In the summer of 2009, in the middle of a global recession, I opened a show at Rental, my gallery on New York’s Lower East Side, called “Don’t Panic I’m Selling My Collection.” As it turned out, the recession would affect the art market for exactly one auction season, but that summer, when everyone was selling whatever they had, the people like me who didn’t have as much knew it was a good time to buy. For the show, I was using a pulley system to haul canvases by Jack Goldstein and George Condo up the side of my building and into the gallery because they wouldn’t fit into the elevator. My director had taken sailing classes and had jury-rigged this system for me. Condo’s Large Reclining Smoker had sold at the Phillips de Pury auction house the previous month for $194,500. Now a Condo was hanging perilously from a rope outside my half-derelict building in Chinatown.
I had gone to every person I knew who had a serious art collection and asked if they’d be willing to loan works to the show, never thinking they’d let me sell them. To my surprise, these people all wanted to consign pieces (albeit anonymously). I was offering for sale work by artists ranging from celebrities like Robert Gober and Takashi Murakami to Matthew Chambers, who had never shown in New York before. What happened, though, was that collectors coming to scope out Gober and Condo for sale in the six-figure range ended up instead spending a few thousand dollars on Matt Chambers. Overnight, I had amassed an address book of millionaires who were paying my bills ten grand at a time, and the emerging market had been elevated to compete with the establishment.
By 2010, the art world was acting as if the recession had never happened. I discovered—for the first time in my adult life—that I didn’t have to live in my gallery, as I had done at every other space I’d owned in New York and L.A. I was selling artwork to Jay Jopling, the founder of White Cube, a blue-chip gallery in London specializing in contemporary art, via Carol Cohen, who was his buyer. After about a year of this, Carol and I decided to go into business together. I was 35 and starting to think about a two-bedroom apartment in the West Village. We were going to open a blue-chip gallery for the Lower East Side emerging market. We called it UNTITLED because anything seemed possible.
It was after two years of relatively calm prosperity with UNTITLED that I found myself back in L.A. going through one of Henry Taylor’s storage units with Laura Hoptman and Peter Eleey, two curators from the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1 in New York who wanted to do a retrospective with this artist I had discovered one day when he was grilling meat on a sidewalk in L.A.’s Chinatown. He had two studios and three storage units, all of which we rifled through, and this is not even to mention his ex-wife’s garage in Oxnard, California, which held many of his early paintings. As I had become a not-so-young professional, Henry remained the same, but whether he liked it or not, he’d gone mainstream. A few months earlier, he had painted a large-scale canvas of Venus Williams, and when Serena Williams got word of this, she decided to buy it for her sister. Paintings that he used to sell out of his garage were now available for $65,000 a piece. He traveled to Ethiopia, on a collector’s dime, where he was treated like royalty.
During those post-recession years, the art world changed. When I was coming up as a dealer in L.A., I would look at galleries like China Art Objects and Blum & Poe and feel reassured that it was possible to grow into the biggest gallery on the block and that that would constitute some kind of victory. Today, the art business is not even about being the biggest or the best, it’s about survival. Success stories like Henry—an artist doing hard work for years until he is noticed, with his ever-patient dealer acting as a manager, protector, financial liaison, and therapist—are increasingly rare.
In the art world as I know it, a gallery owner like myself has a roster of artists, and each of those artists gets a solo show once every two years or so. I hang a new show roughly every six weeks, amounting to about nine shows a year. When I sell a work, half of the profit goes to the artist and the other half goes back to the gallery. For the artists I represent I try to control where the work is distributed as best I can among regular collectors, museums, and new clients. The goal is that a single collector won’t be more in control of an artist’s market than I am.
In the past five years, however, many collectors have entered the art world via the market, with the sole aim of turning a profit. For this reason, the market has taken on the feel of high-stakes gambling. Take an artist like the painter Parker Ito, someone whose work I really admire, who emerged as a promising talent in 2013. As a young artist, his work was originally available for cheap, in the mid-five figures. The demand became such that certain speculative collectors would place orders to Ito directly, rather than through his gallery, for 20 to 30 pieces at a time. Bulk orders and cutting out the middleman meant the artist priced the work, usually at a discount of 50 to 60 percent. As demand further increased and the price of the work went up, these collectors quickly flipped the work—either in backroom deals or at auction—at prices exponentially higher than they’d originally paid.
Ito got along like this for about a year—every speculator was in possession of an Ito, and his prices continued to rise. Even if Ito’s gallery, trying to control his prices, wouldn’t sell to the speculators, there was enough of his work on the market that they were able to purchase pieces from one another. Ito got an unfair deal in this arrangement, not making his 50 percent commission on these sales, while the collectors recouped their initial investments and then some, essentially getting rich off of Ito with no financial benefit to the artist. These collectors bought and sold Itos as if they were penny stocks. By over-commissioning and selling everything off fast, the speculators created more supply than demand, eventually depressing the market for Ito’s work.
This method of buying and selling has become so prevalent that most commercial galleries struggling to make overhead, realizing they couldn’t beat the system, have decided to join it. If you attend an exhibition in a place like Chelsea featuring artists who are not on a gallery’s roster and are on the rise, the fate of that work is most likely predestined. A dealer might buy the entire show for him- or herself, and then sell the pieces at a profit when the demand peaks. Ito was far from the only young painter finding himself supplying art in bulk—Ethan Cook, Oscar Murillo, and Lucien Smith had similar styles and saw their careers ascend just as quickly—but what has resulted is a general weariness for artists making this kind of work. As the speculators make more and more money, there will come an inevitable wake-up call: the market has had more of a hand in making the art than the artists have.
