Rumination On the Sustainability of the Art Gallery

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Open up any art world news publication and at least one article is discussing a gallery closure. Most times these gallery closures are in art world capitals, especially New York City. Grand pronouncements flow about the death of mid tier galleries, the decline of the collectors who once bought from mid-tier galleries, and an overall bemoaning of decreased foot traffic in galleries. 

Insert gloom, doom, and panic.

After many conversations, public and private, with gallerists, curators, artists, and museum professionals about galleries and museums and their value to communities and artists, here are a few items that are true to me now. And yes, mine is decidedly an American perspective.

1. When a wealthy, established gallery shuts down  its white cube and, instead, establishes a headquarters and opts for a pop up model, that is not at all the same as a mid tier or emerging gallery having to shutter its operations completely due to bleak financial realities such as skyrocketing rents and lack of sales.

2. New York City is a center of the art world; however, other realities exist. We should seek those out. 

3. Neither museum shows nor foot traffic from engaged art lovers translate into sales. 

4. Collectors buy art. When a collecting class slows down or stops altogether, the savvy galleries should already be positioned to find and cultivate new collectors. 

5. Community is great but unless it’s specifically a community of active, consistent art buyers, neither gallerists nor artists will get paid. 

6. If you value community over all else where art is concerned, you should not start a commercial gallery. You’re [likely] better off running a non-profit art space.

7. The art market and by extension the art world has been a part of the capitalist enterprise.  

8.  Rather than lament what is no longer the case based on conditions that no longer exist, perhaps art dealers - regardless of their tier - should look at where the wealth is in the contemporary moment: who those people are, how they could become interested in art, and how that interest can be transferred into actual sales.

9. The art world remains elitist and those who join it - myself included - regardless of how humble our upbringings are, customarily adopt some of those attitudes. One of those attitudes promotes a refusal to deal with anyone who isn't of our group even if they have money and are new to art. I am not suggesting that seeking out and cultivating new collectors is easy but it has always been core to the art dealing business.

10. All pronouncements that there are no more collectors are based on a subset of collectors that has illustrated a change in spending behaviors. Until art dealers make intentional attempts over a period of years to cater to the individuals that have money to spend now, all assessments of a lack of collectors are partially informed and very flawed.

I’m still thinking through a lot of this. As someone who is an artist advocate and wants artists to get paid, I’m invested in rigorous thinking followed up by the hard work to do just that. Public Art commissions and patronage from wealthy individuals aside, galleries are the primary entities with the potential to pay artists a living wage. Let us be proactive and let their be a minimum of lamentation. 

 Negarra A. Kudumu

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