Why Art Fairs Aren't Sports Leagues

Sam Gilliam's Moment, Pat Stier's Big Commission, and Jeffrey Deitch Back in LA

Art Fairs Can Help Galleries

Dutch academic economist Olav Velthuis has an opinion piece in the New York Times blaming art fairs for the structural stresses on middle market galleries. Let’s break it down:

Why does Velthuis think smaller galleries are closing?

  • “Art fairs are [to blame], to a large extent. Because of the recent changes in how art is viewed and bought, smaller and midsize galleries are in a vicious bind: How can they possibly participate in the fairs? At the same time, how can they not?”

What’s his evidence?

  • “Almost half of all gallery sales are nowadays conducted at the fairs, up 16 percentage points from 2010. Gallery owners on average participate in five fairs a year. Not because they like them so much as because they have to.”

It is not clear where that data comes from, possibly Clare McAndrew’s Art Basel report cited earlier in the essay. What about gallery shows?

  • “Few buyers still make the effort to visit galleries in city centers on a Saturday afternoon. In droves they now go to the fairs, where they can view a swath of art in little time and socialize at the much-coveted V.I.P. openings and afterparties.”

No chance Instagram or the broader trend of declining retail traffic is having an impact? But let’s say that’s right. What’s the solution?

  • “the major art fairs should acknowledge that the nature of artist representation is changing and that the traditional model of a fixed gallery is losing legitimacy, in large part, ironically, because of the popularity of the fairs. A concomitant decrease in gallery visitor numbers has led several art dealers to turn to alternative, hybrid or nomadic galleries that depart from the traditional model centered around a fixed, expensive, exhibition space. The biggest art fairs should relax their admission criteria and open up their events to more curators and directors behind these new gallery models.”

This last suggestion isn’t a bad one. Pulling it off is far more complex than Velthuis’s superficial analysis would suggest. Art fairs thrive on a delicate balance between cultural currency, exclusivity and commercial appeal. Changing those criteria to include private dealers without exhibition space or education programs won’t necessarily make it easier for smaller galleries. It might make the selection process even more opaque. As with almost everything in the art world, money doesn’t necessarily get you to the front of the line.

…But Transfer Fees Won’t

We lost our patience with Velthuis and his argument when he trotted out this idea:

  • “We need to experiment with a more professional transfer system, akin to the one that exists in the soccer world, where the smaller galleries get compensated financially if an artist leaves for a bigger competitor and where these types of transfers are more regulated.”

The analogy comparing art fairs to sports leagues is spurious. Think about Art Basel, Frieze and TEFAF as the Premier League, La Liga and FIFA of art. What would it take for those fairs to function like a league with the power to enforce transfer fees?

Art fairs would control a huge flow of subsidiary cash like television fees.

  • That doesn’t exist in art.

Galleries would be limited to displaying and selling art only at fairs sponsored by their organizing authorities.

  • Can TEFAF or Frieze or Art Basel provide a sufficient number of collectors to sustain galleries so that they don’t need physical spaces or to show at other fairs?

Galleries would have to run academies that identify promising prospects at very young ages, train them and then control decisions about their careers.

  • Does anybody see that happening? Does anybody seriously want to see artists turned into indentured servants to subsidize smaller galleries?

Transfer fees would more likely exacerbate the advantage of larger galleries, not diminish their power. International football is dominated by a few very dominant teams that have bought the very best players.

  • It would be great to see advocates offer evidence that transfer fees help small clubs remain competitive. Experience suggests otherwise. It’s a steep drop from the best teams to middling teams to semi-pro players. Leagues that seek to counteract the dominance of a few clubs use salary caps. Do we really want to advocate salary caps for artists? How would that work?

Hirshhorn Makes Another Big Acquisition

Lévy Gorvy gallery announced on Instagram yesterday that artist Pat Stier has received a large commission from the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC.

  • Pat Steir has been awarded her largest ever commission by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—a suite of 28 new Waterfall paintings that will début in fall of 2019!

The gallery doesn’t reveal the value of the commission but on Friday, Ai Weiwei’s representative, Nicolai Frahm, “estimated” that the museum had paid $1.5m for the artist’s massive Lego work Trace.

Sam Gilliam Has Never Felt Better

His work is selling like never before. The Brooklyn Museum’s Soul of a Nation show features his art prominently. And though Sam Gilliam has had his moments in the art world’s spotlight before, he’s having one again with Susan Stamberg and National Public Radio:

STAMBERG: Looks like multicolored Rorschach blots. These are small pieces. They sell. And they let him make the big stuff - the yards of draping, a large public work at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. At 84, he's had his health problems. On dialysis three times a week, he's doing well. These are pretty good times for Sam Gilliam.

GILLIAM: I've never felt better in my life. I stopped drinking. I stopped smoking. I live for this period of being in the studio and actually working and having a very exciting life.

STAMBERG: He keeps finding excitement in the work, seeing how it will turn out, moving colors around every day.

GILLIAM: Well, it's just an experiment.

STAMBERG: This is just an experiment? And you're satisfied?

GILLIAM: It's a very open process. You don't know that it's going to work. You just say one, two, three - pour (laughter). One, two, three - add silver and pour. And what you see is what you get.

Deitch Brings Exhibition Program to New LA Gallery

Jeffrey Deitch talks to the Los Angeles Times about his new gallery in LA and what he plans to show there. Spoiler alert: you’ll see more shows like his Art Basel Miami Beach extravaganzas:

The main focus will be big solo exhibitions that are museum-level shows. And then curated exhibitions, with 20 or so artists, that are thematic exhibitions. Great international artists of all generations. In fall 2019, we’re doing a giant show of Judy Chicago’s work from L.A. in the ’60s. One show I’ve been working on for a long time is called “Unrealism.” We did a short version of it in Miami in 2015, a collaboration with Larry Gagosian, and it was about new figurative painting.

The main Ai Weiwei piece will be these 6,000 antique stools that will fill out the whole center [of the gallery]. It’s a very complex piece. And then a kind of focused survey. I wanted to open with an artist where obviously the work is great, the work is important, but also an artist that has something to address way beyond the inside art world. I don’t just want the inside art world to come. 

Missing Out on Salvator Mundi’s Discovery

The Wall Street Journal was anticipating the Leonardo Salvator Mundi going on display in the UAE this month. The cancellation of that big reveal didn’t kill their piece investigating the family who owned the work before it was re-discovered by dealer Robert Simon. In the few, very rare cases where this has happened before, the previous owners are chagrinned to learn the owned something that went on to become very valuable. Lawsuits are not uncommon. So, it’s refreshing to see the previous owner’s heirs react this way:

Susan Hendry Tureau, a 70-year-old retired library technician in Baton Rouge, La., only last week learned that a painting her father, Basil Clovis Hendry Sr., had owned was reauthenticated as a da Vinci. […] Ms. Hendry Tureau doesn’t think her relatives—or her father—knew of the work’s significance because it had been heavily overpainted and didn’t appear to contain the psychological density and detailing that are signatures of da Vinci’s paintings, elements that apparently shone after cleaning. […] Reflecting on the missed opportunity, Ms. Hendry Tureau says she’s still happy that the next owners were able to uncover it’s real worth. “It’s just amazing.” she said. “But now you know it’s like ‘Oh God, why couldn’t we still have this thing?’ ”

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