End of Brick-and-Mortar: An Epilogue with Gallerists David Dixon, Michael Foley, and Sasha Wolf
Gallerists David Dixon, Michael Foley, and Sasha Wolf respond to the crisis of the brick-and-mortar gallery model by analyzing new business models. Further background on this discussion can be found in the event recordings of Nicole Klagsbrun and Jay Gorney, Josh Baer and Richard Lehun, as well as an interview with Edward Winkleman.
David Dixon: Mike, you were at that brick-and-mortar conversation that Richard Lehun and Christie's Education organized, the panel with Nicole Klagsburn, Jay Gorney and Josh Baer. I was wondering if you have any ideas about what was addressed, and about what wasn’t addressed in the talk that you felt should have been?
Michael Foley: First of all, I thought that the talk was incredibly timely. Everyone in the gallery world, including gallerists and people interested in the evolution of how we work, was interested in what seasoned dealers have to say. The only thing that was missing was a multigenerational take on this. The dealers involved had been in the business a long time, and this was a natural evolution for them to move out of that traditional gallery mode into something private and project based. I think the next step is to hear from gallerists who are somewhere in the middle, who have been in the business for while but still have a long career in front of them, and also the younger people coming up who are thinking about opening galleries or just opened a gallery, or perhaps an artist that has opened up an artist-run gallery space - and to hear a little bit about their perspectives. That panel was a great beginning, because we heard a lot of experience up on the panel. But now I’d like to hear from dealers that are at different stages of being a gallerist, either at the beginning or somewhere in the middle.
DD: And surprise, here we are. You’re basically in that middle range, I would say?
MF: Yes - I’ve been working in galleries since 1989, so I’m definitely pre-Internet and from the era of sending out slides and photocopying. But I have also moved into the digital age and had a gallery myself for the past 12 years, starting in Chelsea and then moving to the Lower East Side. Now I feel like I have still a long way to go in my career, but I also feel that things are changing. And it’s a good idea to address that now and figure out the possibilities.
DD: That was one of the things that I felt should have been addressed in the panel and wasn’t, which was like you said, we’re in the digital age now. You started with photocopying and certainly the changes now go beyond that. But in your gallery, do you work in a brick-and-mortar space, as well as the digital space?
MF: Yes, certainly. I have a traditional space and I do solo exhibitions. I definitely have one foot in the old and one foot in the new, and that new consists of a lot of different things. For me, it’s a turn to being a different kind of distribution system, or awareness system. How are people finding out about art? How are people viewing it? How are people buying it? What are the platforms that they are discovering? The brick-and-mortar space was a very specific model: I have a gallery, I have work on the wall, people come in, they see it, they experience it. Then of course there is the evolution of websites, which allows people to experience art remotely. And there’s the advent of the art fairs, which have been with us for quite some time, which is yet another space where people can view art. And there are online marketplaces. We have to try to understand all of these different ways that people are experiencing and buying art and engaging with it, and figure out what’s best and how much of my resources need to go into each and which one is turning out to be the most successful. Right now it seems like they all simultaneously occur, but the question is five or ten years down the road, what is going to rise to the top, what is going to be the way of working for a gallery in an industry has been used to the traditional model. And how can that morph and develop into something that perhaps we haven’t seen before - maybe that’s a hybrid, or maybe that’s something completely new.
DD: Sasha, that’s what you were saying earlier. That you’ve got your sights on where you are going to be ten years from now. So you had a brick-and-mortar space, but now you would actually prefer not to work in this mode?
Sasha Wolf: There are a lot of different reasons for that, but yes, I had a brick-and-mortar gallery for almost ten years and let go of that space about three months ago. When a space became available on the second floor above my brick-and-mortar space, I took it. What I wound up doing was closing the ground floor space and working out of the second floor space, which has so far worked very nicely for me. But there are so many branches there. There’s the economics of it, there’s my clients experience, there’s my artists' experience, there’s my experience. Right now I’m much happier not having a public space. I don’t want my day to be the same every day. I’ve never really loved that. I have reverted back to having more freedom, and I’ve been traveling a lot more the past few months to go work with my artists in their studios, wherever they are. That just feels fabulous to me on a personal level, and I enjoy coming to work a lot more.
