Where We Find Ourselves
Somewhere between getting lost in the hypnotizing lights of Pierre Huyghe’s instillation at Marian Goodman’s booth at Frieze, and ogling the gigantic Calder mobile drifting above the Park Avenue Armory at TEFAF, The Canvas had a not-insignificant amount of time to ponder the recent rumblings in the art world.
Between David Zwirner’s and Marc Spiegler’s back and forth played out at the New York Times Art Leaders Network conference and the pages of The Art Newspaper, Jerry Saltz’s essay for New York Magazine’s Vulture website, the consistent drumbeat of small and midsize galleries complaining of the costs of exhibiting at fairs, and the expansion of Frieze to LA in 2019, it seems clear that we’re at the beginning stages of a shift in the art marketplace.
Now if we can agree to stipulate that the times-they-are-a-changin’, then the natural question then becomes who will change with them. Luckily for you, The Canvas isn’t writing this missive for our health; and we genuinely want to share our wisdom with you, our loyal readers. So below you’ll find a mix of four recommendations, observations, call-outs, and hot takes on where we go from here.
You’ll excuse us if our thoughts are a bit jumbled, but we’ve been sweating for the past five days and were almost mowed down by Chuck Closezipping by in his scooter (it wasn’t his fault). So do us a favor and hold our beer and don’t @ us (ask your social media interns), because we have some things to say.
- To Fairs: Do NOT listen to Jerry Saltz. Okay, that’s not entirely fair- you can listen to him a little bit. The man has a Pulitzer after all. But his suggestion that fairs cut "booth fees by as much as 40 percent” is a non-starter. His other recommendation on the other hand, that fairs should “employ a graduated fee-schedule with the mega-galleries paying more than other galleries” is legitimate and deserves some reflection. Unfortunately there’s still the problem of how exactly you differentiate between galleries across the scale. Do you sort them into categories based on aggregate sales numbers? How about by number of employees? Is Levy Gorvy paying the same exhibiting fees as Hauser & Wirth? It’s a conversation that deserves to be had and not batted down out of hand.
- To Galleries: This should be obvious by now, but apparently the point needs to be driven home. Every fair is different which means that the audience for every fair is different. The crowds at the Armory Showaren’t the same as the collectors at TEFAF. Duh. So why would you bring pieces that would mostly interest the latter to a fair that’s increasingly catering to the former? The galleries that had the most success at Frieze this past week either exhibited eye-popping instillations meant to wow crowds and cause a stir on social media (like Marian Goodman and Gagosian did) or offered modestly priced works aimed at attracting newer collectors (like Pace and David Kordansky did). Bringing pieces priced in the upper six figures and waiting for the Rubells or the Zabludowiczs to swoop in and buy a few of them for their collections in the first hour is no longer a viable strategy (unless your last name is Zwirner).
- To Fairs: Fairs are incredibly expensive to produce (we can only imagine what it costs for working air conditioning and for when the Miami Beach Convention Center isn’t under constant renovation) so The Canvas is sympathetic to the high costs you pass on to your exhibitors. With that said however, it wouldn’t kill you to make the fairs friendlier to the average art lover, the serious collector, and your exhibitors all at the same time. Start off by cutting exhibiting fees by ten percent across the board. It’ll earn you some much needed goodwill amongst the dealers who you need to show up year in and year out. Make up that deficit by charging your sponsors considerablymore. If Deutsche Bank wants to launder its reputation for being Donald Trump’s personal piggy bank by attaching its name to your fair, then make them pay dearly for that privilege. Next it’s time to address the overcrowding issue. One of the things Frieze got right this year was adding an additional VIP day on Wednesday. The Armory Show (and to a lesser extent the ADAA Art Show) should take note. If you want VIPs to show up then it’s time to start treating them like actual VIPs. Finally, you need to provide more opportunities and programming for younger, newer, less established art lovers. Be it through an interesting live conversation program with speakers people actually want to hear from, meaningful videos that can be shared online afterward (an example of something Frieze does well that Art Basel does not), or even hosting more tours for people to meaningfully engage with the art, you need to embrace your role as "great malls curated to lure people in” as Jerry Saltz put it. Rather than try to escape that reality, make it a strength while also giving galleries and collectors the tools and atmosphere they need to foster sales.
- To Galleries: It’s time to go all in on social and digital media. That doesn’t mean just hiring an intern and letting them post pictures from your account. You need at least one dedicated person on your team who’s job it is to promote the gallery’s program online to the next generation of collectors. Even though The Canvas has expressed disappointment with Gagosian’s communications department of late, this is something they get right. It’s a full time job and requires legitimate forethought and strategy. If you need help then hire a consultant or ask your PR firms. You’re paying them that monthly retainer for a reason. The wonderful people at Resnicow, and Sutton, and Fitz & Co. know what they’re talking about and want to help you. Collectors need to understand who the artists are and what they’re trying to say with their art. Use Instagram and newsletters, and videos to help tell those stories. The Canvas is sick of hearing galleries whine about the high costs of Chelsea rents and fairs (factors that are essentially out of their control) if they’re not willing to invest in the areas of their business that can control and which cost a lot less.
In the meantime, try and think about where we all find ourselves as we head into the second half of 2018. Rather than jetting off to Tuscany or Peru or Dubrovnik or the Hamptons (if times are rough) for the summer, think about what you can do to proactively strengthen your gallery, fair, or auction house. If your gallery is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year ( Paula Cooper, David Zwirner, Helly Nahmad, Hammer, etc...) then maybe do something to celebrate and tell your story to a newer generation of collectors. One of the reasons that Sean Kelly has been getting so much positive attention for his "Collect Wisely" campaign is because he's being proactive and not just waiting around for market forces that are beyond his control to steer his business decisions.
The Canvas could go on if we felt so inclined but we have things to do. There's the press preview for the Costume Institute tomorrow morning and the sale of the Rockefeller collection Tuesday night at Christies. Next week brings the full range of May sales at Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips, and then it's off to Art Basel (arguably the fair that started it all) to continue the cycle of keeping up with the Gagosians. Say what you want about Jerry Saltz (and we do) but the man certainly knows how to coin a phrase.
Until then, email us (just hit reply)! We want to hear from you whether you agree with us, whether you disagree with us, whether you like our patented snark or just wish we would go away (not likely to happen). Email us if you want to sponsor our May sales coverage, email us if you want to hire The Canvas as a consultant to replace your incompetent communications/social media person. Hell, you can even email us if you're alone, sitting in the back of your gallery's darkened booth at TEFAF and just want someone to say hi to. The Canvas is here and we're not going anywhere.