry Taylor. Their previous galleries most likely simply do not have the depth of demand for their work that Hauser + Wirth can provide.
Avery Singer and Nicolas Party, though different artists from Taylor and Leigh, are most likely following a similar career trajectory. A gallery with broader reach both in terms of exhibition space and buyer depth can offer those artists a faster path toward growth. Though in the case of the former two, growth might not be what those artists need right now given the pace of demand for their work.
George Condo and Nicole Eisenman can hardly be considered young artists who are this season’s favorite flavor. In both their cases, their moves from well-established galleries may reflect different career inflection points. What Hauser + Wirth can provide George Condo at this stage in his career that Per Skarstedt could not is probably something only known to George Condo. But here our interest is not in the individual motivations of the various artists for moving galleries but what about these moves has angered two art critics enough to cry out publicly.
The center-piece of the Smith + Saltz attack seems to be the concentration of popular artists with one gallery. The implication is that by moving to Hauser + Wirth these artists are undermining the economic ecosystem that maintains a broader group of galleries. This complaint, which by no means should be waived away, is a version of the complaints against retailers two and three decades ago that displaced local businesses with big box stores which, in turn, have been undermined by Amazon.
The big box menace is nothing new to the art world. In 2006, Amy Cappellazzo enraged people by comparing auction houses to big-box retailers and galleries to Mom-and-Pop businesses that were struggling to keep up. That quip became the central proposition in an ADAA super-panel a dozen years ago pitting David Zwirner, Michael Findlay and Andrea Rosen against Cappellazzo, Simon de Pury and Anthony Grant. Then, of course, the dealers were considered the underdogs. No doubt Smith + Saltz would have sided with them over the corporately-controlled auction houses.
Fourteen years later, all three major auction houses are privately owned businesses. The auction houses look more like the big galleries than they do like big box retailers. During the ADAA panel, David Zwirner warned that the primary art galleries held an advantage over the auction houses by virtue of the supply of art coming from their artists and the margins they could charge. It turns out he was probably right.
Implicit in Smith + Saltz’s gripe about “death stars” is the idea that corporate control leads to the big galleries losing their virtue. But all of the galleries, like all of the auction houses now, are privately held. Hauser + Wirth is a family-owned business, its advantages don’t come from having public shares listed.
Some artists, and others, on Twitter tried to counter the critics’ argument by suggesting that Hauser’s acquisition of half a dozen artists opens up slots at the well-established galleries that those artists left. That may be so. But the critics’ concern is that the art economy resembles the broader global economy too closely with a few dominant players who suck up all of the profits thus depriving the rest of the field of a sustainable future.
Smith + Saltz aren’t wrong to raise that point. The expansion of the global art trade has created huge opportunities for artists and galleries but it has also reshaped the business pushing smaller galleries with a single location into an economic corner. Those galleries must increasingly decide whether they can assume the risks of growth or find other ways to serve their artists.
Smith + Saltz don’t offer any ideas on how the artists can serve their own needs while still supporting more galleries with limited reach. Smith avoids calling the artists greedy by accusing Hauser + Wirth of greed; but she still wants to assign blame to them. That’s a dicey strategy. If artists are not in it for themselves, who is? Why should the imperatives of being an artist include some kind of altruism when no one else in our society is expected to display the same abnegation.
If the mission of an art gallery is to serve as the platform for an artists career and protector of the artists legacy, why would it be bad for an artist to seek the biggest platform and best protector?
That brings us back to the idea that if an art gallery gets too big, it risks becoming a talent agency. That’s an accusation without an insult. If one tries hard, it is possible to discern in the put-down some belief that artists should only be driven by their own impulses. A talent agency implies turning the artist into a hired hand for someone else’s vision. But that belies the bulk of art history when artists and artisans were hired hands employed to create objects for the greater glory other temporal figures.
In the 21st Century, a talent agency would not return artists to some form of craft servitude. Instead, artists have many more opportunities today to realize their creative impulses through the growing number of commercial (and non-commercial) collaborations with private collectors, public commissions and corporate brands. No artist is obliged to participate in this talent pool. But its existence is a boon to all.
The uncharitable among us might think Smith + Saltz are unhappy to see artists participate in such a range of opportunities because their success or failure is even less dependent upon the kind of critical responses they make their living producing than ever before. The rest of us just read the tweets and wondered what was going on.