It works out better for me economically as well, and something I wasn’t sure was going to happen was that my clients really love it. It’s just more private. Of course there are big galleries that have very private rooms where they work with their clients, but I didn’t have that. I had a back area, but it wasn’t completely private, and there’s something different about the situation now. Now when I offer my clients something to drink, they always say yes. The bar is well stocked. There’s something about this setup, where clients are ready to settle in, they spend more time here, they have a glass of wine, they have an espresso. There’s something happening now that’s working better for them as well. The only thing that needs to be figured out is how to satisfy my artists’ desire for a public show. The answer to that seems to be that I will have pop-up shows, and I’m actually going to have one very soon, my first pop-up.
Commerce in general is so different. I think it’s really important to think about where are we going to be in five years, ten years, and that’s what I’m focused on trying to figure out. And then based on what I come up with, what my assumptions are, what do I need to build moving forward. That is what I’m working on - bigger plans to develop a new construct beyond what I’m doing right this second, that will make sense for a little ways down the road.
The decision to get rid of my physical space was not easy, as Michael knows. We’re old friends and we talk about these things a lot. It was scary, because the paradigm, the structure of the physical gallery space, is so unbelievably powerful. It’s so intense. It’s that white box, where you rotate shows every six, five, six seven weeks. It’s so deeply ingrained into culture and the art world. There are so many things that went into the decision. One is that I started to enjoy my experiences less with people coming in. I found that people under a certain age started coming in and photographing the show and then leaving, instead of coming in and really engaging with the work and with me, asking questions. I assume that they’ll interact with their peers when they post the photographs another time, and I have no judgment about that whatsoever, but that experience became less interesting for me. As someone who loves talking to strangers, that was a big loss for me. My overhead was also getting really crazy, and it was starting to feel suffocating financially.
The third factor was that it seemed like my artists always felt like they had to have a show every two years, that that became the industry norm, and I felt that a lot of projects were being aborted before they were finished. And that my artists wanted to have shows of new work before it was ready. We were losing on both ends. No matter how many times I kept telling my artists to relax and that this was just a false paradigm, that it was arbitrary, they really couldn’t get away from it because it’s the way the industry works. It started to feel not good, like I was putting up too many shows that were not fully baked. When you hang a show you want to feel filled with pride. There’s a feeling you get when you know you’ve put up a great show and it’s amazing. I started to feel there were too many shows going up that were good and not great. I wanted to get off that hamster wheel.
There were a lot of other reasons to close the brick-and-mortar space, but those were the big ones. Now I feel free, and I am working on all these other projects and much more productive. I’m selling more. I’m more focused. For me it’s worked out nicely, and I still have all my same artists. I still represent my artists, I still have all my clients and things continue, but with out the feeling of having to conform to a certain standard.
DD: You mention that you spend more time in your artists’ studios, is that partially due to not having a space?
SW: Yes, absolutely. I’ve always gone to my artists’ studios, for a couple reasons. I feel like you have to go to the studio to really see what’s going on. I’ve always traveled to my artists studios, but I had to be careful of how I spaced my trips because I didn’t want to be away from the gallery for too long, and there was also a feeling of anxiety about being away. Now I have no anxiety and I can even spend that extra day. I used to do crazy trips where I’d have an artist in Maine and I would fly in and get in at 10:00 in the morning and we would work 36 hours straight, barely sleep, and I’d come back. Now I can take a little bit more time. I was just in California working with two of my artists and I was there for six or seven days. That doesn’t seem a lot of time but all I was doing was working with them. I really enjoy that process of being able to sit there with my artists in their studio. With one artist, I was sitting in the studio for three days. I stayed with them, we were together all the time - looking at work, talking about work, drinking coffee looking at work, drinking beer looking at work. It was the whole day, and so it was so productive. I really love that freedom. For me, temperamentally and in terms of where I want to go with my business, and in the way I show work and deal with the artists, this works for me. This is so cliché, but I think of it as a river that’s flowing and I just want to be flowing with the river. For me, having a gallery started to feel like I was going the wrong way.
DD: Michael, you joyfully maintain your brick and mortar space, despite what you say about these retired or retiring dealers we were seeing at the brick-and-mortar panel, who were in the later stage in their career and seem to disavowing their need for such a space. But you feel as if in mid-career, you like working both angles. Would you elaborate on that a little bit?
