Vise Lords: Are the Three S's Crushing Non-Elite Gallerists?
On Monday the New York Times ran a less than revelatory piece by Ann Farmer about what some perceive as the trickle-down aloofness of the Chelsea gallery hierarchy. Farmer’s argument is that the cultivated exclusivity of blue chip sellers has crept into the lower tiers of the market like the stench of a dead rat in the overhead HVAC ducts, and that the odor is driving away, or at least discomforting, casual gallery-goers who once felt more welcome in the district’s fine art showrooms.
As far as I could tell, the general art world response to the piece was a resounding and (mostly) deserved, “Duh.” And yes, in general one would expect the Times to deliver more thought-provoking content. But given that the story was buried in the pages of its Labor Day edition at the end of the industry's annual thirty-one days of rigor mortis, I don’t think it quite warrants the level of scorn it’s received. After all, as Billy Bob Thornton would tell you in one of his finest performances (NSFW), they can’t all be winners, can they?
There is one level on which Farmer’s piece can be taken at least somewhat seriously, though. As I’ve gone on record about before, projecting exclusivity is a vital part of any high-end gallery’s branding and sales strategy. The experience of the general public–the demographic whose feelings seem to be at the heart of this story–simply does not rate, because the general public has no direct effect on a blue chip gallerist’s continued success.
In fact, if anything there is an inverse relationship between how inviting an elite gallery feels and how elite it actually is. What I’ll call the Three S’s–Silence, Stillness, and Secrecy–all read as signals of strength in the industry, for better or worse. And if it hasn’t always been this way at the top of the food chain, then it’s at least been this way since I slalomed my way out of the womb.
So it’s hardly a surprise that many mid-tier and lower galleries would model their own customer service tactics after the Gagosians, Paces, and Zwirners of the world. Like so many others, the art market is ultimately a copycat industry. Any smart entrepreneur trying to elevate her standing in any sector will naturally take cues from the industry leaders. And since the Three S’s have become such an obvious part of our collective conception of a successful gallery, the trickle-down aloofness Farmer wrote about only makes sense.
The only question is whether the mimicry actually pays off. On the one hand, I’m generally a huge proponent of “acting as if”–which is to say, as if you belong at the top of your field. And one could argue that a little self-assured fronting is especially wise in an industry like contemporary art sales where businesses often live and die based almost entirely on image.
On the other hand, though, there’s a right and a wrong way to act as if. For instance, I believe that I'm Hattori Hanzo steel as a writer, especially when it comes to analyzing the art market. But that doesn’t mean that when I’m on assignment I drop trou on deadlines or generally behave as though the editors I’m working with should grovel before God and man for the privilege of collaborating with me. That would just be bad business.
The problem is that mid-level galleries and their even further downmarket neighbors are trapped in a Catch-22. Rejecting the Three S’s feels like both rebellion and suicide to the average gallerist striving for greatness (or at least profitability). At the same time, the lower a gallery’s price points are for the work it shows, the more consequential walk-in traffic becomes. Simply put, if more people can afford the inventory, a gallerist and her staff should be more eager to engage more visitors–because by definition those interactions become more likely to generate actual sales.
Sub-blue chip galleries thus end up crushed between the clamps of an unforgiving vise: the entrenched optics of the industry pressing in from one side, basic economic reality pressing in from the other. And with the inherently more leisurely experience of online art buying now looming as a larger threat every day, the pressure on mid- to low-level galleries will only increase–potentially to the point of rupture.
Would a kinder, gentler, more open customer-service approach be effective in the industry’s lower tiers? I think it very well could. But the reality is we may never know. For now, the only people who can provide the answers are too busy trying to keep up with the Gagosians to find out.
And while I can argue that the Three S’s–at least, practiced to an extreme–are now a market inefficiency for sub-blue chippers, I also understand why they would cling to them. The industry’s leaders have too many years of success proving out the model for lower tier galleries to easily ignore it.
So as Farmer’s piece suggests, the vast majority of casual visitors may not get the art-viewing experience they think they deserve when they walk into even an emerging gallery. Instead, they get the experience that the sector believes in–and for good reason. But if the industry continues moving in the direction I’m seeing, the discussion of how sub-blue chip galleries should behave may be a moot point before we know it. Enjoy the chill while it lasts.