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What is the role of an art gallery? Photo Eunice Lituañas
What do galleries actually do?
Recently a very prominent rising star art critique duo The White Pube posted this to their Instagram. Their weekly art crit is always engaging and profound. In their Instagram post, they are harsher, critiquing outdated galleries-, and power structures. Which is good. It is not so much the actual post that caught my attention, as the caption at the bottom. Their sarcastic caption underneath the post captured a feeling I had heard years before Gallery Sorelle Sciarone started. This caption surmises an overall feeling about galleries held by many artists. It is something I have to address every time I speak to an artist. Either as a friend or in my capacity as a gallery manager/owner. The idea that galleries are elite males spaces, that crush or make artists dream with a snooty yes or no. That galleries don't care about the actual genius and pain, the artist suffers for their art. Which is an oversimplification of a mostly outdated connoisseur gallery trope from the previous century. As well as misunderstanding of the capacity of what a gallery actually can do. This article delves deeper into explicit roles that galleries and artist have and how there is a symbiotic relationship between a gallery and an artist.
Symbiotic means that it is a mutually beneficial relationship. Many artists, however, do not feel like it is or does not understand why they are barred from partaking in this relationship. How many of these symbiotic relationships a gallery can have is dependent on the capacity of a gallery—the time and money they have to invest in an artist and their career. Further informed by their own unique background and understanding of art. That is also why we have in-depth criteria that we have put down. That way, we can better explain rejection and our capacity to represent artists.
At the end of the day, this is fuelled by the lack of transparency in the art world overall. Coupled together with the strange relationship we all have with the arts. Which comes down to when does it deserve our respect? An answer which obviously should be: Always. Alas, more often than not misunderstood, or that we look to others to substantiate this claim. It is in this world that galleries act as a middle man to educate a public, showcase and market artists. Artist can do all of this themselves but detracts from their time in actually making and developing their art.
The role of the artist and the gallery overlap
Many people are confused about the costs involved in making a painting and bringing it to the world. The artist creates and the gallery exhibits. But ultimately both galleries and contemporary artist spend 90% of their time getting art to the public. It first comes from a passion for sharing human creativity. Both artist and galleries have an innate belief in the importance of art and beauty in our daily lives. Selling art is ultimately an end goal as well as a byproduct of being able to bring art to a broad audience. Artist and galleries work like the freemium model we know from technology. 90% of the audience or users, see the work for free, and less than 10% of the audience helps finance this practice. Galleries either have to receive grant money as a foundation, have significant financial backing. Still, most galleries have to ensure an income for themselves and their artists. They are small business owners, just like an artist.
Artists are going to make art
Artists first job is to make the art. The need to create something is what all artist at every level are known for. They are going to create, without an explicit end goal of selling their work. Even if being an artist is your primary income. However, any artist you know has spent countless hours organising that their art is seen.
Getting their art out there involves a lot of organisation, planning and talking to a whole lot of strangers about the internal mechanism of your heart and head. This is an entirely another beast, than actually making art. And that is only for the chance of people to see their art, be inspired by their skill and lastly to maybe own their art. Along the way, most artists hope that a gallery will love their work enough to take over the organisation behind exhibiting and selling their artwork. So they can get back to painting or any other form of creating. But before that happens, the artist is a one-man show. Instagram and Etsy have been made getting your art out there a lot easier, but still takes a lot of time out of the creation process. Artist wears all the hats of a marketeer, small business owner and artist. As well as stealing their heart against a lot of insensitive comments by strangers.
Where artist sell their work
Artist will sell art out of their studios, on an Etsy shop, through Direct Messaging on Instagram or even Instagram Shop and at Art Fairs. Artist can have a comfortable and satisfying career selling their art through these channels. The necessary price calculations from the previous post are easily translatable to this form of selling. Artist will usually sell their art for less than €3.000,00. Prices above that should be able to be explained with clear examples. Such as the Queen has bought my art, or I hire a helicopter to see the whole city and then paint it from my memory. In most cases buying art directly from the artist is the cheapest option to own real art.
Collectors and artists
Buying from an unknown or unrepresented artist takes time and dedication to find them. And you have to be very sure of your own taste in art and trust yourself. Most people do not have this type of confidence. But you can do the research and find the painting that best resounds with you. It is wonderful and singular for artist and collectors to find each other. Most people buying art as a financial investment won’t be buying directly from the artist. The cultural capital around an investment painting takes countless people, experts and years to develop. This is what investors pay for, the development behind the art.
