Demolition Derby: UTA Artist Space + the Swerving Gallery Sector
One question animates the aftermath of every car accident: Who was at fault? The answer is usually crystal clear if one vehicle was stationary when the collision occurred. But if both were in motion on impact, it becomes much more likely that each driver deserves some of the blame.
The same is true when collisions happen in the art business, and we were just treated to another example of the phenomenon this week. On Wednesday, Jori Finkel broke the news that UTA Fine Arts––the 19 month-old specialty division of Hollywood's United Talent Agency––will debut a 4,500 square-foot brick-and-mortar exhibition venue in Los Angeles on September 17th. UTA Artist Space, as the location is officially titled, looks poised to barrel directly into the path of traditional gallerists. Only, contrary to what one might expect, the coming mayhem owes at least as much to the gallery sector's recent route as UTA FA's.
As Finkel points out immediately in her Times piece, UTA Artist Space at the very least resembles the endgame that traditional gallerists and dealers have expected since the launch of UTA FA––despite that UTA chairman Jim Berkus swore to The Wall Street Journal straightaway that his venture "won't broker art sales or show art as the galleries do." Roth has backed up his boss's statements repeatedly in the time since, and he did so once again at this latest fork in the UTA FA road, telling Finkel that UTA Artist Space "will not function like a gallery," in that it "will not hold regular exhibitions or develop artists' careers like galleries do."
As for what the space WILL do, UTA has defined a two-pronged approach. First, the venue will serve as a landing strip for non-Los Angeles arts entities who want to temporarily access the west-coast market. The blueprint is visible in UTA Artist Space's inaugural event: an exhibition of Larry Clark's photographs and paintings, consigned entirely by high-end New York gallery Luhring Augustine.
Second, the space will host pop-up events "that serve United Talent's current roster or help to cultivate new clients," per Finkel. Some, if not all, of these one-hitters will be trans-media affairs driven by mainstream celebrities and/or mass-media auteurs. For instance, Berkus foreshadowed a book reading by an unidentified author and a showcase for "a very hot young band" UTA represents, as well as mentioning that for him, the term "artist" in "Artist Space" would accommodate figures like Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Lena Dunham, and Johnny Depp.
Let's parry UTA Artist Space's two prongs one at a time. First, it's either disingenuous or a misreading of art history for UTA to act as if a gallery would never host a public exhibition featuring works supplied by another gallery based in another region. As any art-industry insider knows, this practice has been a pillar of the sector for three generations or more, at least since Leo Castelli started courting wider exposure for his artists by consigning their works to sellers in the western US and abroad. And in an increasingly global art market where gallerists are judged as much on their geographical sprawl as their aesthetic substance, this tactic has become a necessity for survival in the sector.
The only way for UTA Artist Space to act as if it's doing something other than the above would be if the Clark pieces are not actually for sale. But, based on Finkel's reporting, that does not seem to be the case. If it were, she would have written "loaned by the New York gallery Luhring Augustine" rather than "consigned by."
Even in that case, I would argue that we're facing a distinction without a difference. Why? Because sales remain Luhring Augustine's primary incentive to partner with UTA either way. Whether selling the Clark pieces or not, the show creates an opportunity for the gallery to establish relationships with a new clientele and/or to reconnect with its existing west-coast client base––normally difficult tasks, thanks to Luhring Augustine's exclusively east-coast geography. Transactions are the alpha and omega of both strategies. Loaning to UTA Artist Space would merely change the identity of the works being sold.
From my perspective, then, the only other possible "non-gallery" aspect of the Clark exhibition is that UTA openly states that Luhring Augustine provided the inventory. Traditional gallerists are rarely so forthcoming. But while this may qualify as a baby step for transparency in the industry, it changes nothing about the underlying arrangement: UTA Artist Space consigns works from an out-of-town gallery and exhibits them in its venue, providing a sales foothold in a new region for a seller who would otherwise lack one. It's exactly what Castelli's consignees did in previous decades, and it's exactly what plenty of other galleries do today. For Berkus and Roth to claim this arrangement exempts UTA Artist Space from "functioning like a gallery" is to approach the semantic acrobatics of Bill Clinton in front of a grand jury parsing what the meaning of "is" is.
