Middle Ground #1: A Question of Space – After All, The (Art) World Isn’t Infinite

Essay / January 2022

Middle Ground #1: A Question of Space – After All, The (Art) World Isn’t Infinite
By Jacob Barnes

         It’s not uncommon that I hear someone remark on the expansion of galleries well past the confines of Central London — though these comments, if meant at face value, come far too late. The emergence of the East End as an art centre is nearing its 50th birthday, while South East London has forever been an art hub, if only more recently a commercial one. Still, there is a point to be made. While we have grown comfortable with the outgrowths of Central London’s art reaching Bethnal Green or Peckham, galleries continue to push forward into neighbourhoods that are in the midst of redefinition, or better yet, have begun to serve as catalysts for that incipient process. In fact, the notion of an “art centre” at all has at least partially dissolved; there are now merely neighbourhoods, each with their own flavour, life, and taste in art.

Without question or fail, we support this growth, well aware of the difficulties associated with running a contemporary art gallery, and the near-impossibility of doing so in the centre of the city. This is much the same in effect as the way we are happy to support online-first outfits: the art world and its locales (geographical or digital) are evolving, making those who bear change at once trailblazers and totems of the inevitable.

But as I consider London and walk around New York – where similar migration has pushed galleries past their former Manhattan limits and into the depths of Brooklyn – it strikes me that these modes of growth don’t necessarily challenge the most pressing issues at the heart of the art business. Nor do they adequately respond to the immutable truths of art collecting.

I do wholeheartedly believe that with quality and daring, even the most unlikely galleries can succeed. Likewise, I believe in the capacity of the internet to entirely reshape art commerce; I count an undue reliance on physical exhibitions to be both one of the most reactionary (and environmentally unsustainable) elements of the art world today. Still, this kind of any-space-goes approach clarifies both the finitude of growth, as well as the inherent drawbacks to any space — drawbacks which become bigger as they intersect with the limits of this expansion in the future.

It’s true that galleries outside of traditional hubs bear an additional burden when it comes to garnering viewership, and by extension, a collector base. This goes well beyond the generation of foot traffic and into the values of positive association, and the ease of acceptance within the broader art community. We have been conditioned to believe that there are quality galleries in certain areas, or perhaps put otherwise, that if a gallery is a certain (read: expensive) area, it is more likely to have a quality program — leaving those who don’t benefit from such a station with much to prove. Indeed, the opportunity for galleries to draw attention to their program online has lessened this burden, but it remains troublesome nonetheless, not least because digital viewership has yet to eclipse in-person interaction. Furthermore, the creation of new, bustling art centres can’t mitigate the reality that one day these too will become inaccessible, and the migration will, if it can, continue outwards. A shorter term solution here does little to assuage the structural impediments that it is reacting against, only offsetting them for future generations. All of this goes without mentioning the common denominator to any location: it is both a difficult and expensive endeavour to prepare a space for the public, no matter where it is located.

So why not just forgo it altogether? We’ve seen the proliferation of online-first spaces over the last number of years, and several that have been able to break into the mainstream. Without question, forging an online-first gallery identity, particularly if accompanied by a nomadic exhibitional practice, can create a niche for oneself in the art world. However, this approach is not without its own pitfalls; collecting has not entirely lost its in-person allure, and the logistical difficulties of programming nomadic spaces are not to be taken lightly. While the responsibilities of maintaining a full-time space can be colossal, nomadic spaces aren’t an altogether exemption from both expense and hassle. Having participated in a nomadic space, I know personally the issues of navigating short term leases with less-than-amenable landlords.

What’s more, success as a gallery often comes by way of hard-earned engagement with a collector base, but also a broader community. While this community can be cultivated online, we’ve yet to see exactly to what effect, or whether the geographical non-specificity of the internet becomes, over the long term, a sufficient mode of creating connection. And, to collapse this notion as quickly as it sprung up, “online” or “nomadic” never really means what we expect them to: primary presences on the internet or at temporary spaces are also subject to ong term issues of storage and other miscellaneous business going-ons. In short, you can’t ship physical art to a web page, and certainly not to a short term lease (if you ever want to see it again).

While this might read as a longwinded definition of a dead end, I’m increasingly interested in middle-ground options; space usages that allow for long term tenancy presenting the possibility of centrality, or at least greater freedom. I am keen to explore the utilisation of space sharing throughout major art cities, where multiple galleries can individually utilise a space for a certain number of exhibitions a year. To date, I am only familiar with La Maison de Rendez-Vous in Brussels a shared space between LamdaLamdaLamda, MISAKO&ROSEN, and Park View/Paul Soto (with Mexico City’s Lulu having previously been a resident) – and formerly, the home of Galeria Wschód in Warsaw, which had been shared with another gallery in a former Soviet printing complex. Still, these are better-established galleries that use these spaces to further cultivate extant collector bases; I think this approach could be particularly valuable for smaller galleries, each to share a space on a kind of time-share basis, with rent and other associated costs being split accordingly.

But even as I think about it, a pernicious truth resurfaces: the trouble with sharing a space is that each gallery must have a distinct enough identity in order to distinguish itself from its co-tenants, preying on what is a source of great difficulty for younger galleries. While many galleries set out a nominal mission statement, how many present an aesthetically or ideologically identifiable program over an extended period? This is issued less as a criticism and more as a fact. To showcase “emerging” art is to peddle in the diffuse, and while a valuable contribution to the art world nonetheless, it is all too easy to image the side-by-side programming of galleries all melting into the one, with any commercial benefit being directed merely to the lucky tenants who happen to be occupying the space at any given time.

Yet, I remain committed to the possibility, even if I can’t yet see how it would be borne out. To be sure, I’m left with deeply valuable food for thought. How do galleries articulate mission, and how can one mitigate the drawbacks of that specificity in an increasingly polyphonic world? I suppose I know what I’ll write about in two week’s time.  

Image Credits:
1. Courtesy of La Maison de Rendez-Vous; Exhibition – La Hangar. Image by Isabelle Arthuis.