MF: I think part of this is the nature of my personality. I’m very social. I like people coming in, I like engaging with them. I don’t mind if they have a lot of questions. I don’t care if they don’t know the artist. I like to inform them of that, and I like having a home, if you will. I like having people coming into that home, and I like hosting that.
I made the move from Chelsea to the Lower East Side, and I started on Allen St., which is a block away from Orchard St. where I am now. But I found that I would mount shows, and keep a tab over how many people would come in, and tops I would get 16 people. And I thought, I can no longer mount an exhibition from an artist who has spent years creating a body of work, for only a handful of people to see it. I decided if I was going to move, I was going to move myself front and center, which was Orchard St. at the time, and where I still am. The amount of through traffic there is really rich for me, and I have found that I’ve made converts of people who just happen to walk by the space and come in and buy work. My mentality is this: if I’m able to justify a gallery that I have now as a brick-and-mortar space based on the amount of foot traffic I get, then I think it’s awash, then I think it’s equal. There’s going to come a point where even being front and center on Orchard St. won’t be enough, and then I’m really going to have to think about whether this works anymore. But the way I’m set up now, I have really big storefront windows. I’ve put some art in there that I think really draws people in, and I engage with them, and I still think that the gallery provides a platform for physical interaction between two people. One is the art seller, the other is the art buyer. It really does communicate and transform for the possibility of a sale. If I don’t have that, I think I’m missing a big tool in the toolbox. But at the end of the day, it’s going to come to economics. If it comes to the point where my rent is so high that I don’t care how many walk-ins I get, it doesn’t pay, then I’ll change.
In addition to that, I do feel that it’s an important step for an artist’s completion of that body of work to actually show it in a public space. It allows for a kind of celebration on their part. It also allows for critical valuation. That’s the one thing that I don’t think will occur if an exhibition isn’t in place - whether online, The New York Times, The New Yorker, if it’s not an exhibition, it's not going to get reviewed, and it's not going to have a critical dialogue. The gallery, the brick-and-mortar space, allows for that. I don’t know any online shows that are reviewed critically. Now maybe they’re spoken about, but it doesn’t provide the same temperament the gallery exhibition will. So, as long as the economics work - they still are working for me - I like having the space.
DD: From my point of view as an artist, who fell into this gallery dealing issue, which I consider an extension of the work I am doing. For me, the question became very quickly, not so much about brick-and-mortar, but the tradition of the white cube itself, and the way that it whitewashes its history for each show so that you kind of have kind of a reset. In my gallery, being down the hall from my studio, the space itself quickly became a kind of a sculptural object, where we didn’t return to the white cube. Each show sequentially built on its prior show, and there were some aesthetics left from that history in the space. This wasn’t necessarily something that I felt like was a solution for the brick-and-mortar idea or the white cube generally speaking, it was just something that grew out of my artistic needs, and my own relationship to the artists I was working with, to create what I felt like was an experimental, experiential dynamic space. The space itself became an experience that one couldn’t get online. My goal became to create an environment where the artist’s work would be better than they even expected it to be. That in our collaboration, we pushed them to do things that maybe they didn’t feel like they could in more traditional environments. In talking to people about this idea of not only artists and artist dealer relationships, like what it is that you do together when you put up a show, like who is in control, who is making the aesthetic decisions, who the curator is. Those became problematic, because I was an artist too and had my own ideas, as everfyone does about what something should installed or shown. So, the nature of some of those shows kind of spiral and ended up being maybe collaborative in ways that a normal one person show wouldn’t necessarily be. And the solution there was that the artist would generally have to show other places if they wanted a different kind of experience. So, I don’t represent artists into the way that a gallery normally does, in a kind of contractual way, and where they have some kind of exclusive relationship with them.
