This post picks up where the first one left off. In this piece, I want to begin by referencing Renny Pritikin’s text Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene, which is one of the inspirations for this investigative journey*. Pritikin speaks to commercial galleries in point Number 6, in which he states that a healthy ecosystem requires “adventurous dealers who are willing to take on new artists, and support artists with sales”. Obviously, the rest of the treatise describes the conditions a dealer requires to be adventurous, by virtue of describing what the ecosystem requires overall. But the growing instability of brick-and-mortar commercial space is becoming, and has been, prohibitive to taking risks or being adventurous. Widely, this is becoming a more and more prominent topic of conversation, and one that is often started by the gallery owners themselves.
As it has been stated, my experience at the 2017 Seattle Art Fair was about as good as it can get for a small gallery. And yet, after all of that excitement, while I had made new transactions, I hadn't made the new relationships that are so important to me in this work, and to the growth of the gallery. The cherished relationships I did (and still) have, while meaningful and incredibly supportive, were not able to financially sustain the gallery on their own. Over the past two years, I’ve fluctuated wildly between suppressing and loudly proclaiming many of my overarching questions, comments, and criticisms around the art market; as well as my financial losses. As I mentioned in my last piece, after launching Sustaining Patronage, I learned the questions I wanted to ask seemed to confuse or irritate my audience— after all, commercial spaces are not (historically) built to hold these conversations. This is the function of museums and academia; not the marketplace. I could sense my increasingly emerging critique about the economic hardship of small galleries, in relationship to the art market at large, was viewed as complaining. But I knew through a number of conversations with other art dealers across the country that I was not alone in my discomfort, or this struggle. It became unbearable to pretend these inequities didn’t exist, or weren’t affecting the material conditions of small to mid sized spaces struggling to keep up with the increasing pressures of 21st century market forces.
This summer, Seattle artists, curators, and dealers had several questions and opinions about the presence of the Seattle Art Fair, and whether or not its impact truly does “trickle down” to pay the bills. This is not uncommon in any city hosting an art fair. It's important to acknowledge that we shouldn't expect the art market to define or contribute to community. Ideas of community are too subjective, and the market in general, and art fairs in particular, are about profit. They are not biennials, or triennials. Galleries may be changing how they participate, but art fairs do not owe a city any gratuity or community engagement. They do collaborate with cultural partners (which are usually comprised of small to large nonprofit arts organizations), but these engagements keep the focus of attendees and collectors at the fair itself or specifically chosen satellite locations. If the focus is that tightly controlled, then does the revenue generated by the fair really trickle down to artists and galleries; especially those holding events outside the small radius of the fair? And does the benefit, if there is one, continue over time?
In July, Emily Pothast began our collective conversation around the Seattle Art Fair, in which she folded in the history of a city’s perceived progress via boom/bust cycles through the story of groundbreaking gallerist Zoë Dusanne. Dusanne is known for her remarks that the World of Art Pavilion at the 1962 World’s Fair might be good for Seattle but it wasn’t good for the arts, or for her. This points explicitly at our civic desire, and obsession, to captivate an audience consumed with technology and a burgeoning tech industry. This desire for “progress” while spun in such a way as to include the arts in its aspirational, inspiring dream, rarely ever does.
The arts ebb and flow erratically, reflecting the cycles of the city, expanding when the city is more affordable and diminishing when the cost of living is too high. This is a problem when you consider how this sets up a situation in which those who benefit from the city’s bursting economy cannot meet the artists who are adversely impacted by it, because they don’t occupy the same space at the same time. Having been through several of these, I’ve observed the bust times are increasingly shorter as time goes on, and the rental market continues to increase. This brings in more people with means, but pushes those in the lower income brackets farther and farther away from the city core, and subsequently, farther away from where they work and venues in which they exhibit, socialize, and engage with colleagues and audiences.
But the venues themselves are at risk, too. Each year produces a rash of gallery closures across the country. In an attempt to remain optimistic, our communities rally to boost the signal of an ecosystem primarily driven by a rotating cast of largely underfunded artist-run spaces. Commercial gallery appearances seem to run on a slower cycle— as they continue to close or shift to online only, or seek out new models, commercial spaces continue to open but less frequently.
This is the express point of weakness that intersects with the fair itself. How does a gallery, which pays for a brick and mortar space, online platforms such as Artsy and First Dibs, and any other number of services, add the cost of multiple art fairs to its financial burden and expect to stay viable? The answer is complicated. In short, if you are not among the top tier galleries with international locations and substantial capital, or if you don’t have significant financial investment by monied business partners, or if you aren’t independently wealthy, it’s really tough. Trying to keep up, small to midsize galleries don't betray criticism for fear of being accused of complaining, or appearing to be a failure. They have no illusions about the financial cost, or the loss, they know it's just part of the game: smoke and mirrors. However, the game is beginning to wear thin. Now, more and more dealers are beginning to push back, and ask questions about the sustainability of an increasingly demanding system. Last year, even art dealer alliance NADA scaled back to drop its springtime New York fair and focus on assisting brick-and-mortar sustainability.
Given the subject is, at this point, an international conversation, shouldn’t we directly, and thoughtfully address the issues of artist, gallery, and ecosystem vitality in our own region? Celebrate what we have, of course! Spotlights and visible support contribute to our vitality and are important. But might we also examine our collective work and our positions to determine if we are serving the best interests of artists and the ecosystem at large?
If it’s part of a healthy ecosystem to have, as Pritikin says, “social space where new ideas are being generated about art, about society, about the role of art”, then we must count the conversations generated by art dealers, gallerists, and curators to be among them; right alongside artists, thinkers, and other outspoken interrogators. Most importantly, we should listen to each of them, and support them and the conversation through collaborative solution-building.
NEXT: I’ll return in a couple of weeks to talk more about the uncomfortable topic of economic class and exhibition space, and the cost of running a gallery!
*Special thanks to Emily Zimmerman, Director of the Jacob Lawrence Gallery in Seattle, who introduced me to this piece.
Hey, I’m trying something new! Art writing grants are few and far between, and highly competitive. Platforms like Patreon are amazing but hard to manage when the bulk of the work itself is the research for this project. So here’s my CashApp and Venmo , and if you like what you see please consider throwing a bit of cash my way so I can keep doing what I do and get paid. Pay it forward and I will keep producing in return!