Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market
Hi, I’m Richard Lehun. I’m here with Ed Winkleman at Bruce Silverstein’s Chelsea Gallery. Ed has just released his follow up to his best seller, How To Start And Run A Commercial Art Gallery. Ed, can you give us some context on the new book?
Ed Winkleman: Selling Contemporary Art, How To Navigate The Contemporary Market was just published by Allworth Press in September 2015. The book is the second in a series of books, hopefully. I started talking to my publisher about a revision to my first book about two years ago, and we decided rather than rewrite that book – because not a lot has changed in that field – it would be interesting to do a follow up that was more the graduate level, more about the strategies, than the simple logistics that are discussed in the first book.
RL: It’s a big commitment to write a book. What was it that motivated you to choose to do this right now?
EW: Well, to talk about the themes of the book, it may help to say that I realized a little into it that what I was doing was both deconstructing my first book, as well as trying to answer the question is whether “the Leo Castelli model” is still viable. The Leo Castelli model is essentially the model that I used to write the first book, and Leo Castelli [1907-99] was a New York art dealer who didn’t innovate much about the way that one sells art, he sort of consolidated it and set it up as a set of best practices. And virtually every young dealer who was influenced by Castelli, approached their gallery thinking that that’s simply the way it’s done.
And a lot of the dealers operating right now began their galleries thinking indeed, the Leo Castelli model is the way that it’s done. But the various themes I’m looking at in the new book begin to pull that model apart. And so, as I was writing each chapter I was thinking in the back of my mind, “How does this affect what I wrote about in the first book, is that model still viable given these things that are evolving and changing?”
RL: Is the Castelli model sustainable in light of market developments?
EW: The Leo Castelli model is a phrase that somebody coined long before I started using it as a framework for my book. Very specifically, that author used it to describe a gallery approach which included: discovering artists that very few other people knew about, building and protecting a market for those artists, and with the centerpiece of that model being that there was loyalty between the artist and the dealer, that they were in it for the long haul, and the hope was that they would grow old and rich together. And that arrangement, that gentleman’s agreement, if you will, was the heart and soul of what people meant by the Leo Castelli model.
Very specifically, that permitted a dealer to invest a lot of money up front in an artist, to help create a market for them, take some risks, do some shows that wouldn’t necessarily pay for themselves, because the thought was that “we’ll be together many many years from now, and what we’ll do today will benefit us down the road.”
One of the things I discuss in the book a fair bit is how there is a threat to that model coming very specifically from the rise of the mega-gallery. And the idea of whether or not artists and dealers are loyal to each other in the same way they were when Leo Castelli built his gallery.
RL: You extensively discuss issues of globalization. Can you give some examples of the challenges?
EW: In the chapter on globalization, I discuss several strategies a mid-level or a small gallery might take to deal with the ongoing globalization of the art market. One that I spend a fair time on is collaboration. And collaboration is being explored more and more by galleries in both a defensive, as well as an offensive sort of way.
A gallery from Paris that I know teamed up with a gallery in Berlin, very specifically to keep bigger galleries from poaching their artists. And the idea is, “if I have an artist, and I have a gallery in New York, my artist really wants international attention, and so a big gallery in London starts to show that artist, if that gallery has more resources than I have and one day open up a space in New York, I might lose my relationship with that artist.” So, the strategy is to team up with a smaller gallery in London and kind of share that artist with them, knowing that they don’t have the resources to come to New York and eclipse you entirely, that you can have this mutually beneficial relationship move forward.
A really good example is the Paris gallery Jocelyn Wolff, who collaborated with a bunch of friends and other dealers on a space called KOW in Berlin. I think that initially they were very tightly collaborating on that. I believe that Jocelyn pulled back a little and isn’t as involved, but they have shared artists. And that model is a really good example for other galleries to follow. And again it’s a defensive move so that the bigger galleries in Berlin weren’t giving the Paris gallery these artists a show here and there, and the next thing you know, representing them exclusively.
We’re seeing a lot more of are two galleries proposing and then presenting an art fair booth in collaboration. And another example would be, one gallery has a very well established artist and one gallery has an emerging artist, there’s a very interesting dialogue between the two of them. These types of proposals are very popular with the selection committees of the fairs. And it’s a win-win for the galleries participating. They split their costs, and they double their exposure, and so they get into these bigger fairs. And there were a few art fair directors that I interviewed for the book who say that that is actually a very popular thing among the selection committees. So, it’s another strategy in terms of collaboration.
