"Average Is Over" IV: The Unbranded Swarm
Since I discussed the likely skill sets of successful future gallerists in Part I, the career prospects for those who don’t fit the profile in Part II, and the physical landscape of the gallerists who are left in Part III, in this installment I want to make some projections about market share and participation in an era of machine-assisted art sales. It leads us to perhaps the clearest manifestation of the “average is over” ethos yet.
While I believe the group I’ve labeled Leo Castelli type gallerists - those who excel in developing and supporting artists rather than hard-selling product - will be the most valued in future generations, the rise of online art sales and tandem decline in the number of physical gallery spaces nevertheless mean that the barriers to entry in the field will be at an all-time low. That raises a meaningful question: Even if the Leo Castelli types dominate the tangible gallery scene, will their dominance extend to the online marketplace of the future, as well?
Part of the answer depends on whether a sizable number of people who don’t fit the strict Castelli mold would still want to try to deal art anyway. I already argued in Part II that “sell-first, nurture-second” gallerists (whom I characterized as Ivan Karp types) probably would not, since most of the incentives that have motivated them to enter the field up to now would be gone in an art market sustained by remote digital sales. Yet even if every Karp type fled the art scene, I suspect that the future volume of competition online will actually be far fiercer than it is in the physical world today. I say this not because I expect a participation spike from people lacking a strong personal desire to sell other people’s artwork, but rather because I expect a participation spike from people with a strong personal desire to sell their own artwork.
Historically, the primary problems for would-be “sole proprietor” artists have been access to buyers and branding. The two issues are really Siamese twins. In a market where physical showrooms (the bigger and more metropolitan, the better) are necessary for sales, individual artists are almost entirely boxed out of self-sustaining participation by the outrageous cost demands I outlined in Part III. That means it is crucial for working artists to be anointed by the people who control all the expensive physical territory, i.e. gallerists. Otherwise, they have few legitimate venues to exhibit their work for buyers and thus few ways to actually make a sustainable living strictly by selling that work. (Yes, technically artists could set up stalls on the boardwalk and hock their work like tourist destination caricature sketchers… but then they’d be submitting to a dwarfish price ceiling and a total lack of critical attention. No serious collector is going to pay $500.00, let alone $500,000.00, to someone whose sales apparatus could just as well be used to push souvenirs or candy. Well, with maybe one exception… but even there a high-powered gallerist was needed.)
In a physical space-based art market, the only guaranteed way for an artist to secure access to potential collectors is through the largesse of a gallerist. Receiving that largesse is doubly meaningful. On top of the pure exposure element, association with said gallerist doubles as a signal to collectors that an artist is worth their attention and, more importantly, their money. The gallerists who control the spaces are invariably perceived as the best qualitative evaluators of artwork, when in reality they may just be the best funded and most landed. Nevertheless, the gallerist becomes a brand in part because of her real estate holdings, and that brand means more than any innovation or creative merit supplied by the artist. Being represented by Leo Castelli was on some level no different than being emblazoned with a Louis Vuitton logo.
But the growth of Internet-based art sales suggests that a wider swathe of current art collectors are now placing less value than ever on the physical presentation of artworks when deciding to buy. This means the devaluation of the gallery space and, to an extent, the devaluation of the whole concept of representation. A shift toward digital sales reduces the burden carried by artists hoping to make a living off their practice, as they can now exhibit their work to potential buyers online without bearing the cost of maintaining their own physical sales space or vying for the validation of a gallerist who can lend them her own.
So the Internet’s weakening of the traditional gatekeepers means it’s now historically easy for any artist to be found by collectors. That trend will continue. But before you start scrawling “Power to the People” on the nearest sheet of posterboard and marching toward utopia, I’d urge you to hold up. Because a closer look reveals that things aren’t quite that simple.
Open access may solve one problem for artists in the marketplace, but it quickly creates another. Since any artist with an Internet connection can now directly reach any consumer, the result is a locust swarm of available options for collectors. The whole process backfires to a certain extent. Whereas having powerful gatekeepers to curate the marketplace is far less democratic, it also prevents a situation where a mob of sellers can overwhelm buyers en masse while simultaneously disappearing into the crowd as individuals. This is the “Bruce Willis is dead!” plot twist for artists encouraged by the power of connectivity.
To understand the consequences for the vast majority of those artists, we only need to look to what’s happening in other media where the online self-release model is a few paces ahead of the visual arts. Writers self-publishing, musicians self-distributing, Internet video stars self-producing… take your pick, and the basic arc remains unchanged from format to format. There are a few unique wrinkles to each, of course, but overall the same general dilemma faces unbranded, rank and file content creators in every discipline: the easier the access to consumers, the greater the competition; the greater the competition, the harder to differentiate oneself; the harder to differentiate oneself, the fewer the sales and the smaller the profit margins.
So yes, the growth of the online art market means that an ever-expanding number of artists will be able to generate revenue by selling directly to collectors. But the caveat is that for most of those artists, the rewards for doing so will be far less substantial than in the gated, brick-and-mortar art industry of the past. Cue the greatest philosopher since Aristotle.
Ironically, all of the above means that in an online-centered art market, the value of branding will remain steady, if not ascend, in comparison to what we see in the physical art market today. Inevitably, there will be a handful of genius-level artists who can independently build successful brands for themselves online, potentially with a few key physical appearances, events, or projects. For instance, the viral fandom surrounding Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, the duo behind the wildly popular net art projects @Horse_ebooks and Pronunciation Book, at least suggest this is possible. (Yes, I’ve argued that how to sustainably monetize their output remains an open question, but that conundrum largely flows from the fact that they’ve chosen the Internet as their creative medium, not just a marketing tool for more traditionally salable objects.)
Still, these few will be outliers: the exception that proves the rule. For the rest of the field, I expect we’ll see two starkly stratified options. Whether they are a positive or negative development all depends on your perspective. I’ll wade into them in the next transmission.