Fortunately I’ve ended up with two spaces to work with. One is the conventional white cube space that came after having done this kind of programming at Cathouse FUNeral, which was this additive space that wasn’t a traditional white cube. That space is now being deconstructed and reconstructed in offsite locations. I know this pop-up thing is popular, but the term seems diminutive to me. I prefer Smithson’s notion of site/non-site experiences, or choosing a space that fits with the work that needs to be shown. Its temporality is less important than the fact that it can be a unique and unusual experience. As a curator or as an artist, it pushes one to make certain thematic and aesthetic decisions differently in different kinds of environments. One of the things that become monotonous is to always show in the same space. You get used to what looks good on what wall. Maybe you’re talking about future ideas, future plans, some kind of system that seems impossible to implement, where one rotates and uses different kinds of spaces, rather than having to put down a lease. In New York City, long term leases are more and more rare, so maybe we’ll just have to remain more light on our feet.
SW: When I started, I remember that some people didn’t even have websites. Even the Internet - there was Amazon, but some colleagues didn’t even have websites yet. That was sort of amazing. As recently as six months ago, I read an interview with someone who closed completely, and they were saying that the main reason was because of art fairs. But I think a lot of people are having trouble because of online marketplaces and may not even realize that. I think that the ability to buy art online has had a massive effect on the industry in ways people don’t realize. It’s sort of a frog in the water, where we’re slowly being boiled. It’s crept up. I try really hard to not be upset. The world changes. Who cares? The point is to figure out a way to change with it and be happy with those changes. I can honestly say that I’m fine with where we are now. Primarily because I have free will. I don’t love all the online marketplaces that have popped up, some of them are sort of strange to me and I don’t love all the art fairs, so I don’t do them. No one has a gun to my head. I do think that objectively speaking, we are not where we were compared to ten years ago. There were art fairs and the big galleries would do one or two a year, and there were no online market places. Now those galleries are doing about fifteen or twenty art fairs a year. They’re just constantly sending out different staff members and they are on two or three online marketplaces. There’s no question that it’s a totally different experience. For me it really comes down to figuring out the little pieces here and there that serve our clients best, that haven’t been addressed yet.
MF: I agree with you. There have been a lot of changes, and the things that gallerists have embraced over the years as additional tools may ultimately be our undoing. When I opened 12 years ago, the only way one could see art and be with the art world and see what was new was to go to the gallery. That was the wellspring, that was where it all happened. There was an event, new work, I’ve never sent this before - fresher than a museum could turn out, because a gallery could do a show in a hot minute if it wanted to do it. Also, the artwork was held back. In other words, the first chance you could see it all was in the gallery, not through Instagram, not through Facebook, not through this post and that post. It’s kind of like music, in the way music used to be released. You waited until that record came out, and you got the whole thing. Now you got a single here, a special EP, this and that. The distribution model has been different, and I think gallerists have readily embraced technological and non-technological advances - whether that’s an art fair, having a website, having an online marketplaces, or doing pop-up shows to expand your presence. You can have a gallery here, and have a popup in San Francisco. It’s not to replace it, it’s actually to add to it. The ways that we can present work and engage our audience have greatly increased, but with that has been a certain sense of loss of control. The other change that I see is how artists are in the picture. Before, artists were viewable via the gallery. Now artists have direct connection. It’s kind of like instead of me selling it in my retail store, you can buy direct from the manufacturer, and they are showing their goods. Now our power, if you will, has shrunk. And maybe our importance!
SW: I was talking earlier about where we’re going to be in ten years. I believe that artists are going to be dealing directly with clients way more as the years go on, and I think there will be a platform, a really good platform created, a digital platform to connect artists with clients.
MF: And as far as commerce goes, strictly commerce, why shouldn’t they?
SW: I agree. That’s why I’m not upset about it. I think it’s inevitable.
DD: I think that’s been around for a while. There’s that documentary I was referencing earlier, Painters Painting, where one of the artists is on a panel, and the artist says, “when are we going to have direct access to buyers, why do we have to go through museums? When can we, as artists, directly access the Rockefellers, for instance, for collecting?”
MF: Well, now they have - the Rockefellers are on Instagram. So yes, the access is there.
SW: I would argue that if it makes sense, it should be. Right? Whether it’s gay marriage or whether its artists dealing directly with clients – it’s evolution and it’s evolution that makes sense. It is inevitable. So there’s no point in getting upset about things that make sense and are inevitable.
DD: What’s upsetting is if it’s the art itself that is degraded somehow.
MF: If the process of making the art suffers.