There’s another idea about collaboration that I think we’re going to talk a little bit later – joint events between galleries. It’s happening because galleries in small pockets of the world feel the need to attract an international audience, to let that audience know that they exist. Perhaps, they meet some of these international collectors at the art fairs that they get into, it’s really important to them to bring those collectors back. The most successful of these is Gallery Weekend Berlin. It brings collectors from around the world. And there was a joint event in collaboration among galleries there that were just not seeing those collectors any other time of the year.
RL: Can you discuss the impact of the mega-galleries, and the stage of the phenomenon that we are at right now?
EW: So, the phenomenon is something that’s constantly ongoing. It impacts on each individual artist. Art is very often a slow boil. An artist may take decades before they’re making the work that will enter the canon and be culturally very significant. The mid-level gallery system has, for the last 40 or so years, provided the support system for artists, so they could experiment at a pace that didn’t necessarily have to match the goals of a mega-gallery, the goals of the art fairs, etc. There was a built-in capacity for galleries to have some artists who weren’t necessarily covering their costs, but they believed in their work. The artists still participated in the system, still get regular exhibitions, still get press, opportunities for sales.
And the rise of the mega-gallery has started to make that model or that support system pull apart at the seams. It doesn’t make any sense if profit is your goal or your need, actually, as costs continue to rise. More and more, because of the pressure of the mega-gallery, dealers are finding out that they do not have the time to have the conversations with those artists to discover whether or not they fit into the category of the slow burning sort of “future artists in the canon.” The financial pressures don’t really permit that to happen much anymore either, and the number of dealers I respect who have closed their galleries recently have cited exactly that: their inability to have that relationship with artists. And that is part of the reason they got into the business in the first place.
RL: Do you believe that these developments [of galleries closing due to financial pressure and inability to have relationships with artists] are inevitable?
EW: A lot of the people that I know who opened galleries, not because they every thought they were going to get rich, but because they believed that art dealing was a calling for them, are saying “Okay, this isn’t the business for me anymore.” I don’t think a lot of them are looking forward to becoming more corporate. I think they’re hoping that it is a blip, that it will sort of fade and they’ll figure out a way to survive, kind of continuing to do what it is that brought them into the business in the first place.
RL: Can you give an example of how these challenges are affecting established gallerists?
EW: A really good example of a dealer who found herself in that situation was Nicole Klagsbrun. She had a great line in the press release she sent out about why she was closing the gallery that she had had for over twenty years which was “I’m not sick, I’m not broke, this just isn’t interesting for me anymore.” And, Nicole is the textbook example of someone who had a great eye, and an amazing conceptually rich program. But she felt that in order to continue to succeed and to not lose her artists to bigger galleries, she needed to do the sorts of things that she wasn’t interested in doing. She needed to operate more like a corporation, and lose the ability to talk to her artists, to be in studios the way that she wanted to. So, it wasn’t a financial issue for her. It was really that this model, this business, had evolved to a place where it wasn’t what she wanted to do anymore. She has since gone on to a number of projects and collaborations.
So I do see a big trend in dealers who say, “You know what, the brick and mortar sitting there, while I compete at the art fairs really doesn’t make any sense to me anymore, but I have the passion, I’m still very interested in these artists and their projects and I will find a way to kind of bring their projects to the public.” So, there’s a chapter in the book on the post brick and mortar dealer, and there are a few examples of high profile dealers who are doing very interesting things in that vein, and with more time would have added Nicole to that list as well.
RL: How can gallerists best respond to these challenges?
EW: The second part of the book looks at things the dealers actually have control over. And it begins discussing a conversation I’ve had for a number of years with the art dealer Elizabeth Dee, who has been an inspiration to me in the way she has approached things since the recession. The only way that galleries can deal with the paradox that they are faced with now is to not let somebody else define what success means for them. So very specifically, what I try to communicate in the second part of the book is that there are people who are defining success on their own terms, and those are the only terms that should matter to anybody who is an entrepreneur and starts their own business. And letting the system define what success means to you, especially in something that can be as individualistic as running a gallery, just makes no sense to me. I think people have gotten caught up in the glamour and the press, and all the rest of that mega-gallery system, and let that led them to make decisions that they would have never made were that not happening.
RL: How has the rise of the mega-gallery affected collectors and connoisseurship?