This leads to the second prong of UTA Artist Space's mission. It's true that one-off events featuring stars from other media would not fit with the most traditional concept of "what a gallery does." If you traveled back in time and told Castelli in the mid-1970s that he should turn over his space to Francis Ford Coppola for a night, he would have been liable to throw up on your shoes.
But what Berkus and Roth's statements miss is that the most traditional concept of a gallery applies to fewer and fewer actual galleries every day. The 21st-century art industry now increasingly looks like a funhouse-mirror distortion of its younger self. Every commercially ambitious seller––from auction houses to art advisers to, yes, gallerists––now follows the same playbook: targeting Collectors Only In Name (largely by coalescing around branded artists), trying to grow their way out of the electric chair, and outrunning the attention economy's short fuse by any means necessary.
This makes it a Herculean feat to sustain a business that nurtures innovative artists' careers, holds to either a single market or standard operating hours, and ignores the mainstream hype machine. For gallerists, the Castelli model may not have been choked out just yet. But it's gasping for breath and turning purple.
Case in point: Another pair of respected New York midlevel galleries announced their closures in the past two months: Tracy Williams Ltd. this July, and Lisa Cooley just this week. Both followed the traditional gallery model––the model that UTA Artist Space allegedly wants to avoid––and it led them into the incinerator. Cooley outright labeled the model "not a sustainable business right now," while also defining the new gallery sector as a "feast or famine" environment that "prevents relationships from maturing into deep conversations about art."
To investigate Cooley's claims, ARTnews traveled through the warp door created by her farewell and returned to the inaugural NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance) fair in 2003. Cooley helmed one of the event's booths, and it turns out that her gallery's fate is much more the rule than the exception for her fellow exhibitors in the years since. Of the 40 "NADA 1.0" galleries and nonprofits, just 13 remain in business today.
How have gallerists responded to the new realities of the art market? In many cases, by doing one of the very things meant to make UTA Artist Space something other than a gallery. Cooley stated that she plans to "continue to work with her artists, without having a physical space"––which sounds an awful lot like pop-up exhibitions may be a plank in the platform. Tracy Williams guzzled even more of UTA Artist Space's nomadic stew of pop culture and trans-media, promising in her closure announcement that she will open a new venture this fall that prioritizes "fleetness and fluidity" by "striving to identify alternative and unusual spaces for exhibitions and events, and forging links between the visual arts and other disciplines, such as literature, music, and fashion."
Nor is this evolution (or devolution, depending on your perspective) purely the province of midlevel gallerists. In the past few years, high-end and mega-galleries have begun leg-humping celebrities and pop-ups events as furiously as a pack of Cialis-doped pit bulls. In 2013, Pace hosted Jay Z's Mark Romanek-filmed durational performance of "Picasso Baby"––a regrettable paean to collecting from his Magna Carta Holy Grail album. Earlier this year, Gagosian presented an exhibition of collaborative works teaming divisive young art star Alex Israel with iconic author Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho fame. And just last week, Blum & Poe accommodated a two-night pop-up installation of the sculpture featured in UTA client Kanye West's now-infamous "Famous" video. Based on comments by Tim Blum, the New York Times reported that the gallery would try to broker a sale for the piece at a price in the $4 million range. (UPDATE: A representative for Blum & Poe has since refuted the $4 million asking price, as well as the notion that the work is for sale at all.)
Considering all of the above, then, the accident report boils down to this: UTA Artist Space's Larry Clark exhibition shows that the agency has, in fact, veered into the traditional gallery model's lane to some extent. At the same time, 21st-century incentives have compelled more and more galleries to swerve off Leo Castelli's carefully manicured private drive and onto the pop-cultural freeway. Together, this combination of moves transforms what might have been a smooth commute into a demolition derby. And that means both sides deserve blame for the twisted metal we'll be left to sort through.