Middle Ground #2: “Who Am I?” and Other Questions Gallerists Have to Ask – How Does a Young Gallery Create an Identity?

Essay / January 2022

Middle Ground #2: “Who Am I?” and Other Questions Gallerists Have to Ask – How Does a Young Gallery Create an Identity?
By Jacob Barnes

         I began writing this in Berlin, where the city has just had its first snowfall of the winter. If that sounds romantic, let me assure you, it is not; Berlin, ambivalent towards life at the best of times, does little to make its freezing temperatures and icy winds amenable to its inhabitants. Still, in a city that I have visited frequently for the last decade, and have sporadically made my home, I was fortunate to still find welcoming, open doors. Much as with a frozen pond, a flurry of activity continued under the frost.

Since writing my last installment, I have considered the question of gallery identity, on which I had ended. I noted that shared spaces, particularly among smaller galleries, ran into issues surrounding the differentiation of its tenants; it can be so difficult to cultivate a unique, identifiable program during a gallery’s early years, that when operating out of the same space, it was highly plausible that the programming would become indistinguishable from show to show. (While discussing the last instalment, it’s worth noting that something must be in the air: the Echo space in Cologne just opened on the 21st.) However, this raised a more foundational issue: how does a young gallery cultivate an identity? If bland homogeneity is to be avoided, what can a gallery do to prevent it?

I had intended to posit this question in a purely aesthetic sense – how does a gallery curate visually consistent, coherent, and recognizable exhibitions? – but that quickly revealed itself to be too narrow a scope. Aesthetics and ideology often bleed freely into each other, while elements of branding otherwise superfluous to exhibition-goers, are key to how viewers engage with a gallery on a regular basis. From this broadened perspective, there is much to say, but I will try to keep things succinct. As always, if anyone wants to discuss further, I’m only an email away.

Perhaps the least interesting of these points is that of gallery identity understood through branding. This, I think, is something that comes more intuitively to my generation than to those prior – our (art) markets have been globalized, and the imperative of cultivating recognizability in a saturated marketplace comes as second nature. Locale alone will no longer garner business, but for the newer entrants into the art world, that supposition never had the chance to take root. Still, knowing something and executing on it are very different: despite having a full branding suite, I personally have experienced the difficulties of maintaining consistency with our ancillary program, Backhaus Projects. Branding guidelines, however necessary, demand a relegation of taste in favor of procedure, and the sidelining of personal preference can be a tough pill to swallow. But swallow it one must; a gallery cannot distinguish itself without color schemes, multiple logo variations, visual templates, and font kits.

Aesthetically, I’ve come to understand the difficulties of cultivating identity to lie more in the frustration of prohibitive boundaries than a lack of generative potential. That is to say, it will always be more difficult to dictate what kind of work your gallery will not show than what it will. Limitations in a hyperfluxual, varied art world lead to niche collector bases, and more damningly, lost financial opportunities. Perhaps the most common (and practical) manifestations of aesthetic boundary-drawing occurs when those aesthetics overlap with ideological or practical concerns: galleries that work primarily with street artists, or more contemporarily, galleries that devote themselves to digital practices, like Arebyte Gallery. Anything beyond that – in my eyes – seems to border on the capricious: galleries that solely show “figurative” or “abstract” work only end up drawing arbitrary lines that don’t hold water under scrutiny.

This leaves identity as understood through ideological preoccupations, which is at once the most attractive and muddy way to distinguish a gallery. I have a huge amount of respect for galleries that actively advance the careers of particular groups – primarily those that have been founded to support female-identifying and non-binary artists, queer artists, Black artists, and working class artists, but they’re not the only ones. JGM Gallery, for example, specializes in Aboriginal art (although they have an expanded program). However, there are two fundamental issues here. For one, which is perhaps the reason for JGM’s expansion into a broader market, these ideological constraints can prove claustrophobic. But more importantly, it leaves the gallerist in the position of determining who does and does not qualify, often under vague rubrics that are subject to significant change. Again, it is much easier to say you will exhibit something than to say you won’t, and this can frequently lead to these categories becoming so capacious that they don’t really mean much of anything at all. Representation for marginalized groups is important to pursue, but can be insufficient in guiding a curatorial program long term.

Occupying this position – running a small gallery looking to cultivate an identity – I can lean towards a personal answer to these problems, but that doesn’t mean it is universally applicable. As I understand it, identity is best cultivated through a given pursuit; as an obligation to strive towards particular ends, regardless of how opportunities may present themselves now. As such, Grove Collective has always looked to pursue future-oriented organizational, communicational, and exhibitional models to allow for globalized engagement with our program, while offering our artists what we feel to be the best opportunity to build careers primed for long term stability. But, as you can see, that remains a mouthful, and even then, that’s just language we’re trying out. The hope, however, is that this will provide us with a never-ending set of goals (how can we organize, communicate, and exhibit better?) while giving us the space to accommodate shifts in the market. As with all things, time will tell – which has me wondering about how young today’s artists are…This is not the time, but there’s a sneak peak of what I’ll write about next time.  

Image Credits:
1. GIPHY Free Use