© Grant, I, “Beyond the Gallery”, Artist Profile, Issue 25, 2013, pp 22-24.

What are the options these days for showing and selling art? What do commercial galleries offer? Are they still the best, almost the only way? Increasingly artists are working within the gallery system that has been the norm for decades but also looking at other possibilities. For many the system still works fine, even in the current economic climate, but for others it is increasingly open to scrutiny for what it demands and for what it offers.


White gallery walls and on-site encounters with artworks have served artists well, and still do, but they are no longer the only basis for engagement with artworks, even if they remain the preferred means of fully experiencing what the works are offer. Increasingly, initial viewing is being done on line and even purchasing is being done on line, particularly for works from established artists. It’s hardly surprising to read gallerists commenting that their audience, their potential client base, is less inclined to visit exhibitions without firstly visiting websites and even consulting social networks. Viewing in the gallery then becomes a completion of their experience of the works, their visual and narrative qualities, their physical identities, their scale and their presence.


I once read Herbert Marcuse quoting Karl Marx as saying that he liked artworks because they could be consumed without needing to be owned or being used up. I can’t recall where the quote came from but it seems particularly relevant to the commercial gallery system in that exhibitions can be viewed, responded to and effectively consumed without being owned or used up. This is rare, virtually unique, in retailing where the consumption of any commodity in the manner intended is normally dependent on the exchange of money. Does this make commercial galleries and their artists generous public benefactors, willingly giving experience that may be elevating, even life-changing, to any person who enters their doors? Perhaps, but it’s more likely that this form of consumption is a necessary precursor to the purchase, the ownership and the complete commodity-based consumption of artworks that are offered for sale. Marx didn’t like capitalism and would have preferred public ownership of artworks – but that’s not the way in which our system of commodity exchange works. If we want extended, exclusive consumption and possible investment benefit from an artwork then we must own it, and this means we must usually purchase it from a gallery or a similar source.

Art colleges turn out many, many graduates annually and they add themselves to the existing numbers of artists who simply won’t stop making artworks. It’s not like sports where the participant’s abilities usually decrease past a certain age. Artists tend to keep producing and seeking outlets for the exhibition and sale of their work for much longer than David Beckham played football. There are now conventional retail galleries, pop-up galleries, websites, social networking and studio sales to provide a means of exchange that allows for the artist to keep producing, to continue living or perhaps to live well. Of all these systems of exhibition and potential sale it is the retail gallery system that has the highest profile. Galleries and gallerists can have particular identities in the way that many other commodity retailers do. Some have private backing, some must sell to survive and some are able to offset their galleries against other business activities. Some sell what they love, some love what they sell, but most are intelligent, pragmatic people who genuinely enjoy being part of the world into which they have entered. They are often sympathetic and generous with their artists – but times are tough, they have large overheads, and they must sell artworks to continue.

The solo exhibition has become the major exhibiting format for most galleries, but it was not always so. Solo exhibitions are essentially a mid twentieth century development, emanating from the emergence of New York as a major player in the world art market. It’s not that they didn’t exist before, but they have become the major system for art marketing only over the last half century. It’s interesting to note that many of the early twentieth century’s most influential artists showed predominantly in themed group exhibitions or through dealers who handled individual pieces or small bodies of work. Piet Mondrian, for example, had his first solo exhibition in New York in1942 at the age of seventy, and Jackson Pollock’s emergence in the forties was through curated exhibitions with groups of artists in galleries introducing the ‘new art’ to America. Increasingly, though, the solo exhibition has become the norm, even the paradigm, for the way in which artists and their work are presented to the public. The system has proved very effective in launching and establishing artists within both the market and the critical framework of the art world – and  in developing the profile of galleries. The solo exhibition is a means of presenting a focus for an artist’s work and has the advantage of operating on two levels. It presents an overall experience on entering the gallery, and then more intimate experience as each work is encountered. Even the gallery space itself is part of this experience, the silent white environment being often described as monastic or cathedral-like in its capacity to separate the spectator from the outside world.

