I spent Saturday morning at an arts marketing seminar that focused a lot on galleries and how to get artists into them. I was pretty excited for the whole experience, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. I met some really great people, heard some solid advice, and left feeling energized and ready to get Jeff into a whole bunch of amazing galleries through my tireless promotional efforts. My excitement wore off quickly in the weekend crush of traffic on I-94, however, and a thought that had surfaced unbidden during hour 3 of the seminar (I get a little testy when I’m hungry) again pushed its way to the front of my mind: What’s so great about galleries, anyway?
It can be (and is) argued that galleries actually do a lot for their artists. They are a bricks-and-mortar location for showing art outside of an artist’s own studio, and they get artists exposed to people who may never hear of them otherwise. They provide a space for intelligent conversations about art and offer a critical eye artist may not otherwise encounter. They market for the artists and employ great salespeople. They also keep up to 60% of the profits made in a sale and, in some cases, try to control how an artist promotes his own work so that no one can make a sale but the gallery. Yikes. I mean, it makes sense. Most galleries are for-profit institutions. But the art world is changing. Gone are the days when artists relied on gallery representation to promote and sell their work. Artists are on the ground running, and in a lot of cases they’re winning the race.
Thanks to the advent of this thing called the internet and its globalizing, democratizing tendencies, artists can and do promote themselves effectively. As the art critic Jerry Saltz says in an article entitled Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show, “These days, the art world is large and spread out, happening everywhere at once.” It’s true. The art world is no longer confined to the walls of a gallery in New York or LA. Every artist anywhere can have their own website, their own Facebook page, their own LinkedIn profile, and their own Twitter feed. Online galleries are popping up frequently. Communicating with people and making sales without a middleman has literally never been easier. Jeff and Carl frequently makes sales simply via jpeg images and email. They don’t need someone in a gallery telling a patron what’s good. The patron already knows what they want, and they can get it straight from the source.
Jeff and Carl are on the ground running a lot. They travel all over the country to go to art fairs, meeting people and selling art, all on their own. It isn’t necessarily a glamorous life, but it pays the bills and then some. They have created a successful business and are surrounded by other artists who have done the same thing: Cindy McDougall and Jay McDougall, Sean Scott and Kate Scherfenberg… The list goes on, and this is just in and around the small town of Fergus Falls, MN. So much for starving artists.
One thing that hasn’t changed, despite the everywhere-ness of the art world and the individual successes of artists, is the idea that a gallery is measure of an artist’s success. No matter how well an artist is doing outside gallery representation, there is a certain notoriety that comes from being in the right gallery that artists just can’t ignore. This may never change. After all, the art world is something of a meritocracy. But galleries can’t keep holding on to the illusion that they are an unparalleled gift to artists, swooping in, snatching up their work, making careers. They no longer are. The bricks-and-mortar gallery isn’t the only thing paying the bills now; it’s simply supplementing the income of an already hard-working business. I don’t want galleries to have to close their doors, but that’s what will happen if they attempt to control a business they haven’t built. A blog post by a gallery owner (in fact, the man who led the seminar on Saturday) reassures me that at least someone gets it. “Moving forward”, he says, “artists are going to see galleries as only one of many marketing venues for their work. Galleries are going to have to earn their artist’s business.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.