DD: Possibly. I would think, the experience of the work.
SW: I don’t think it will. Because there will always be museums, there will always be certain institutions that where there are gatekeepers, where there really is rigor, but I think that’s why we have to get a lot more creative about what our role is.
MF: And about what we can offer. Before, we offered the white walls, we offered some guidance, we offered some sales, but now a lot of that is elsewhere. I see a parallel to publishing. The writer and the artist are very similar. Before, you had to go to one of the big publishers and it would be distributed in a certain way, and it could only be distributed at bookstores. There was a lot of power in few places. Now it’s different, but the one thing that the writer and the artist need is a good editor. If you read any novel or book of essays, you always see a big thank you that usually goes out to the editor, the person who went through the process with the writer. I feel that the gallerist still plays that role, and that’s probably our most important role that we can hold onto and maintain as long as artists still feel that they need it. Because I think that some artists are like, “hey you know I’m just going to do this all myself.”
SW: Right, so good luck, go ahead. But, you’ve mentioned and asked me about going to my artists’ studios. People ask me all the time, why are my artists still with me when I don’t have a physical, permanent space. Just imagine that you’re an artist, you’re making art, which we all know is a very candid, very lonely experience. There’s a certain unbelievable self-involvement that comes with making art. It’s just the way it is. You’re in your head, you have to have a certain drive, a certain dedication and single-mindedness and there’s someone there who is willing to talk to you about those things whenever you want. Whenever I go to my artist’s studios we are talking about them. What are you thinking? What do you want to do? Where are you going? What does this mean? In my case, what works well with my artists is that I’m not just willing to do that and be that person for them, but I also love it. I love debating the merit of every single piece. If you don’t move towards that place, I think you do become obsolete.
SW: I wonder how you, Michael, feel about art school, because you also teach. I do the occasional guest lecture where I went and I’m a total bummer, but you actually teach regularly.
MF: I think the most important thing for someone entering into art school, whether its undergrad or graduate, is to have a clear understanding of expectations, and an evaluation of who they are as an artist, their skill level, their intention and what they can expect when they graduate.
SW: Well, whose responsibility is that though? It can’t be the responsibility of an eighteen-year-old knucklehead with an undeveloped brain.
MF: Well, the challenge is that some student is like, “I like photography. Let me study photography.” And they really don’t know what that means the end of four years for them, versus their investment of their time and their money or their parents’ money to do it. There needs to be a better education about it, and I don’t know whose responsibility that is. Who is that person? Or who is that body? The student needs to get a clear understanding of what to expect and if they are really right for art school. It’s a great benefit to many people who are committed to it, who are dedicated to it and have their expectations in check. A lot of times the art schools, even at a graduate level, don’t really inform their students of what to expect after they get out, and about what they need to understand about the art world, what they need to understand about making a living and being an artist.
SW: It’s so important. I don’t know how you can graduate kids who have no sense of that. Compare it to the performing arts, and the schools that have conservatory programs, SUNY, Purchase or CHAS conservatory programs and Juilliard. Those students, they know how hard its going to be. There’s no pussyfooting around, when you’re dealing with ballerinas or opera singers, they really know the deal. I’m not sure why those same conversations don’t happen with art students.
MF: When you mention those conservatory schools, that sounds like a very dedicated and intense course of study, that is highly competitive. At a certain level, the undergraduate programs are not that competitive. A school has a certain quota or has to fill a certain amount of students in their student body. They may lower their standard and they may not give full disclosure about what people are actually getting involved with, and then you get a good group of people in there who realize somewhere along the line realize they don’t want to be artists. At a conservatory level or a more competitive program, you weed out the people who are less talented. Art school under the right conditions is a good experience for the right candidate, but for many of the people that are in there, perhaps it’s not a good fit.
SW: I agree with that. I know that this doesn’t really bear out, but I wish that you could come up for evaluation. Obviously you have to maintain a certain grade point average, but I think too many artists are graduating without enough skill and without any sense of what it takes. This is a debate that’s obviously filled with a lot of different tentacles and it’s hard to sum up, but I do think that there are too many kids who are getting out with these huge student loans, and they have no idea what it takes and they have no ability at all, and I find that really heartbreaking.
