Unfortunately, the number of galleries that function as anything more than sales outlets can be counted on the fingers of one hand within any one continent – with most playing no role at all in the development of up-and-coming talent or the well-considered, curatorial management of the output of well-established names.
Too many galleries are vanity operations set up by clueless amateurs, lured by the illusion that Saatchi-like wealth, fame and social acceptance can be attained by anybody who can rent a few square metres of white-painted wall space. Too many survive not on sales of art but on regular infusions of new capital from inheritances, trust funds or fuck-you-rich partners. Most deserve to fail. The number of gallerists with a thorough knowledge of (let alone real love for) art – such as Stuart Purves and Rex Irwin in Sydney or John Buckley in Melbourne – is dwindling. What we have instead are more 'shop-keepers' who choose what to exhibit using the same, vacuous, trend-driven criteria as interior decorators or comic book traders. Their knowledge is minimal, their discernment unrefined, their sales patter inept. If they have any relationships with press media at all, they're maintained by the occasional, poorly written press release. They also have as little as possible to do with actual artists, most of whom they regard as necessary but unruly evils over whom they need, always, to exert control. The trouble is, most young artists are so clueless about what it takes to manage their own careers, they're quite happy to put them into the hands of any bozo offering their output four walls and a window. They'll even fork over 40 to 60 percent of the pittance they'll earn from sales, most of which will be eroded by promotional expenses (billed to them by the gallery, of course).And yet...As I've written elsewhere here, the ubiquity, speed and complex, no-cost networking capabilities of Web 2.0 is going to radically rupture the traditional relationship between artist and gallery. Unless the gallery can redefine its value as an intermediary – not just between the artist and private, corporate and institutional collectors but also the broader 'cloud' of individualised awareness of the artist's work that constitutes a new form of culture – it's likely to end up a bankrupt and irrelevant concept. Just like a record company.The real substance of commercial and intellectual exchanges in culture is shifting from the traditional bricks-and-mortar of what geeks call 'meat space' to the more adaptable, egalitarian and disintermediated 'virtual space' online. In the latter, artists have an opportunity to be truly independent and self-reliant. However, they have to find the resolve – and the nerve – to seize it, to make the most of it.