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‘It Was Like Someone Turned the Faucet Off’: Lisa Cooley on Closing Her Gallery

Installation view of 'Alice Channer: Half-life' at Lisa Cooley in 2015.COURTESY LISA COOLEY

Installation view of ‘Alice Channer: Half-life’ at Lisa Cooley in 2015.


Yesterday, ARTnews reported that Lisa Cooley would be closing her eight-year-old Lower East Side gallery. This morning, Cooley spoke with us about some of the reasons for her closure, saying that, due to recent changes in the art world and art market, running a gallery of her size “is not a sustainable business right now.”

Cooley opened her gallery on Orchard Street in January, 2008. Over the years, her artists achieved considerable critical and institutional recognition. She sold artworks to the Centre Pompidou, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Dallas Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and other major museums. She also sold work to a wide base of influential collectors.

For Cooley, the dark clouds first rose on the horizon in May of 2015. February, March, and April were her best months ever. Then, in May, “it was like someone turned the faucet off,” she said.

Two years earlier, she’d already seen “signs of exhaustion” amidst the whirlwind of Art Basel Hong Kong, Basel, Venice Biennale, the auctions. “We have all been encouraged to expand our bases by doing all of these art fairs—becoming, for lack of a better word, roving merchants,” she said. The exhaustion was not just with gallerists like herself, but in the collectors she worked with. “They are getting PDFs from galleries in Chicago, Mexico City, Warsaw, Guatemala, Morocco, all over the world. In that situation, art becomes—I’ve heard it time and again from collectors—it all becomes confusing. It’s the classic story of too much choice. And it starts to feel not fun.” Art-fair exhaustion, she added, “is a real thing. You have to create a sense of urgency and the sense that one is missing out. That is the only way to get attention. And that is soul crushing.”

In 2015, things didn’t get better in the summer, when art sales are notoriously slow. August saw stock-market jitters. In October, Cooley made the single biggest deal in her history as a gallerist, a primary market sale of three works for over $200,000 to a single collector. But the success wasn’t consistent. “Slowly I began to realize that the changes in the art market are beyond what I can comprehend,” she said. “There is incredible downward pressure on younger galleries from larger ones, whether it’s an artist becoming successful and leaving for one of the larger galleries or then talking to their friends and their friends say, ‘Why don’t I have that?’ ” She made the decision to close three weeks ago.

Another force putting pressure on the kinds of collectors who are attracted to emerging artists has been the changing price points. “It’s one thing when you are talking about taking a chance on an artist when the work is $5,000,” Cooley said. “But when the price very quickly becomes $15,000, $20,000, $30,000, it becomes more challenging for people to rationalize taking that risk.” At the same time, those prices had to rise, in part in order for galleries to finance the exposure they were giving the artists at fairs, to build competitive programs, and to build the spaces the artists demanded. Then there is the ever-increasing cost of living for artists whose studios are situated in expensive cities like New York.

Cooley’s original gallery on Orchard Street, which she opened just months before the global financial meltdown, was modestly sized. In March 2012, she moved to a larger space around the corner on Norfolk Street. It was a good deal—five times the size for double her previous rent. But still: double the rent is double the rent. “I felt at the time that we had to expand,” she said. “When you are a young gallery you have to keep the artists happy.” In her best year, she said, her revenue was between $2.5 million and $3 million. She made 5 percent profit, all of which was reinvested in the gallery. She feels that success for a gallery has in many cases become “feast or famine.”

Another force galleries are contending with is coming from the digital world. With the rise of digital venues like Instagram, Cooley began to feel that her gallery was becoming overtaxed—having to focus not just on what was going on in the physical space, but what was going on online. “This is how digital distribution is affecting the art market,” she said. “Thirty minutes several times a day to go through all these images. You get desensitized. It’s exhausting.” What started to get lost was “community building, and connections, and relationships.” In addition, she began doing secondary-market deals in order to shore up the business; she found she was spending most of her time in her office, rather than doing things like visiting artists’ studios.

Back in 2013, Cooley noticed that one of her artists, who had considerable critical and institutional support, was not selling as well as she’d expected. “I think there is a lack of connoisseurship,” she said. “It infects everybody. Even the most serious collectors hear people talking about what the work is worth and it spooks them. They think, ‘If I’m not paying attention to this am I dumb?’ At the same time, galleries are under pressure to make sales. It’s churn and burn. It prevents relationships from maturing into deep conversations about art. We all have so much scale we have to support. The scale is the problem—whether that is scale of information you have to process, or competing with the larger galleries. You can’t scale relationships.”

In the short term, Cooley may continue to work with some of her artists, and is giving others space to choose. She is weighing options for a next step, which may eventually involve opening another gallery.

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