Thursday, April 09, 2009
I Won't Be Your Give Man No More
More and more galleries are developing websites. So-called virtual galleries are popping up everywhere online. Some of the dealers behind these efforts are writing about their reasons for getting out of bricks and mortar. They're not exactly a mystery: gallery profits are falling and the sway they used to hold over artists has been undermined by a younger generation of artists (and musicians and film-makers) savvy enough to use the web to manage and promote their own careers.A gallerist recently wrote on Art News Blog, "Why shouldn't the internet be profitable for both artists and galleries?" Well, for one thing, the whole point of the web is that it disintermediates – in other words, it makes life tough on the middleman.The gallerist tried to argue that collectors discover artists through visiting galleries – so galleries have a right to any and all sales of artists' works: "A collector walks through our doors, falls in love with the artist, goes home and Googles the artist and then commissions directly from the artist." The implication is that it's the gallery that attracts the collector. What nonsense! Collectors seek out a gallery which represents a particular artist in whom they are interested. The gallery then tries to leverage that specific interest to 'introduce' the work of the other artists they represent. That any artist owes a gallery for the development of their career is also a nonsense. The artist has usually worked hard his or her entire life to achieve recognition – and more often than not, their relationship with a gallery represents just a small percentage of that life. Besides, very few are the galleries or gallerists that have the high-level skills required to develop and manage even a moderately successful career, let alone a stellar one – many are nothing more than self-regarding poseurs lacking the business sense of second-rate shopkeepers.In 2005, I was represented by one of the best-known gallerists in Australia. Not long after I signed with him, he complained bitterly to me about another female artist who had recently left his stable. He ranted angrily about her, claiming that he had "made her career" and that she was "bloody ungrateful". He was particularly irked because she had left just as her prices were beginning to rise dramatically. And yet it was obvious from her output and career arc that she'd worked incredibly hard and had earned every part of her success herself. She had always sold well, even before she was represented by this gallery, but the gallerist had also made plenty of money from her over the years. He had also retained a reputation for being hip and contemporary solely through the publicity he gained because of her work. I suspect that he had refused to increase the price of her work (as he had also refused to increase mine) not just because he was a lazy salesperson but because he just didn't like the idea of an artist "getting above themselves". Her prices increased not as a result of his efforts but because she gained interstate representation and entered more high profile competitions, which drew more attention to her work. Nonetheless, he felt entitled to a percentage of whatever she earned, forever.The concept that artists owe these people to whom they're often compelled to pay up to 50 per cent of their earnings (oh, plus gallery expenses) is exploitative and debasing. Let's face it, galleries don't do any artist a favour. They take on those who are most likely to be successful or who have already achieved some level of success. The art business is, after all, a business not a charity and it has fuck-all relevance to culture, despite its pretensions. Artists are traded between galleries like football players between teams – or, worse, like whores between bordellos. I once schlepped my work and myself seven hours by plane (at my own cost) to exhibit at a gallery interstate. It was sold to me by my gallerist at the time as a 'good strategic move' to build my career. As it turned out, my gallerist just wanted shared some of the success he'd had with me with a business ally. After the gallery's commissions and my travel and accommodation were paid, I was left deeply in debt. Of course, I dumped the gallerist, who was not only peeved but tried to demand a percentage of all my future sales.The art business is all about petty power plays. Artists, gallerists, institutional and corporate curators, art magazine editors, and critics are all complicit in them. Art magazines rely on advertising from galleries to fund their publications and in Australia, at least, there is little or no art critique that is independent of the traditional gallery system. It's ironic, really, that so many apparently creative minds are trapped within a system that only works if everyone plays the same sleazy, corrosive game – to rules made up to benefit everyone but the artist.A younger, more independent-minded generation of artists, of which I am unarguably one of the first, is less inclined to bother with the game at all. We like to think of it as beneath us – along with all the other fakers and percentage-takers that persist in playing it. We're too busy connecting and working with each other and our audience, taking responsibility for our own careers. reclaiming a measure of self-reliance and maybe even a little dignity. Being under someone else's control, being told that you owe them half your income plus expense, being passed around their so-called friends, is demeaning and ultimately unproductive. A number of years ago, I asked an art dealer who managed a well-known artist why he didn't create a web site for the artist. He laughed and told me the web wouldn't make a difference. I thought he was stupid. But I suspect he may have been better at his own game than I'd realised. Creating a website would have, inevitably, empowered the artist and diluted the influence of the art dealer.But the power of new media, combined with the accelerating decline of traditional galleries, especially in a drastically deteriorating global economy, is such that even the most persistent and grasping middlemen will lose their grip in the near future. While artists will flourish on the net, only a very few galleries are likely to adapt to it, let alone be able transfer offline success online. As any geek – or record company – can tell you, the web works against any effort to exert control within it.