Every day, every artist striving to transform her work into a sustainable career asks the most fundamental, most difficult question in the creative cosmos.
Is what I'm doing unique enough to stand out?
Ironically, though, most of the gallerists in a position to represent those rising artists simply aren't asking the same question about their own businesses. And I think their collective shoulder shrug is on the verge of becoming a major problem for every seller—and every artist—south of the gallery sector's apex.
If you were to stop here and check the 'about' page of every blue chip gallery you could think of, you'd quickly find that the vast majority of them don't even bother to give a description of what they do, who they are, or what genre of work they specialize in selling.
Why? Because if you matter (or even just want to pretend as much), then in their not-so-humble opinions, you should already know.
Practically speaking, the understanding within the industry is that what differentiates these mega-galleries from the rest of the field is a track record of "quality"—an ineffable concept mostly defined by the number of commas and notable names on one's invoices.
Of course, almost by definition, this type of "quality" isn't available to most gallerists looking to work with emerging talent. Yet more and more of these traditional exhibitor-sellers seem to be crowding into the sector with a belief that, like the overlords, they can prosper by speaking softly (or not at all) and carrying a pretty stick.
This may work while the art market is in its current state of irrational exuberance. But to paraphrase Mike Tyson, it's only a plan until you get punched in the mouth. And the uppercut of another market crash is coming eventually, whether it's sparked by Greece (possibly) exiting the Euro, China's stock market (definitely) collapsing, or some still unknown catastrophe cloaked in the blackout fabric of the more distant future.
Business 101 says that any gallerist lacking lucrative pre-existing connections should be just as concerned as their artists about offering something distinctive to collectors. Otherwise, how do they attract attention, a dedicated clientele, and eventually, a lasting grip on sustainability in good times and bad?
A few of them are thinking about this question. Here in Los Angeles, Jai & Jai Gallery focuses on artists who merge contemporary art and architecture. Peter Fetterman Gallery dials in on classic 20th century photography. I could even give the benefit of the doubt to Charlie James Gallery, since I've heard James swear on a podcast that he will never show the class of gestural abstract painting that collectors were losing their minds over last year (and will be losing their shirts over in the years to come).
But these are exceptions to the rule. A more representative case is George Bergès Gallery, whose founder declared in an interview last month, "What makes GB Gallery unique is that we focus on the artist."
Now, if that's true, then in theory that's great for the artist. But how does that pitch land with the critic, the curator, and especially the collector—in other words, the people who make or break a gallery?
At best, it seems to me that it's the cage-free egg argument: We take better care of the creators, so their product will be higher quality. And YOU, lucky consumer, get to benefit!
Maybe this tactic is effective in helping artists create more aesthetically evolved work. But if no one is coming to see it, then what does it matter for the artists' career prospects?
I don't mean to throw spitballs at Bergès. Despite that I'm skeptical of his response, I give him credit for at least trying to address the question.
Still, answering poorly can be just as deadly as refusing to answer at all. And if I were a rising artist looking for representation, I'd be wary of hitching my studio to any neophyte gallerist who falls into either category.
The fine art industry is overflowing with double standards already. This, at least, is one that artists have some power to avoid.