More costs than just materials
Most artist most significant additional cost will be made in bringing their art to as many places as possible. That can either be digital; such as Instagram advertisements. Or to physical locations like (art) fairs and some galleries that charge for wall space in place of a percentage. Artist is limited to which art fairs they can attend. The most prestigious art fairs are not open to artists applications. The fairs open to artist self-representing are smaller satellite fairs. These fairs attract different collectors like those who are sure of their taste but will often not buy any art above €5,000.00 in these spaces.
Galleries and legitimisation of a career
Galleries are part shop, part legitimizing cultural practice. Galleries can get into "better" art fairs. Also, collectors who trust the gallery's unique eye for art or are unsure about their own style or simply want an accessible place to find art. Buying art from a gallery has a historical trajectory of being a place to purchase art with more credibility, but also more costs. The type of gallery greatly influences the prices of a painting. Most artists start out with small-, or artist-led galleries, before being picked up by more prominent galleries. There is a very harsh funnel in the arts that continues for years.
How do artists connect to a gallery
First the artist has to impress a (small) gallery enough to be picked up. Then that gallery sets to work in building cultural capital around the art and artist, above and beyond what the artist has done themselves. Which might be very extensive, but without the basics, most artist will not be picked up. Galleries will write about the art and the artist, create exhibitions, write press releases. Just generally creating a historical and cultural paper trail that also doubles as marketing to get the artist work out there. Each gallery will do this in some form of another and also advice artist to apply to biennale, refer them to museums or other galleries.
Young galleries vs established galleries
A gallery is considered young by Art Basel if it is between three and eight years old. Closer to the Netherlands, the Dutch Gallery Association does not accept gallery membership if the gallery is less than three years old. This way, it aims to keep scam galleries from entering cultural spaces and interfering with the credibility of the art market. But most galleries will not survive the first three years, or even the first five. It is generally accepted that an art gallery will only become profitable after 5 years if they have had investment money. In most other cases, having an art gallery is a labour of love for the better part of the first decade. The Galleries have to earn their legitimacy by regular exhibitions and sales. It is something that takes three to ten years to build.
Logically the older and wealthier the gallery, the more cultural prestige it has. On both ends of the spectrum, the physical location of the gallery also adds to the legitimacy of the artist being represented. A gallery on the Spieghelstraat has much more costs, but also cultural prestige associated with its physical location. The Netherlands has 422 galleries, 15% of all Dutch contemporary art galleries are situated on or next to these three streets. An online gallery has less prestige and overhead than a gallery with a large showroom on the (Nieuwe)Spieghelstraat, Elandsgracht or Prinsengracht in Amsterdam. This area is known as the gallery neighbourhood of Amsterdam.
Younger and online galleries like Gallery Sorelle Sciarone has less cultural capital. There is no prestigious gallery space or participation in high-end art fairs. Gallery Sorelle Sciarone based most of our cultural capital on Tascha Sciarone’s Master’s degree in Art History from Leiden University. Which is an elite position once again. But coupled with her life long experience living in an artistic household and extensive artist network that spans over three continents. And lastly, her mostly underpaid professional history in the art world. A gallery is a gallery, because, like an artist and an art critic, they consequently work at it, week in and out. That is the only thing that decides if you are a real artist, critic or artist. Your network and access to money and power makes all these jobs a bit easier and grow faster.
Symbiotic Relationship of galleries and artists
Together artist and galleries are a combined power to bring art to the most amount of people. Artist can do a lot themselves, personal network. Still, it takes a lot of time away from them actually making art. A gallery takes one side of the aspect and adds to the CV of the artist. An exhibition at a gallery has more cultural value than an exhibition at the community centre. Both spaces are real and valid places to see-, buy-, and exhibit art. Galleries, however, have the historical weight of the allure of money and power. The gallery looks far more impressive than the ordinary, art-loving people behind it actually are.
Galleries and art run on a double-edged sword of their attempt to normalise art in our world, as well as presenting art in a way that commands respect. If we genuinely respected art, we would not demean the art made by young mother’s as a hobby, even if she has had a successful art career before becoming a mother. Or any of the art we have dismissed by marginal groups. That is where a gallery comes in. It puts on the airs that is needed for art to be taken seriously enough that people do not undervalue the artist and their work. The problem is when a gallery perpetuates ongoing power structures that continue to devalue art made by marginalised groups.
Ultimately it is about a symbiotic relationship between artist and gallery. Both are only what they are through constant practice of their profession. And both can only practice what they do within the limits of their person and environment.
Updated for spelling and grammar. 25 November 2020