One of the new trends in the art market has to do with its aparent dematerialisation. As the virtual replaces the physical and the world gets globalised, we’ve been hearing that art galleries are bound to be on their way out. Collectors are now more likely to buy art at a fair than form a dealer’s home base and when I used to be an art advisor, my clients used to buy art through the internet without actually having to see it in the flesh. The result of this is that, with the exception of a few big players, galleries are closing and conduct their business in private. This mirrors the way the rich tend to isolate themselves in this increasingly plutocratic society. In an article in last issue of The Art Newspaper, art critic Blake Gopnik argues that this trend to dematerialisation conspires against the very existence of art because to exist art needs to have a public. I think he has a point.
When I talk to contemporary dealers who have chosen to stick with a gallery space, they often tell me that they have no choice but to do it ‘for their artists’ who demand exhibitions for the reviews and the attention they bring. ‘What artist wants to show with a gallery that can’t offer them exhibitions’ says Marc Spiegler, the director Art Basel. This fair, incidentally, only admits dealers with physical spaces. ‘We stand for a gallery-centered vision of the art world’, Spiegler says -although I’d say that fairs themselves risk undermining that vision. It seems that galleries give artists visibility and dealers, prestige. There is also the ‘aura’ of the gallery conveyed through the location and the architecture. A gallery in South Kensington is not the same than one in Shoreditch, for example.
However, what Gopnik seems to say is that galleries tend to increasingly be some kind of extra fancy and impressive office space, such as a private banker might do business in and that to see them as such is a mistake because it loses sight of the relevance that galleries have for artists. Having said this, his real argument seems to be that galleries are a place where the general public can see the art and that art must be seen by that general public before it goes ‘private’. The art market might not depend only on money but also on the visibility that what is there to be shown might have. I think that he is right and that view conspires against the greed of curators and art dealers who need to limit the circulation of art in order to make it exclusive and, thus, desirable. In other words, those art galleries who only conduct their business according to purely financial criteria should stop being so closed minded because art needs people and artists to exist. Just a thought.