Middle Ground #11: How Should a Gallery Be? – What is the Role of a Gallery in Today’s World?
Essay / July 2022
Middle Ground #11: How Should a Gallery Be? — What is the Role of a Gallery in Today’s World?
By Jacob Barnes
Art production has always been, and will continue to be, a constant of human society. This is a socio-historical fact; from the wall paintings in the Lascaux caves 17,000 years ago (or longer) to today, humans have resolutely committed tool or pigment to surface in order to represent the otherwise ineffable. Funny, then, how quickly the terms on which that art is traded changes. Almost a year out from the quiet decline of the Covid emergency state and we find the post-pandemic paradigm ossifying, the results looking very little like what many had anticipated. The decline of the crypto market has left NFT speculation in tatters, and while questions surrounding the robustness of art fairs and globalism writ large still loosely linger, both appear strong enough to be defining factors in the contemporary art world. But this is not a return to business as usual: while the terms in which we operate have largely regained a sense of familiarity, the conditions in which galleries function have changed significantly.
Today, the possibility, let alone the plausibility, of long-term upward mobility in the art market as an exhibitor—the gallery/dealer distinction largely fails now—is a near impossibility. That is not to say that galleries can no longer grow and better their stations, but that the glass ceiling under which they are confined grows increasingly unbreakable. This is not to discredit the hegemony of the world’s mega-galleries prior to the pandemic. What’s more, I do not completely decry the conditions under which this truth has come into clarity; it is as much the product of democratisation at the lower rungs of the art world as it is of an oppressive elitism from the top down. To be sure, the increasing “looseness” with which art world hierarchies are enforced has allowed young, largely inexperienced gallerists and dealers—a group within which I count myself—to find a stronger purchase in the industry, and to do so with relative speed. But the trouble with all of this reordering (or better put, the large-scale abandonment of order) is that it’s much harder to climb a ladder that no longer exists. This means that it takes longer to assert the strength of your own program, and conversely, that mid-sized galleries are now in competition with smaller galleries for artists, and by extensions, collectors.
On the other end of the spectrum, as costs of doing business rise (along with the cost of everything else under inflation), few galleries have the resources to pursue a globalised presence in ways that large blue-chip galleries can. To take this one step further, as this difference is further asserted in the market, there is little reason why the international superstars of the art world wouldn’t jump ship from their local galleries: there is a clear divide between what their smaller gallery and their larger suitor can offer them. In principle this is nothing all that new: perhaps the terms are a little more stark now, but blue-chips have been the scourge of smaller galleries for all of time. What’s different now is that as artists achieve large scale success (on average) younger and younger, and international galleries pursue emerging artists more and more aggressively, the opportunity for smaller galleries to reap any kind of reward from an artist grows increasingly small. It’s at this juncture that it all comes to a head: artists show at a range of galleries while growing their following, and are pursued by blue-chip galleries sooner than has ever been the case.
Let us consider this against the backdrop of the current socio-political landscape. The United States Supreme Court toys with the notion of making the country an effective Christo-fascist state, the British government goes through cycles of scandals followed by empty apologies ad nauseam, and God bless the efforts of the world’s more sensible governments, but a war on the European continent and consistent supply-chain disruptions mean that much of their work is in vain. The position of the artist and the art worker more broadly has become increasingly precarious, and it doesn’t look like the situation is getting better any time soon. While the linkage to the art industry may appear tenuous, remember that the vectors of globalised capitalism run through our work, and that the systemic failures of our policies and economies affect us on micro-industrial and personal levels. Indeed, I highlight this to accentuate the ways in which intra-industrial and extra-industrial conditions can converge into an almighty clusterfuck, and shed light on the ways the industry needs to adapt to not only meet the needs of people as part of the art world, but as part of the larger, socio-political/-economic cosmos.
So what is a smaller gallery to do? In a world where the prospect of one day elevating themselves to the position of a true industry hegemon seems to diminish by the day, the answer is to stop trying. It’s not going to happen, so why bother? What’s more, the very pursuit of those ends is futile, as the values it represents do little to reflect the exigencies of today’s broader world. In a system that is becoming increasingly untenable for its participants, striving to achieve in ways that benefit the few and enrich the fewer appears an exercise in extreme solipsism. Instead, it seems that the only sensible position to take is in pursuit of formal innovation, reimagining the ways that artists, gallerists, and collectors can commune over and financialise art and and ancillary products (e.g. digital collectibles). It also behooves galleries to reconsider the ways in which they understand success and growth, finding new metrics to judge achievement in an environment where the old metrics no longer sufficiently indicate the degree to which the art market has successfully served its participants. I am not advocating for a (re)distribution of capital in such a way that neglects the immutable truth of market interest (or lack thereof): not everyone was cut out to be a working artist. However, under social and economic conditions that threaten personal and bodily freedoms while making it increasingly unaffordable to exercise those freedoms, organisations that cannot promise generational wealth must instead promise a community which serves the needs of the now. To be caught anywhere is between is to risk being part of a kind of shameful masquerade: a pathetic Gekko-esque dress-up that builds little more than egos.
I don’t yet have the answers—while I would love to conclude on a note of righteousness, I can only admit that I too am vexed by the problem. But these are questions worth labouring over, working to tease out answers; our very careers may depend on it.