Talking Galleries hosted the 2018 Barcelona Symposium with the panel discussion, “What Future for the Art Market at the Mid-level?”, chaired by Georgina Adam.
The panel’s diverse group questioned professionalism, vertical collaboration and the future of mid-sized galleries.
What is it? Where is it? How will it affect us? The word ‘mid-level’ – denoting the size and stature of a commercial art gallery – is almost slanderous, or at least problematic in its usage, according to Ursuala Krinzinger. The gallery owner, well known for Galerie Krinzinger and her more recently adopted project space, Krinzinger Projekte, was joined by four other panelists at the 2018 Barcelona Symposium in a discussion (though at moments, more of a debate) about lagging professionalism and the need for more patient, and accepting, collaboration. With the rapid growth of art fairs and gallery giants – many of which having seen their highest numbers in sales and visitors in the last years – the mid-size art spaces are left in a “hollowed-out” realm, overshadowed by what Krinzinger refers to as “the megas”.
Talking Galleries, the International Think Tank for Galleries, celebrated the sixth rendition of the Barcelona Symposium at the MACBA museum on 22 and 23 January 2018, but the ideas and arguments have spread far and wide, the participants having maintained a rigorous correspondence about the panel’s topics. The programme encompassed some of the most relevant matters in today’s art gallery sector, such as the future of the gallery market, gallery transitions on to family members, managing artists’ estates in the 21st century, new collaboration models for galleries, and analysis and communication strategies for the online markets. Yet “What Future for the Art Market at the Mid-Level?” was more of a speculative dialogue than anything, each of the contributors having wildly different backgrounds and experiences in the market themselves.
Georgina Adam, of the Art Newspaper and the Financial Times, moderated the event, opening the first line of debate on the “burning” topic of the mid-level gallery, and more specifically the evolution of the art market and the galleries struggling within it. She hands it off first to Dr Clare McAndrew, cultural economist and author the annual macro-economic report on the global art market, who touches on her statistical findings. “It hasn’t been a bad year for everybody,” she writes:
When you parce up the survey and auction data, the same thing has been happening for the last six or seven years – it’s the businesses that turn over more than 10 million and, especially those that turn over more than 50 million [in sales] that have done the best.
McAndrew notes that a new focus of her upcoming report is longevity and gallery turnover. And it stands to reason that the larger gallery spaces, those who have been around long enough to see massive growth and turnover, stick around the longest. She mentions that the number of closures has, speaking positively, diminished since 2009; yet the number of gallery openings has taken a massive dive. She justifies this trend by mentioning how the art world is, generally speaking, “doing better than other industries”, but comments that it is unfortunately (yet, not so surprisingly) the smaller galleries that are shutting down and the upper-tier galleries going about business as usual. Though digging through what is imaginatively mountains of data, McAndrew has come to find that the middle of the market – those galleries and project spaces that highlight emerging artists, yet are on the cusp of “mega” recognition – is “hollowed out”. But no solution is offered of yet, the focus turning to Krinzinger once more.
Professionalism in ‘the jungle’
As the owner of two differently ‘leveled’ art institutions, one being a quite renowned gallery and another a haven for young artists, Krinzinger mentions the “incredible hierarchy” present within galleries, fairs, collector circles and academic spheres. This does not exclude budding spaces, the younger gallerists learning that, perhaps, such structure is what is needed to make it to the next tier. She states:
The mid-level galleries, for me and my generation, are facing catastrophe. They are constantly trying to compete and collaborate with the upper-level and mega galleries, who themselves are battling their own internal hierarchies.
Further to this, Krinzinger, whose main interest and source of programming stems from international performance and body-related art, briefly notes that there are “only men involved in the mega galleries”. In finding solutions to the capitalistic art market and the uneven attention gained by the few, this inequality must, first, be addressed.
In approaching a solution, Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, owner of Freymond-Guth Fine Arts (2008- 2017) and now independent curator and arts advisor, speaks of “segmenting” the future and finding one’s niche within it. Since 2017, he has been working towards A PERFORMANCE AFFAIR – a new, non-profit, yearly event in Brussels that invites artists, curators and their galleries to display performance works and in theory and practice negotiate their financial, conservational and curatorial natures. Here, collaboration is key, as Freymond-Guth posits may be the answer to the mid-level sinkhole. While smaller galleries struggle across the board to find funding and exposure, he argues that they, nonetheless,
need to have the backbone, the ability to provide artists and collectors with the same treatment as the mega galleries […] we need to redefine our own sector, our own market and thrive there.
It is no surprise that clients prefer to spend higher amounts when purchasing from greater-established galleries, yet this means that the mid-range sector almost entirely disappears. Perhaps, as Fremond-Guth suggests, the key is not in focusing on these financial separations and a mega gallery’s ability to “sell sell sell”, but in owning one’s ‘sector’ or segment, and finding ways to collaborate with those in others.
