I opened my New York gallery, On Stellar Rays, in September 2008, around the same time as other promising upstarts—Invisible-Exports, 11R, Nicelle Beauchene Gallery, Bureau, Lisa Cooley, James Fuentes, Laurel Gitlen, Simon Preston, Rachel Uffner, Kate Werble—run by dealers who would become my colleagues during a vibrant and remarkably collaborative moment in the history of the city’s art scene. Opening on the brink of global financial crisis might have seemed inauspicious at the time, but it proved to be the perfect opportunity for the most tenacious and stubborn of art dealers to establish a voice. The market crash and its subsequent effects on the economy forced productive conversations and self-reflective examination of issues surrounding art and economics.
The return to boom times, however, had its price. In the past few years, half of these galleries, including my own, have closed or transitioned into different ways of working, due to the personal and financial pressures of maintaining a gallery, real estate challenges in New York, and the expectation to conform to a narrowly defined model for growth established by our historical predecessors. If a gallery or its artists cannot respond to “what’s next” in a predictable manner—bigger, pricier, more international—it can expect to elicit the perception of stagnation or failure. As in the greater economy, the art market continues to consolidate wealth among the largest galleries in ways that challenge the viability of a sustainable “middle class.”
When I decided to close On Stellar Rays in 2017, the gallery’s finances were healthy, relatively speaking—I could have continued. However, my ideas and my time felt constrained by the gallery’s rapid growth, and I was losing the ability to think creatively outside perpetual cycles of sales, exhibitions, and fairs. I presented seven shows a year, represented 12 artists (to many of whom I gave their first solo exhibition), pursued a fair-attendance strategy of one U.S.-based and one international fair each fall and spring, and was involved in numerous museum exhibitions and publishing projects. As a sole proprietor with a small team (four employees), it was difficult to recalibrate without disrupting the flow.
The past couple years have afforded me the time and space for a recalibration. Outside the fray, I’ve explored ideas in smaller-scale, lower-risk situations under the name Stellar Projects, attempting to understand how small and medium-size galleries might be able to move forward in a time of accelerated change. For me, this has meant rethinking conventional operational and financial systems and exploring more networked and collaborative modes of working—ideas that have coincided with similar changes afoot in the art market.
A few months ago, in a predictions piece in the Art Newspaper, Marc Glimcher of Pace, one of the world’s largest galleries, had some thoughts about 2020: “We will see that the demise of small and medium-size galleries will turn out to be greatly exaggerated. The pendulum will swing. They are facing major challenges for sure but at Art Basel in Miami Beach, one could clearly understand how critical they are to our ‘ecosystem,’ not to mention all the creative and supportive things they do for their artists.”
I agree with Glimcher that small and medium-size galleries are critical to our ecosystem, and I have a few ideas about how all of us—including mega-galleries at the top—can help such enterprises adapt and thrive.
Recently I’ve been thinking back to my attempt from 2004 to 2006 to launch a start-up called ArtPowered that would have offered crowdsourced funding for artists. Ultimately, I failed to secure financing—the idea was ahead of its time, several years before the launch of Kickstarter—but my interest in microfinancing and online platforms such as Kiva and artistShare inspired a vision of how to harness popular support and explore alternative financing structures and partnerships for artists’ projects.
I see tremendous potential for smaller galleries to play a stronger role in disrupting revenue-generating norms and prescribed structures for exhibitions, art fairs, and methods of representation. Small galleries need to take advantage of their strengths: they are nimbler and more adept at mounting complex projects on tight budgets than the mega-galleries, because these invaluable skills tend to get buried at the corporate level. While executing new ventures costs money, ideas are free. Galleries should do more to galvanize collectors’ and investors’ support for novel ideas.
And yes, some of those ideas might come from the megas. There are reasons to be skeptical about the rise of the corporate global gallery, but we also need to acknowledge that this is where innovation is taking place. David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth, and Pace are making significant investments in online sales, hospitality, merchandising, and live events, as well as new media and publishing outlets. But galleries of smaller size are in a unique position to offer more personalized strategies for engagement along the lines of the #GagosianViewingRoom on YouTube or Instagram IGTV content by Perrotin.
Offering more specialization and idiosyncrasy than their more established competitors, mid-tier galleries are also in a position to provide invaluable consulting services and artist-driven strategies for presenting collectors’ holdings; they can also provide ideas for how collectors can promote meaningful public engagement with the arts. I have recently worked with collectors who are interested in unusual projects that involve writing and publishing, grants and commissions for artists, philanthropic planning and community building—with minimal emphasis on acquisition. This shift in emphasis among collectors from consumption and ownership to experience and community is significant, and will increase—especially among millennials who are beginning to collect.
