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5 Disruptive Trends Art Galleries Need to Understand If They Want to Survive

Barcelona, Talking Galleries symposium 2018

Thanks to Ivan Barnett of Patina Gallery for sending us this article. The following is a synopsis taken from the original, published on January 30, 2018 in artnet news, which can be found in its entirety here.

At this year’s Talking Galleries symposium in Barcelona, the debates boiled down to a few core issues. Here they are.

Every year (and occasionally more frequently), a constellation of leading lights from across the art industry convenes for Talking Galleries, a symposium meant to address the unique challenges and possibilities facing the gallery sector. Occasionally, they also let in riffraff like yours truly. And after two days of presentations, panel discussions, and networking in Barcelona... here’s my recap of the five major themes that emerged from this year’s colloquium.

1. The Scale and Pace of the Gallery Sector Have Become Cancerous for Many.

The Takeaway: There are too many buyers generating too much income and creating too much demand, with too many gallerists—and, I will add, too many artists—becoming all too willing to satisfy it by any means necessary. [ABSF: This is an interesting section, but not quite relevant to today's points.]

2. Different Tiers of Galleries Are Now Playing Different Games With Different Rules.

The Takeaway: Since following the commercial gods of the gallery sector won’t necessarily lead to Valhalla, cultivating a community matters just as much as mounting shows and selling works… and doing the former may be the single best strategy for doing the latter.

3. The Art Industry Must Break Out of Its Silos and Create “an Ecosystem of Exchange.”

The quote in that line came courtesy of gallerist and Independent art fair founder/CEO Elizabeth Dee, who voiced it in the midst of a panel titled “Ways of Collaborating Among Galleries.” But her message wasn’t just that modestly sized galleries need to discard the competitiveness alienating them from one another. They also need to do the same when it comes to their relationships with art fairs, advisors, and other participants too often and too conveniently cast as their antagonists. In short, she and her co-panelists proposed that those below the commercial apex—no matter their precise roles—would be best served by thinking about how to innovate unprecedented, sustainable forms of partnership among themselves, not about how they might be able to reach the tip-top by climbing over one another....

[Panelists] even carried this idea to its logical endpoint. They discussed how smaller, more experimental galleries are often the ones that take the risks and make the sacrifices that bring cultural legitimacy to the larger, more luxurious elements of the industry, which largely traffic in artists whose reputations are already faits accomplis. As an example, Servais suggested that “the Focus sections of fairs”—a shorthand for themed sections featuring younger galleries, often organized by a high-profile curator—are in fact a critical tool for art fairs to preserve a degree of curatorial credibility rather than just looking “like a shopping mall full of big brands.”

The question hanging in the air at the end of this exchange was simple and crucial: If risk-taking smaller galleries are, in effect, culturally subsidizing larger, safer entities, don’t those larger, safer entities have a responsibility to financially subsidize the smaller galleries for the value they add to the enterprise?

The point is that the real relationship between galleries at different price tiers is not competitive—it’s symbiotic. Without smaller galleries developing lesser-known artists and novice collectors, the top tier of the market will lose the feeder system on which it depends for long-term growth.

In this view, the gallery sector’s have-nots will suffer first in an adverse art economy. But if the lions of the market think they’re immune to danger, it’s worth remembering that every species is a goner if the bees die out.

The Takeaway: Without both horizontal and vertical collaboration among participants in the primary market, the entire structure could [fail].

4. Lack of Transparency Is Undermining Everyone, But Especially the More Modest Tiers of the Business.

The Takeaway: Openness isn’t a nicety. Limited data and ample experience say it is a business strategy that can reap rewards for individual mid-level galleries and the sector more broadly.

5. Attracting New Audiences Will Be Crucial—But Doing So Will Require Uncomfortable Changes.

Early in his remarks during the aforementioned mid-level gallery panel, TEFAF Chairman Nanne Dekking stated that “the art market is the only one where we’re not actively reaching out to the customers we don’t yet have.”

The question is whether the gallerists in the most peril are ready to commit to changing. As Art Dealers Association of America president and Cheim & Read partner Adam Sheffer observed, almost no attendees over the age of 50 seemed to stick around for the tech-centric panels that closed the symposium. (ABSF: Hey, we get it: it's hard to learn all the latest tech when you're focused on making sales to keep the doors of your gallery open. Let us take some of that burden from you.)


The flip side, however, is that the auditorium was still full, or nearly so, with younger gallerists, professionals, students, and entrepreneurs eager to engage.

The Takeaway: If most longtime gallerists continue clinging to familiar patrons and familiar methods, then the art business, as physicist Max Planck once said of science, will only “advance one funeral at a time.” But either way the next generation appears ready to step up and reach out.

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