EW: It is definitely having an impact on connoisseurship, if only in the way that it’s eliminating the need for individual collectors to develop connoisseurship. In regards to the buying strategies at the emerging level, the prices are so low, it’s a no brainer, just buy a bunch of them, your are not really going to lose that much. In the mid-level where the prices have risen, this is real money for you now; you want an assurance that you are making a smart investment. At the blue chip level, and this is the level where the mega-galleries are operating at, the assumption is that most of these artists, if not all of them, are already in the canon. They’ve been vetted and your money is safe buying that work. So, if all you do is buy from mega galleries, you don’t really need to develop your own eye, you don’t need to study art history. Every choice you make seems, at the moment at least, to be a sound investment. Some of the mega-galleries’ artists won’t pan out, it’s just not possible that they all will, but the majority of them probably will. And so, the mega-gallery existence itself has eliminated the need to go out and learn and study on your own. Of course, at that price level, not a lot of collectors can actually buy consistently from the mega-galleries, and so I am kind of optimistic that the mid-level galleries will continue be a force. And the mid-level galleries can only continue to exist if connoisseurship remains in place and part of the collecting culture.
One other thing about mega-galleries is that I have to praise them for the quality of the exhibitions they create, as well as the fact that they have increased the overall size of the contemporary art world to an unimaginable size. I’ve seen a few mega-galleries do what I think is the right ethical thing, which is to collaborate with the smaller galleries from whom they’re poaching artists. I won’t name names, but one of the mega-galleries is really great at this. They will let the smaller galleries who discovered and nurtured and actually built the market of the artists that they’ve poached, have access to that work over the course of several years. That money is the only thing that helps the smaller galleries survive. So that mega-gallery is doing both, the program that they want and charging prices that they want. By letting that smaller gallery have some of that access, they’re keeping that mid-level gallery healthy. And if that happened more then the mid-level gallery system could keep doing its job of finding the artists and feeding them up to the mega-galleries – that’s all fine – but when the mega-gallery just cuts off the connection of the artist and that smaller gallery, that’s where the real existential threats starts to come in.
RL: Is the poaching of the Mega-galleries dis-incentivizing the mid-level gallerists from investing in artists?
EW: Zooming in and looking at the gallery system holistically, there’s no question in my mind that young gallerists will continue to pop up constantly. We’re not going to see the death of the gallery system below the mega-gallery any time soon. And the mid-level of the gallery system will probably continue in much the same way. What I do see the mega-galleries influencing are the type of people who will be willing to be a mid-tier gallery. I do think what I would call the true believers may make career changes. They won’t sit there knowing that every time they discover an artist, the artist is just going to be poached, and the payoff and the investment they put into it is never going to come back to them. I can’t see sensible people doing that unless they are extremely wealthy, and it’s more a hobby for them than an income.
RL: Are art context ethics strained by the market developments?
EW: Ethical standards are not universal; they’re unique per industry by definition. So, when we talk about ethics in the art market, I like to bring that point to the forefront very clearly, with regards to what defines honesty in the art market, and what could make somebody be honest in a way that the book discusses – being required to reach the mega-gallery stature – is treating your collectors the same way you’re legally obligated to treat your artist, which is to ensure that everything you do is in their best interests. Now, I don’t believe in New York State you have the same legal obligation to collectors as you do to artists, because you’re acting as the artists’ agent, but I think the dealers who still treat their collectors that way benefit from that.
RL: Are art fairs now a necessity for even the most idealistic of gallerists, in order to remain financially sustainable?
EW: How essential are art fairs to any given gallery success varies depending on who you are talking to. And the more I think about it, the more I talk to dealers, I think it relates very specifically to their goals. Very few galleries that I talked to don’t feel the pressure to do fairs. They all are hearing from their artists that their artists think they should be doing fairs, even if they are not doing them. And a lot of galleries will tell me point-blank the fairs are the only way they survive. They’re not making anything close to enough sales through the gallery itself, even through their online efforts, as they need to pay the rent, their overhead and themselves and everything else. So yes, we have reached a point where a lot of galleries do rely on sales they make at the fairs to sustain the business, no question whatsoever. But again, I know a lot of galleries who don’t do fairs, and I think they just manage the expectations, whether they’re losing artists, or are more ambitious than other galleries, is another question. That model is viable, you can eschew the entire art fair system, but you’ll probably will never get really wealthy doing that, unless you have a niche market where the whole world has to come to you. If you’re playing the same game across the board with everybody else, the art fairs are almost critical.
RL: Are galleries providing ambitious content, while blue-chip galleries monopolize the earnings at the art fairs?