One sustainable way out of endless sales pressure that weighs on galleries and collectors alike is charging transparent monthly consulting fees, as I have in the past few years with some of my most simpatico collectors. Each was seeking a unique experience—and our projects have taken different forms. After closing my gallery, I began to work with collector Susan Weiler to develop programs for her foundation, the SJ Weiler Fund. She’d spent several years involved in more conventional philanthropy and collecting, and was seeking new formats to engage with and support artists who are not widely established in the market. Last year we started a program to present an annual exhibition of two to five artists on the fourth floor of her West Village town house, creating an intimate space for artists and their gallerists to gather and promote the work on view. The exhibition is the catalyst for other activities such as a series of curated events, commissioned texts, and the publication of a substantial catalogue. Our conversations with artists have already inspired meaningful new vehicles for support.
One way for galleries to seed for sustainability is through smart collaboration and space-sharing. Condo—the gallery-share program launched in London in 2016 and since expanded to New York, Mexico City, Shanghai, São Paulo, and Berlin—pairs galleries in one city with those in another, allowing dealers to exhibit work and make connections internationally in a more sustained way than in an art fair booth. Such coordinated marketing efforts are important and well-executed in our industry, but I’m not convinced they go far enough. There should be more sharing of costs and profits when possible, creating less counterproductive competition and more financially aligned incentives.
One of my most instructive and rewarding partnerships was with The Third Line gallery in Dubai. In 2013, when On Stellar Rays moved from Orchard Street to Rivington Street, our two galleries embarked on a two-year partnership during which we co-presented a series of exhibitions, and split exhibition-related costs and profits down the middle. We both benefited: I was able to present a more international program than I could have on my own, and The Third Line got exposure for their artists in New York City. On Stellar Rays also cohosted a series of dinners in Brussels with Chambers Fine Art, which operates galleries in Beijing and New York. By joining forces, we were able to leverage our respective strengths to make stronger connections in Brussels, which has a lively art market. We are now exploring an initiative—and maybe even a distinct corporate entity—to support joint exhibitions that could travel between New York and China, and potentially elsewhere.
I also see promise in purpose-built gallery space made available for rental. That’s the WeWork-like concept behind Cromwell Place, which opens in Central London this coming May. On a recent hard-hat tour of the 65,000-square-foot complex, I saw “hot desking” sites, a communal meeting lounge, and ample space for exhibiting art. Gallery, dealer, and consultant memberships will be vetted by a committee, and services such as temporary customs, storage, and art handling will be available à la carte. The price to join is high, but compared to the total of rent, fair-related costs, and other expenditures, it’s a reasonable alternative—complete with in-house white-glove services and a luxe clubhouse for entertaining clients.
Space-sharing doesn’t have to be quite so grand. Recently, my colleague Benjamin Tischer (formerly of Invisible-Exports and now running the experimental curatorial project New Discretions) attempted to create a more modest, dealer-run gallery share on the Lower East Side in New York. The idea was that several galleries would alternate presentations in exhibition spaces; storage and office space would be communal. The concept offered more flexible and affordable exhibition planning, with the added benefit of cooperative marketing. The killer was real estate: when Ben finally found the perfect building, its risk-averse landlords wanted a security deposit in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Imagine if a large international gallery had stepped in to foot that bill—or maybe to provide a loan on reasonable terms or some kind of collaboration in exchange. The mega-galleries need to consider making such investments, and there have been steps in this direction—such as last spring, when David Zwirner and Paula Cooper galleries generously lent space to dozens of smaller galleries for an impromptu “Plan B” art fair to salvage the ill-fated Volta fair after its New York location was condemned just days before the opening. In the art ecosystem, the longevity of the largest galleries is dependent on the emerging and mid-tier galleries that take risks and provide a platform for new work, and—beyond all the attention paid to power rankings or presumed hierarchies—all parties stand to benefit from more coordination and exchange.
The gallery’s role as the most vital link between artist and audience is as significant as ever, despite economic, technological, and cultural shifts. And the overall system must support diverse programs and differently scaled operations that require more diverse business plans. Rather than retrenching and clinging to business-as-usual (which amounts to just keeping one’s head above water), gallerists should be connecting with colleagues through existing forums, creating new partnerships and revenue streams, conceiving more efficient (and less ego-driven) systems, and embracing the possibilities of technology and social media. Such changes open up previously unimaginable channels for our work to support artists and a healthy art economy.