The Menace of the "More" Machine
Yesterday morning, Jerry Saltz wrote a piece that used James Franco’s Cindy Sherman homage/reboot/retread at Pace as a launchpad to question the problems of scale that bewitch "megagalleries,” or those at the highest end of the market who spread their operations over a number of lavish facilities around the world. In my opinion, Saltz dead-eyed the issue like Riggs at the shooting range in Lethal Weapon. I just want to help contextualize his argument a little further.
The hobgoblin of the art industry is, and has always been, overhead. To gain market share, a gallery’s physical footprint must grow with its reputation to some extent. A blockbuster exhibition cannot be mounted in an attic space, and no gallerist can reasonably expect obscenely wealthy collectors from all corners of the Earth - western Europe, east and south Asia, Russia, the Middle East, the Emirates, et al - to consistently come to a single facility on her own turf, especially if her competitors are opening up locations much more convenient to those collectors’ homes. That inevitably means expansion: more spaces, more square footage, more polish, more money.
The danger is that once a gallerist starts powering her business with the “more” machine, the only way to keep it running is to continuously up the ante. Think of it like an addiction: the more often someone gets lit, the more of their chosen substance they have to use to get back to the mountaintop the next time. The effect is glaringly evident at the top of the food chain. Pace currently operates eight locations worldwide: four spaces in New York, two in London, one in Beijing, plus its temporary outpost in Menlo Park. Gagosian, unbelievably, more than doubles that total if you count the appointment-only Fitzpatrick Leland House and the Gagosian Shop. Exclude those two, and you’re still left with fifteen spaces sown across seven countries on three different continents. Take one or two steps down the ladder from the cloud city, and the change in strategy is only one of degree, not of kind. It’s no coincidence that seemingly every successful New York and European gallery is in the midst of a pseudo-gold rush to LA. (Check paragraph four here for a taster’s menu of the players involved.)
Saltz also rightly points out that in-demand artists tend to indulge the same expansion strategy as the in-demand galleries who represent them. Care for some evidence? Back in 2012, Damien Hirst began planning to move his studio into a 97,000 square foot factory in the English countryside. Jeff Koons’s New York studio complex allegedly employs between 50 and 99 assistants; Takashi Murakami splits his self-described “art production company" Kaikai Kiki between Tokyo and Gotham with the help of a staff of 70 (as if the mere existence of the phrase "art production company” didn’t say it all). Even rising stars whose finished work doesn’t demand huge amounts of physical space tend to fall victim to the “more” machine in some capacity. For instance, The New Yorker‘s Calvin Tomkins noted in a recent profile that video art supernova Ryan Trecartin is now struggling through the growing pains stemming from the higher production costs demanded by his increasingly ambitious, increasingly anticipated films. Production costs may be temporary, but they still impact the bottom line and link back to the larger conundrum.
Galleries and artists can take turns playing the chicken and egg roles in this scenario. Sometimes a gallerist presses an artist to conceive and execute bigger works to fill the expanded spaces she’s already agreed to occupy because of her business’s overall growth. Other times a lucrative artist’s desire to increase the scale of her works helps coerce her gallery to expand, lest she take her grand creative vision (and the profits that come with it) to a larger gallery who can already accommodate her.
Still, both cases are ruled by the same underlying issue: In the art world, getting bigger requires literally getting bigger. That fact pressures both organizations and individuals alike in a way that imperils sound decision-making. The larger the empire, the more choices its leader faces; the more choices she faces, the higher the probability she starts missing; and the greater her brand’s visibility when those misses start accumulating, the easier it becomes for the whole sandcastle to collapse.
The trick is knowing when to pump the brakes. With a few exceptions, there comes a point where the colonial impulse becomes counterproductive. Interestingly, David Zwirner, the man most frequently pegged as the likely successor to Larry Gagosian’s commercial throne, only maintains two spaces: one in New York, one in London. A selection of other blue chip galleries is content to hold the fort with one or two grand locations, presumably confident that they can continue growing their profits without growing their facilities any further. I doubt any of them are in the same physical spaces where they began, but the point is that they all felt the need to get out of the car before the joyride accelerated to a volatile speed. After all, there’s a reason mankind isn’t just a species of hulking behemoths; at a certain point, evolution values smarts more than size.
This is not to say that Pace is going to pull a Chappaquiddick and hurtle off a bridge into a tidal channel anytime soon. But the real problem isn’t that such a respected gallery is full of photos of James Franco in drag. It’s that exhibiting those photos may be a symptom of submission to the “more” machine - a potential sign of slippage at the top of the org chart. And if that slippage becomes a trend in any megagallery or megastudio, then its proprietors will have a lot more to worry about than a couple of scathing exhibition reviews.