Art collector, investment banker and entrepreneur Alain Servais continues on this hypothesis. What is interesting, for him, is looking at the mid-level crisis not from the point of view of the art market, but from other economic fields. “I am not trusting the general numbers,” he says, for looking at the art market as a singular entity “is a mistake”. Those in the field are so concerned with “looking up”, aspiring to be that bigger gallery, or attend that illustrious fair or sell x-amount worth of goods. In doing this, Servais argues, the media absorbs the mid-level gallery, shedding even more light on the top-tier movers and shakers.
To combat this, despite the expensive steps it will take to do so, involves creating new models for art fairs and blockbuster biennales focused more on collaboration, marketing and artist exposure over selling. Much of this work must come from the end of the sponsors, who, in the case of the mid-size gallery, are almost extinct. In connecting sponsors to galleries of smaller sizes and budgets, it allows for artists to compete on the same playing field as some of the larger institutions; but, as Servais points out, this is a delicate slipping slide where “everybody thinks they can eventually have a piece of the pie.” Artists, like their administrative supporters, are part of the problem: they see their colleagues’ work selling for much more, so they naturally aspire to equal market prices. With this comes a want for more catalogue exposure, research, funding and museum acquisition. “They can be too demanding,” he says, mentioning that collaboration means rounding out this money-obsessed, hierarchical structure.
Nanne Dekking, Founder and CEO of Artory, approaches these issues from a more standardised system of data collection. The future of the mid-level gallery, and the art market as a whole, is in connecting audiences with the work via the Internet. This is the “most opaque business in the world,” he claims, suggesting that in the current landscape, the art market only considers the clients they have already connected with. “It is the only market where people don’t look at the clients they don’t have.” Artory seeks to remedy this, making the market more transparent through database systems that link all of the events in an artwork’s lifecycle: the exhibition, the acquisition, the sale, etc. In creating systems online, removed from the glamorously hierarchical schemes at play in galleries and fairs, the art speaks for itself. This, Dekking suggests, may be the solution to the lacking ethics and “enhanced competition” that drives the art market, particularly fiercely, at the mid-level. “It’s like the law of the jungle,” he says.
Finding a solution
McAndrew details that everyone is focused on pandering to the upper 5 percent and solutions will only come when attention is paid to the 95 percent, the spaces that struggle with their collections and programming. Further to this, the future of these systems cannot blossom when younger collectors are unable to enter the scene because it has been made entirely inaccessible, be it through finance or exclusive networks. Mid-size galleries have volatile cash flow and a slow inventory and payment cycle; all of these things together means they are devoid of the resources to expand, at least alone. And this is where each of the panelists agree: there is an overwhelming amount of “horizontal collaboration” in the market, meaning galleries, fairs and collectors are keen on working with one another on their same level. The future, however, calls for vertical expansion, meaning institutions opening their doors (and wallets) to those “below them”.
Krinzinger maintains that there is a misconception in that the “problem of the mid-size gallery is only now”. She reminds viewers that history repeats itself; in the mid 1990s, the big galleries were struggling, so the opportunities for ‘vertical’ collaboration were more abundant. At that time, it was taking nearly ten years for an art space to make any sort of profit, yet galleries today are expecting rapid growth in only a year or two.
All of these galleries have to be more open to “sliding or gliding between one another”, Krinzinger argues:
If you want to defend art, if you want to be a part of art history, you need to take things slower and stop looking up. We need collaboration between collectors, between institutions, between all market sectors.
We all need to stop thinking about “the big things”, but take more care about the base, the connections that create a strong platform for building structures little by little.
- “Curating in Context: Making Exhibitions Work” | Art Basel Hong Kong Conversations 2018 | Curator Talk – video summary – May 2018 – Art Basel Hong Kong Conversations series discusses the ethical responsibilities of site-specific curation
- Ancillary nexus: Art Basel + UBS Global Art Market Report 2018 – key findings – April 2018 – Art Basel and UBS publish the 2nd Global Art Market Report, noting exceptional growth across market sectors
- Public / Private: talking Digital Museums and Virtual Audiences at Art Basel Miami Beach Conversations 2017 – video summary – March 2018 – Art Basel Miami’s talk “Digital Museum and Virtual Audiences” on how institutions can respond to technology
- The Global Gallery: Thaddaeus Ropac at Talking Galleries 2017 – video summary – March 2017 – influential gallerist Thaddeaus Ropac opened the 2017 Talking Galleries Barcelona Symposium with a call for a return to the gallery space
- How can galleries make the future brighter? Georgina Adam at Talking Galleries symposium – April 2014 – Georgina Adam, Art Market Editor at Large of The Art Newspaper, discussed the current trends in gallery practice as part of the Talking Galleries 2013 symposium
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