SW: If I could grab a hold of graduating artists, I would tell them not to get caught up in these sort of paradigms that we’ve created, that we’ve been talking about, that really have nothing to do with art. They’re not organic. They’re constructs, and there is no timetable. If it takes you ten years to produce one masterpiece, then that’s the way you work. We could sit here and go down the list of some of the greatest artists of all time who produced very few pieces and there are some who produced tons of work. There is no right and wrong, and yet I think that the constructs of the art world, or as I call it now, the art-industrial complex, make these kids feel like they have to have a show, they have to be in a gallery right away, that’s going to somehow change their life. And then they are going to have to have a show every two of years, whether they are ready or not. People need to figure out how to develop a practice that’s going to nurture them throughout their entire life, and that’s a very personal, private thing. The art world has intruded and just eaten young people alive. I think social media plays into this too, the need to be famous. Making art and fame need to disengage.
MF: It’s a long game. Whether as adults or as young people, we are so used to wanting some instant gratification. It is like baking cookies. You can’t take them out of the oven too soon, even though you’re hungry, and you just have to let it develop. People develop differently. Some people are very prolific, some people are slower, some people start with one medium, and then they give that up because their true medium is something else. And you can’t know that by rushing it. You have to give yourself time, under the correct guidance, no matter how many years it takes. And the other thing I’d say beyond that is that as an artist or a gallerist, you have to diversify your revenue streams. The days of being a gallerist where you sit in there and you put stuff on the wall and that’s how you make your living by selling that stuff is probably not going to be happening right now. It’s true for artists too. Just going in your studio, making work and selling it isn’t going to be enough.
SW: You teach and I do a lot of consulting with people who I don’t represent.
MF: That adds to it, it takes the pressure off and it’s a very practical form of income for me. And it informs what I do as a gallerist. The other thing I would say is, as a gallerist, don’t feel that that you have to do everything that everyone else is doing. When I started, I thought I had to frame all my artists’ shows, I had to do all these art fairs, and before you know it, I was spending so much more money than my gallery was generating. You may have to start small, do little by little. You may want a bigger space. You may want a fancier website, you may want to do the fancy art fair, but just because you think you can or you have the credit to do it, it’s not necessarily a good move. You have to grow as naturally as possible.
Both of us combined have had a lot of years of experience and have seen the old way of doing it and the new way of doing it and the way we haven’t even discovered yet. Gallerists, whether they have a bricks-and-mortar space or they don’t, have to be nimble and have to be able to pivot. They have to be open to letting old ways go and embracing new ones, even if though they’re not comfortable, and even if it means embracing a technology that they don’t understand.
SW: Which may be a metaphor for getting older. Don’t just walk around saying to “those young people,” you have to figure it out, you have to keep moving.
MF: As gallerists, we hopefully have a whole knew generation of collectors who have been raised to look at the world differently and we can’t dish them out the way that we think they should be. are. If they follow Instagram feeds and that’s how they buy art from the artists that they follow, alright then, that’s not the wrong way to do it.
SW: To make someone happy is the right way for them, frankly, and I totally agree.
MF: We have to be adaptable and changeable and that’s the bottom line.
MF: The generation before us got into it for a lot of the same reasons we got into it and that’s because we love it, we love the art. Very few people get into it because they think it’s a great financial opportunity. I think they have a genuine knowledge and love for the artists and that artists’ process. I think the biggest difference is that when they were doing it, there was one way of doing it, and they did it that way. Now when you enter, there are many ways to engage with it and there’s not one right way. And I don’t think there’s an end goal either. I don’t know what the best scenario is. I don’t know any more.
SW: Maybe we’ll be selling art from, instead of a food truck, an art truck. I said to people when I was doing this transition, that I was going to do pop-up shows when I had a show that was crying out to be seen. And I firmly believe this that would be very normal. Right now it’s not as much the norm, but I think in a year it’s going to be.
MF: Even in New York there have always been event spaces, dedicated spaces for exhibitions, retail pop-up that could easily be gallery exhibitions. That’s what their business model is, to take people like us, or fashion brands that are just starting, and do a pop-up - whether it’s one day, 24 hours, or a week or a month. So they understand that there’s a need for that and we’re happy to do that.