EW: There is a phenomenon happening lately, where the big art fairs, very expensive air fairs, that a lot of smaller galleries clamoring to get into are only benefiting the big galleries that are doing them. Partly because it comes to the fact that to get into fairs you have to impress the selection committee, and to impress the selection committee you have to bring something that stands out. Very often galleries translate that into something spectacular, maybe a site-specific installation, or something like that, which really doesn’t have much of a market. Annette Schönholzer, former director of Art Basel, talks in my book about a gallerist virtually in tears at the end of the fair because they had brought something and it didn’t sell, and what were they going to do, this was all the money they had. They’d rolled the dice on this one thing. And she replied, “Well look what you brought? Did you think that was sellable in any context? Why would you think that was sellable here? We only let you in with that because you said that was what you wanted to present.” And her point was that the fairs can let you present it, but they can’t sell it for you. I mean that the younger galleries are expected to bring the new sensational, and literally just to bring the street-cred to the fair, while the bigger galleries get to cash in by more or less selling the brand names that they’re known for.
RL: How can gallerists best respond to this?
EW: The best advice to a gallery who wants to get into the big fairs but doesn’t want to lose their shirt on it, is to propose a booth of one of your artists who is sellable at the time when they’re about to have a major museum show or major magazine cover. That’s the key. Don’t think too much about making a big splash. Time it so that the selection committee has heard of that artist, their show’s coming up and it would be embarrassing for them not to have that artist in the fair. Be a little more strategic, but definitely don’t do the spectacle if you can’t afford to do it. That is a bad way to go.
RL: In the book you cite Tom Weinrich about the breakdown between art criticism, scholarship, and market value. What does this mean to you?
EW: Very specifically, when a gallery would get a New York Times review on Friday, that Saturday they would be flooded with new people. They would come in with clippings of that review, and they would generally sell a lot more that day than they had sold throughout the run of the show. That phenomenon has more or less evaporated. And I think to a large degree when that was really important, when a review would help bring the crowds in and help sell the show there weren’t as many channels to learn about art as there are today. I think The New York Times and Art Forum and ARTNews in America were the only ways that collectors could learn about what was perceived as good. Now they can get information constantly. Those reviews aren’t as critical, so they are not leading directly to sales the way they used to. That has done two things, I think; it’s made the dealers care less about those reviews, and it’s sadly made the collectors also care less about those reviews. And so I am a little concerned about the role that art criticism can play in the art market. Most art critics would say they don’t have a role in the art market. But the fact that they’re talking about their lessening influence suggests that they would pride themselves if they did have an impact in the art world.
RL: Has your relationship with art criticism changed?
EW: My relationship to art criticism has unquestionably changed over the past 20 years. I, in addition to being an art dealer, also do a little art collecting, and I don’t know that I necessarily pay much attention to art criticism when I’m buying. I’d like to flatter myself with saying that’s just because I’ve developed my eye, but that’s the same argument I hear from every collector. With regards to being a dealer, my relationship and thoughts about it are exactly the same. It’s still really important to me that there be a historical record of the exhibitions that we do. That the dialog be out there, that people debate the work that the artists are presenting, and art criticism, really well-written art criticism, is still the best means of having that conversation.
RL: What can you tell us about emerging trends of post brick and mortar gallerists?
EW: There are some great examples of what I would call post brick and mortar dealers, and some of the things that they share as key characteristics. First and foremost, they still have the spirit of a gallerist. They approach presenting artwork the way gallerists present artwork, in a space. They usually kind of sweat the details about the entire experience for the viewer. The other thing that perhaps separates them from a private dealer or an advisor is that these folks still have a boatload of credibility in the commercial art market. No matter what they do, and no matter how they frame it or contextualize it, the bigwigs in the commercial art world still pay attention, because of their track records.
RL: What are Jeffrey Deitch, Mari Spirito and Jay Gorney doing right in your eyes?
EW: The Characteristic that defines Jeffrey Deitch is his own personality. He is larger than life and he’s interesting in and of himself. So, what he’s interested in, a lot of other people find interesting. And he’s got the track record to prove that what he’s interested in is going to be fabulous and worth your time.
The major characteristic of Mari Spirito, other than she is brilliant, is that she’s a true believer. She will find and show the great artists that took her years to develop and discover. And she’s in the trenches. She will show historically very important work; but also some brand new artists coming from someplace nobody knew there was an art scene. So, Mari is a total true believer.
Jay Gorney for me is probably the most interesting, in that I think he’s going to start changing the perception of what somebody can do as a dealer post brick and mortar. Not only is he curating really great exhibitions that are selling very, very well, he’s being accepted into art fairs because of his history and because of his knowledge. The art fairs are still saying that if you don’t have a space we won’t let you in. Jay Gorney is going to break that down, and this is going to have a big impact and implications for other dealers.
RL: Excellent. Do you want to add anything?
EW: No, except these were really great questions. Your attention to this is really impressive. Thank you.
RL: Thank you Ed, thanks for this wonderful conversation.