(UN)COMMERCIAL GALLERIES

9 Jan

OR: THE LADY DOTH PROTEST TOO MUCH

Note: Updated 10/01/2012 with a fine example of a morally dubious rich lady playing galleries!

Some of my fellow artists from Market Project and I were talking about Britain’s commercial art galleries this weekend. I’m not represented by a commercial gallery and I’m not really in that world, but I know artists who are. And since one of the aims of Market Project is researching the realpolitik of the art world, we pay particular attention to developments such as the closure of Sorcha Dallas’ gallery in Glasgow, which was announced last September. Her stated reason for the closure was that Creative Scotland had withdrawn their public funding from her private gallery. As I suggested in the original report, in my view there’s some severe cognitive dissonance going on if anybody thinks that their organisation was ever a viable business when it has to immediately fold without subsidy from state funds. Mind you, judging by her press releases she can’t even spell cognitive dissonance.

This discussion provoked the thoughts set out below, but since this is more of a polemic than actual research I decided to publish it here instead of at the Market Project site. Because I’m all about the polemic here.

We all know very well that truly public galleries (and libraries, and social services, and so on, ad nauseum) are having to downsize or close because of budget cuts, but those places were never pretending to be businesses. In the UK anyway, nobody was creaming off profits from them for their own private gain. A public art gallery or a library is not a failed business on life support, it’s a completely different type of entity, one that can’t be and should not be subjected to market forces and market logic. Of course these places have to close if their funds are cut off.

Long story short: our subsequent research and private, off-the-record quizzing of various people who are involved in the commercial art sector has revealed that in Britain there are very few (conceivably even no) private galleries that are actually viable businesses in any meaningful sense. Usually they’re more or less just vanity façades disguising money pits that are fed with somebody’s private money; Potemkin businesses, the Wendy House of a rich woman who in many cases is spending her husband’s or father’s wealth, not even her own because she works in the arts and doesn’t make any money, duh.

Sometimes (and much more scandalously, in my view) we dig and we find a Sorcha Dallas, relying on grants from public money that should therefore be contributing to something with public benefit, not as leverage for a gallerist’s private profits… if they ever make any. Some of these supposed galleries and art foundations are- as my colleague Annabelle Shelton pointed out- simply tax dodges, a means of laundering and sequestering wealth.

How many artists are actually aware of what we’ve discovered? How many even want to know or dare to acknowledge it? As I mentioned previously the commercial art world is not really my art world, but I certainly wasn’t aware of all this until I started working on Market Project.

We hear a lot about the “art market”, but if it’s a market at all it’s like a stage set simulacrum of a market, TV perfect but hollow, held together with gaffer tape where the eye can’t see, and none of the produce is edible. Every private gallery in Britain we’ve dug into the background of seems in reality to be a “business” that no other industry would recognise as a business at all. Do these galleries actually make any appreciable profit beyond what goes into the gallerist’s pockets privately? I seriously doubt it. How much do they sell? Again, I’m betting it’s not actually very much. And a business that doesn’t sell anything is not a business, it’s a playset for adults.

We were also talking about a report we’d had from an artist who described yet another airing of two old chestnuts by the gallery that represents him: firstly that commercial galleries are not conservative and not “risk averse”, despite what very single artist on Earth knows from bitter experience. They always use this stock phrase, incidentally, “risk averse”. Presumably it comes from somewhere or someone, since they all parrot back this precise phrase. I’ve heard it myself, numerous times.

This leads to the second very old and wizened chestnut that, well, galleries and gallerists do spend a lot of money and they are taking a risk, so artists can’t expect to get any money. Artists don’t go around saying that galleries are stingy, conservative and risk averse for no good reason. Clearly these criticisms wouldn’t so evidently sting gallerists if there was no truth in them.

And no, these galleries generally don’t in fact spend a lot of money on artists because they have the work of numerous artists on their walls or in storage for months or years at a time with little or no outlay from themselves or payment to the artist. If they don’t sell any of these works, the artist just gets them back and probably gets dropped into the bargain. The gallery’s not lost anything and there’s plenty more where you came from, mate.

I don’t believe a word of these apologias for not dealing with artists or life in general in a professional and businesslike manner, not least because they seem to be trotted out so automatically and in such a formulaic way. I think it’s just a standard line or justification that they all tell each other when they’re at their little artists-not-invited soirées on the yacht in Miami or Venice or wherever. If they’re spending a lot of money, they’re spending a lot of money to keep themselves in the style and the company to which they’re accustomed. The lady doth protest too much, because the truth is it’s really all about the yacht and not the art.

If you’re running a business, to a certain degree you’re meant to be taking financial risks, also known as making investments or growing your business. Your business makes investments in people, stock, research. Some of those investments pay off and lead to a profit, some don’t. Your profits in one part of the business should balance or exceed your losses elsewhere. Your profits on safe, unspectacular investments can also be used as a buffer for riskier but more prestigious and satisfying investments. If your investments don’t pay off, tough, suck it up. If you choose to work with a capitalist model with a view to making profits, that’s how capitalism works. You can’t win them all. A business that’s just a money pit is in reality an expensive hobby, nothing more.

Of course this self-righteous Marie Antoinette entitlement has also been rife in the banking industry as well. They too want pure profit without restrictions when times are good but they come to the state with their collective hand out when disasters of their own making come home to roost.

Why can’t galleries that are supposed to be businesses get basic commercial logic into their heads? I think it’s mainly because they don’t need to and don’t want to. I think the art world even regards it as vulgar and a bit beneath their station to do anything but trundle along without a plan like an amateur. A business is meant to expand and hone its ability to turn a profit, not settle at the lowest possible level that’s sustainable. Commercial galleries generally do the latter, not the former.

Galleries tend to act as if it’s a really big deal and we artists should all be grateful that they have a few of us on their books, artists whose unremunerated loans of work may or may not pay off at some point. This is like Levi’s expecting kudos and free materials from their suppliers for actually bothering to manufacture, market and retail jeans, or a butcher telling somebody they should be grateful he bothers to keep meat in his shop for customers to buy. The butcher, of course, gets all his meat for free and dumps all the rotting, now useless flesh back on the farmer if it goes unsold.

It’s no wonder most artists are poor. Even if they weren’t always at the bottom of the heap and deliberately treated like crap, and even if they weren’t so often complicit in their own degradation, there actually isn’t any significant money even available to most of them through the so-called “commercial” art sector. At one of our Market Project events the artist Michael Pinsky rightly pointed out in Britain most professional artists get paid (when they get paid at all) something like £200 for being in an exhibition and that fee hadn’t changed or increased in all the time he’d been practising as an artist.

UPDATE:

Lo and behold, a fine example has emerged into the public realm.

http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/755436/zurich-gallery-owner-in-the-midst-of-insider-trading-controversy

In summary, Kashya Hildebrandt has been playing galleries with her Swiss banker husband’s money, but then pushed her/their luck by allegedly profiting from insider trading that exploited changes in international exchange rates. The scandal has already grown large enough that Philipp Hildebrand has been forced to resign his presidency of the Swiss National Bank. QED.

She says the underhanded $65,000 profit she’s accused of making was meant to support her gallery. Funny, I don’t know of many artists who ever see that kind of money from their gallery. She must have crazy overheads. Did white emulsion paint and red wine suddenly become incredibly expensive?

I tried this tactic once as well. My gallery failed because I just couldn’t win often enough on the fruit machines. So unfair.

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