For past couple of years, I’ve been trying to piecemeal together some sort of essay that captures the circumstances of contemporary art galleries these days.
The reality is that many “accessible” galleries have been crushed beneath rising rents, the onslaught of online galleries and ecommerce and the simple everyday challenges of staying in business in a society that continues to cut arts funding and support.
For top shelf, blue-chip galleries, perhaps this isn’t an issue. Good for them. If you’ve got super-wealthy clients, you’re probably doing quite well. I mean, who doesn’t want super-wealthy clients?
However, the truth is that most galleries do NOT have super-wealthy clients. Even for those that do, there are only so many, super-wealthy clients to go around. There are so many story angles I could focus on, but for now, let’s settle here …
After literally two years of trying to get art dealers to talk (which itself strikes me as indicative of huge problems that many don’t want to publicly address), I finally got three to respond. They’re all based in New York City.
Since I’m not in the business of putting words in the mouths of others, I’m running their comments as they responded to me. Whether you agree or not with what they’re saying is your business.
Here’s what I asked:
“We're seeing online sales really eat into the bottom lines of major brick and mortar retailers, some of which are going out of business. Obviously, the online shopping trend is affecting brick and mortar art galleries. What do you think can be done to offset this? How are you and your brick and mortar gallery surviving?”
Who is ‘we’ and where are you seeing this? I do not see our gallery as a ‘retailer.’
To me, a retailer is someone who sells many lots of the same thing at an affordable price. We offer unique objects, handmade at a much higher price level. So we are unaffected by online sales.
Obviously, the online shopping trend is affecting brick and mortar art galleries. Maybe if you're selling pictures for under $5,000. I personally buy things online, but primarily books or inexpensive household items and sometimes clothes, but not ‘good’ clothes. More like underwear. Not expensive works of art. Christie’s has online auctions, but it's mostly to dispose of inferior pictures or works by lesser known artists. Clients will often buy things there because they wish to own the ‘name’ of a certain artist, but don't want to pay a high price for an important work and don't care much what it is.
What do you think can be done to offset this?
Well, most of the work in our inventory is much more expensive and there are many reasons for these high prices that which I would be delighted to discuss.
How are you and your brick and mortar gallery surviving?
Connoisseurship will always involve a one-on-one experience with a work of art. We had a client in today. He was at the opening which was crowded and has known the artist personally for a number of years. He owns one small commissioned painting and a few early works. He is considering a major painting and came back to see the show and stood in front of the piece quietly for about 10 minutes. We spoke about the work, discussed the price and then he left to see if he could actually find a place to hang it in his apartment. This is the same thing I do when I am acquiring a painting for my own collection. I want that gallery experience.
Are brick and mortar galleries facing other challenges?
Our biggest challenge right now is rising, real estate prices. Hats off to the galleries that own their own buildings. However, if more and more ‘retailers’ are going out of business as you have pointed out, then rents should plummet and galleries should be able to negotiate better deals. Hopefully we can all hold on until then.
Hi Michael, Our gallery is doing fine. We only need to sell two artworks a month to make our rent, so for us, it makes sense to have a gallery space. So far this year (2017), we are doing even better than last year which was a “good” year.
I don’t think you can compare retail stores with galleries. We sell optional items to people who can afford it. I do not plan on closing soon and I do not think that the retail apocalypse is concerning me. I hope this helps. Emmanuel
I think that the art world is now online and we all have to face and accept it. That is not to say that you have to have an online presence to succeed as a gallerist, but an online presence will put you more squarely on the map.
If you are a brick and mortar that does not want to participate with an online platform, you may offset some of those losses by having a robust social media presence, or have an ecommerce website. Collectors are increasingly comfortable with buying art “sight unseen,” so it’s in a gallery’s best interest to be able to offer a channel for that type of purchase.
I tend to think of annual sales for the gallery as having three prongs: Gallery, Fairs and Online. One supports and strengthens the other! Like a tripod. They really all work in tandem. For example, perhaps someone walks through our booth at Art on Paper. They take a card and browse our web site in the comfort of their home. Perhaps a visit to the gallery follows or a visit to our page on 1stdibs, resulting in a sale.
Our physical gallery is surviving quite well and even thriving. Impossible to know, however, what the picture would look like without the sales from fairs and online sites. Best, Susie
Well, there you have it. Needless to say, we’ve really only scratched the surface here. I consider this an open-ended dialogue. I certainly welcome the comments from other art dealers and gallerists who choose to speak out on this issue.
Ultimately, I’m trying to get to the bottom of how art dealers are truly coping these days. It seems that some galleries are thriving with the continue rise of the super-wealthy, but again, that’s certainly not the case for many galleries.
As more galleries choose to speak out, I’m definitely here to listen and report.