As for dealers at my tier, more and more now, we resemble businessmen.
I opened my first gallery in 2000, in Chinatown in L.A., using money my mother loaned me. Against my better judgment, I grew it into an actual business. I moved to New York in 2007, once L.A. had nothing left to offer me, into a building full of debris and exposed wires—it was still in Chinatown, though, for whatever that was worth, and somehow I managed to make that work, too. I soon moved to a larger space, a storefront with a big glass window on Orchard Street and a rent of about $16,000 a month. The art world grew and I grew up with it. This year, in May, I opened a second location on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the dealer Zach Feuer.
Feuer owned a gallery in Chelsea for over a decade: he was a relatively early addition to that neighborhood. He opened a business there with two colleagues in 2000, then broke off from them and opened his own gallery in 2004. His landlord bought him out of his lease last year when a developer purchased his building. As I write this, Chelsea is still the center of the New York art world, but it increasingly seems to only have room for high-rise condos and luxury hotels. There are galleries there now that are the size of major corporations, and they’ll likely get to stay, or at least leave on their own terms, but the future looks bleak for everyone else.
In the beginning, I opened my gallery so I could work with artists. I had been an artist myself—albeit a failed one—and I wanted to experience something new every day. I didn’t know how else to do this. That desire is still there, but knowing what I know now, it is a difficult proposition. The art world is as interesting as the number of people in it who have the freedom to experiment and fail. There are exceptions, of course, and sometimes people get lucky, but for the most part, the stakes are too high now to get away with such a thing. When big money moved into the art world, it cut out its heart. To survive as a gallery now, to keep your doors open, you have to become part of the establishment. And so I’ve joined them. But I still wonder: to what end? The system is built to perpetuate itself. While everyone tries to cover expenses and strives for the next big payout, how can a young artist start a career and not think about money?
Meanwhile, my wife is pregnant again, this time with twins. What else can I tell you? I don’t know what will happen, so I can only recount what I’ve seen.
One late night in 2007 at the now-defunct Lower East Side bar Good World, I was having a rambling conversation with the artist Aaron Young, and I told him I’d always wanted to sell a piece of his. He said he’d do it if I gave him cash. I immediately called a business associate in L.A. and told him I needed $15,000 immediately. A brown paper bag full of cash was delivered to me the next day.
Earlier this year I called the artist Rashid Johnson to reminisce about our drug-fueled nights at Good World. He was talking to me on his cellphone, driving his Mercedes to an A.A. meeting.
At a gallery dinner, I saw a director from Gagosian stab a waitress in the hand with a fork. He proceeded to remove his shirt and roll around on the dining table.
After my first year of exhibiting at the Art Basel Miami Beach fair in 2011, at a poker game at the house I was renting with a few other dealers, we all cut up the narcolepsy pills belonging to artist Mark Grotjahn (who wasn’t present), my Adderall, and a French dealer’s cocaine into a super cocktail and snorted it. The game lasted for 24 hours. At the fair the next day, or I suppose the same day, I’m really not sure, I felt my left arm go numb and thought I was having a heart attack. Fortunately, Suzanne Butler, from Canada Gallery, was there with her husband, who held a high position in NYU Langone’s cardiology division. He did a quick diagnostic test on me. The following day I was back in New York, taking a stress test. My heart was fine, the doctor said, but my lifestyle wasn’t.
In the summer of 2004, I saw Thomas Zipp take a shot of vodka at the bar White Trash in Berlin. He then took a bite out of the glass, chewed it up, and swallowed it. I can’t remember if he took another shot after that. The next morning I was served homemade LSD tea by one of Zipp’s assistants, though I drank it all before anyone told me what was in it.
At the Armory Show in 2007, I saw the dealer Jack Hanley running down the aisles of the art fair with a bandana wrapped around his head and his arms sticking out, like Frankenstein’s monster. I asked him what was wrong. “Nothing man,” he said. “I’m on acid.”
I played competitive pool with a prominent Chelsea dealer. We bet that if I won, I got to put one of his artists in a group show at my gallery. I won.
I almost dropped a Bjarne Melgaard painting on a random Chinese passerby as I was hoisting it up the side of my building on East Broadway.
During my solo exhibition as an artist in 2006, at Black Dragon Society in L.A., the artist Ed Ruscha—who was and remains my idol—told me, “They aren’t half bad.” He offered no further comment about my work, but gave me a signed book.
The people really making money in the art world are storage and shipping companies.
I told Brooke Shields at a benefit earlier this year, “It’s important to see art in person in galleries, because every once in a while you’ll have an ‘aha’ moment.”
I realized there really was an art market bubble as soon as Dan Colen paintings started to sell for $350,000.
Back in 2000, after I had just bought my building and was settling into Chinatown in L.A., the owner of Gin from Gin Exports—a Jade dealer on Chung King Road—took me aside to quiz me on the neighborhood. This was a kind of rite of passage for newcomers to Chinatown. He asked me how I liked it and what my plans were. “I plan on being here forever,” I told him. “Chinatown is my home.”
“You’ll be gone,” he said, “and so will everyone like you.”
Joel Mesler owns UNTITLED gallery in New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in both the May 2015 and Summer 2015 issues of ARTnews on page 24 under the title “Part Six: The Hangover” and on page 18 under the title “Part Seven: The Metaphor Delivered,” respectively.
This is the final installment in a recurring column. You can read other parts in the series here.