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Rethinking the Gallery: What role do gallerists play if they shutter their galleries?

An Opinion Piece By Charles Merritt Houghton

The recent wave of gallery closures in New York City, as detailed in a comprehensive article by Hyperallergic, marks a significant shift in the landscape of the art world. While economic and technological factors have pressured many traditional galleries to shutter their doors or move online, these changes also signal a more profound transformation—a possible end to the conventional gatekeeping roles that galleries have played. Gallerists are about to lose the thrones they've built for themselves over the last century. And it's not a coup; it is an abdication.

Here is the article. I encourage everyone interested in the art world to read it.

For decades, galleries have served as the primary gatekeepers in the art world, deciding which artists get exposure and which remain in the shadows. They have curated art and artists' careers, often taking significant cuts from sales—often as high as 50%. But as these physical spaces close, the question arises: What happens to this traditional power structure?

As an artist myself and as someone deeply involved in the community through my role with the 1100 Watercolor Society, I've observed how challenging it can be for artists without the "right" connections to break into these sanctified spaces. Most talented artists are left outside, peering in. However, the current shift will be seismic. While lamentable for its cultural and social impacts, the decline of physical galleries also dismantles the old barriers to entry. 

But let me get to my primary point– why would artists continue to share 50% commission when the physical investment of the gallerists in the prestigious, buzz-creating shows ends? Those shows justified the rent, staff, and publications. Urban Art Lovers love a party, a place to see and be seen while paying homage to the bold and innovative artistic voices that graced the gallery walls. But shuttering the galleries will end this affair. We will not be logging into glamourous Zoom meetings in our Ted Baker and Akris outfits to collectively click through the portfolio of a master painter's newest works of genius. 

So, yet again, artists are left to their own devices. Artists must embrace yet another era of self-empowerment. Mastering paintstrokes and paper was never easy, and finding champions of our work was even harder still. But now, without physical homes to show their stables of artists, the need for prestigious galleries seems to be waning.

 With unprecedented access to audiences through digital platforms, we can showcase our work, share our creative processes, and connect directly with art lovers and buyers without intermediaries. Galleries aren't earning their cut if, as artists, we've been doing this ourselves anyway. This shift in art dissemination liberates us from the traditional gallery system and allows for a more personal and direct connection with our audience. It's a thrilling time to be an artist, with the power to shape our own careers and reach audiences we could only dream of before.

This is not to dismiss the value that galleries provide. Their roles in curating and collecting the artistic voices of generations exemplified tremendous taste and insight. At least some of the galleries did. Gallerists were celebrated as custodians of culture, education, and taste. However, the evolution of digital platforms and the changing economic conditions invite us to reimagine how art is shared and sold. According to the Hyperallergic report, smaller and emerging galleries are already finding their footing online, proving that physical space is optional for success. The future is brighter for those galleries with reduced business costs. Good for them. But what role do they play when they're reduced to online portfolio managers?

Online gallery challenges are real—navigating online markets, which can be saturated with content, distinguishing oneself amidst a sea of digital content, and managing sales logistics, such as shipping and customer service, are not small feats. And will artists take the mantle of redefining their own careers to escape the shadow of gatekeepers? Artists can hire masters of marketing directly and dramatically trim the punitive commission's gallerists were known for demanding. It's not likely the galleries were paying for our assistants to pack up the work anyway, and if so, only in rare cases.

As we discuss these shifts in artist cooperatives like 1100 Watercolor Society, let's inspire dialogues about how we, as artists and enthusiasts, can support each other in this new landscape. How can we leverage our collective knowledge and networks to create new platforms for exposure and sales? How do we preserve the community aspect of galleries in a digital realm? Together, we can navigate these changes and create a stronger, more vibrant art community. If gallerists are taking themselves off the board, then the sharp curatorial role they played will be even further diminished.

The closure of galleries is indeed the end of an era. Artists have been left to our devices for decades, but we must choose our way forward at the beginning of this new chapter. As galleries willfully close the spaces they cultivated and curated for 50 years, their role diminishes. Either we, the artists, take more control over our careers or continue to split our share of the pie in return for even less value. 

If we want an art world that is more inclusive, accessible, and equitable, then being thoughtful about the next phase of the art market is necessary. Our survival depends on it.

Charles Merritt Houghton

1 May 2024

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