Solo exhibitions, though, place great demands on artists. They can require a large number of works, usually thematically related, that must be completed within a designated time frame and should, preferably, all be new and unseen by the public. Some works may sell, some may be retained by the gallery for stock, but the remainder are returned to the artist at the conclusion of the exhibition to be stored or possibly destroyed. Most artists have large collections of their own work and many galleries are now finding themselves with overflowing stock rooms. Yes, the solo exhibition system has been very successful, yet despite this there are some problems emerging in that not all artists want to regularly produce large, related bodies of work. There is already a lot of art around and, for the artist’s potential audience, discernment is becoming more difficult.

We live in a world where, increasingly, almost everything is interesting and almost nothing is important. Transience and passing interest are central qualities in the social networks that are forming the basis of our cultural and communal lives and passive consumption of artworks is increasingly the norm. Once individual artworks could be seen as important in that they were a part, possibly an important part, of progressive narratives leading through modernist pathways. Then came Postmodernism, de-skilling, Neo-Baroque, even grunge, and there are no longer these clear pathways. Even the skill and media-based identity within artworks can be unclear as medias evolve, even morph with each other, and make virtuosity and innovation, once valued qualities, difficult to assess. A gallery client can thus be often left unsure of their acquisition of an artwork on the basis of demonstrated importance or innovative virtuosity. The artist may be well known and the work may be interesting – but is that enough to justify purchase? Perhaps, but the exhibiting context for a work can reinforce its presence, its unique identity, and even suggest its possible importance.

Overseas galleries, particularly European ones, have been grappling for some time with an immense market supply of artworks and an economic crisis that has brought great caution to spending in general, and to spending on artworks in particular. In Berlin, for example,  many galleries are reducing the number of solo exhibitions down to four to six a year and alternating them with themed exhibitions. This allows for a diverse, possibly changing, range of works to be shown and for the curatorial premise for the exhibition to itself be seen as significant. Solo exhibitions are mounted only when the artist is fully ready and there is no obvious downturn in economic conditions that will impact particularly harshly on that artist’s work. Exhibitions tend to run for longer than three to four weeks and great care is given to their installation, to the individual placement of each work and to the lack of any sense of overcrowding. There may not be a large number of works hung, with the stockroom working very hard behind the exhibition, yet these works will appear significant and potential clients will also attach significance to their visit to the gallery, their engagement with the exhibition and their experiencing of the identity and presence of each work. The gallery and the artists it represents may even become important to them.

The economic climate might not improve for some time, the production of artworks might not decrease and the demand for them might not increase. The broad social environment may remain largely indifferent, unable or unwilling to attach importance to much, particularly to the purchase of artworks. Perhaps artists will need to be more selective in what they exhibit and galleries less demanding in the amount of work they require. It’s difficult to avoid the perception that, yes, there is a lot of art around and less just might be more. Each square millimetre of gallery wall space must earn its keep but there are ways of it doing this and empty millimetres may be making very important contributions. Solo exhibitions will continue, but they are not the only way. Other forms of exhibiting are available, and will increasingly become more available, within and without the established gallery system and, perhaps, binding loyalties between artists and galleries will be tested. Contracts, particularly unwritten ones, may need to be clarified so that each party knows its obligations and its limitations.The lesson from overseas economies much more in crisis than Australia’s is that survival for artists and galleries is more than possible, but only with thought, flexibility and the capacity for innovation from both parties. Perhaps a way of seeing our current system is that it was itself an innovation and not a system for artists and galleries to work with indefinitely and without question. There is plenty of evidence of ongoing interest in art itself. Public galleries attract huge crowds to their exhibitions, even when they charge admission. But within the commodity exchange system that forms the basis of operation for commercial galleries there is change. The nature of art has changed, the nature of retailing has changed, and as a consequence the nature of the exhibiting and retailing of art is changing.
We do, after all, live in interesting times.

© Ian Grant