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Can Artists Get by Without Galleries?

Indie 184 made her mark as a street artist doing graffiti and painting murals before gaining gallery representation.

By KOUROSH MAHBOUBIAN, August 2019

The relationship between an artist and a dealer is a lot like a marriage. A good one is a partnership built on mutual trust and shared expectations. It is stronger than the sum of its parts and it allows both artist and gallery to thrive. It goes without saying, though, that there isn’t a gallery for every artist.

Generations of ambitious artists emerging in cities like New York were told to produce work, promote themselves, and put up with rejections until they made it into a respectable gallery stable. The mantra served well when the world expected artists to dedicate themselves to creating art and dealers to manage the artists’ careers, sell their work and make them famous. Given the market’s obsessive focus on high-value blue-chip artists and the ever-escalating costs of doing business, most galleries can no longer sustain expending resources on up-and-comers. Artists and dealers alike are seeking new models and partnerships to fuel the development of young careers. 

The basic functions of a gallery are to display artworks, to validate those artworks, to provide a support team for the artists and their potential collectors, and, of course, to make sales. From the artist’s perspective, each of these functions can be handled without a gallery, but there’s a heavy cost to going it alone. 

While it’s possible to find an alternative display space and to make sales directly from a studio, it’s harder for an artist to gain traction without the validation that comes from gallery representation. There’s also the unpleasant matter of all the work that has to be done. An artist’s primary objective is to produce art. Tasks like client management, marketing, public relations, writing, curating, installing exhibitions, and logistics management take time away from that objective and require specialized skills to be handled effectively. Having a support team that can handle them is invaluable. 

More than ever, artists are approaching the endeavor of making art as a business; and they seek partnerships with curators, fellow artists, arts organizations, and their social media followers to help them grow to a point where galleries will consider them. 

Shepard Fairey and Banksy are just two examples of artists who achieved fame and mainstream art world acceptance through a different path from that of the gallery. They became successful by displaying their art in the streets and derived the anointment of legitimacy through popular support without concern for art market validation. Fairey even wrote a manifesto, in 1990, about his use of the Obey stickers to promote that popular support.

On a smaller scale, the street artist Indie 184 made her mark in the Bronx with some support from the old school graffiti artist Cope 2. She soon began licensing her tags and artwork as designs for commercial products and established a following that way before gaining gallery representation. 

The painter Iris Scott used social media to get her start. She began selling her paintings ten years ago for $100 each on Facebook. They were beautiful and inexpensive and Scott couldn’t keep up with demand so she kept raising her prices and eventually introduced online print sales to the equation. She also hired a team of professional helpers. Along the way, she built a social media fan base of over 100 thousand followers. That fan base propelled her career to the next level when the time came for her first major New York gallery show.

As much as artists have had to find new paths, so too have private dealers, curators and small galleries. One direction has been the dramatic increase in the use of pop-up spaces as an alternative to the high cost of full-time rent. When Related Companies, the international real estate behemoth, developed the Hudson Yards, the plans included a series of art spaces to drive high-end traffic to the neighborhood. One of these spaces, the Highline Nine, is an enclosed passageway of nine beautiful galleries directly under the Highline, between 27th and 28th Streets. Galleries there are available for lease on a month-to-month basis only. The idea was to create a space that would showcase an ever-changing roster of independent art projects. 

The idea of the alternative space is not limited to the pop-up model. Another growing trend is for dealers to use their homes or offices as ad-hoc galleries. While it’s not a new concept, it seems to be gaining popularity. A dealer can save money on rent and then use those savings to focus on attending art fairs instead. It has the added benefit of freeing up the dealer’s resources and allowing her to take greater risks in working with unproven artists. 

Would-be dealers are also often turning to curating shows as a way to work with the artists they believe in. There is even a burgeoning industry in the support for curator driven shows. Arts organizations lend or rent their spaces to curators. Likewise, artists’ neighborhoods, like Brooklyn’s Bushwick section, and big studio complexes, like Mana Contemporary in Jersey City, host regular open studio days, curated events and holiday fairs. 

Perhaps the biggest curator driven event in New York is the annual Spring Break Art Show, presented by Andrew Gori and Ambre Kelly. It receives tens of thousands of visitors within a weeklong window each year and differs from other art fairs in that curators rather than galleries represent its artists. The show is selective in choosing only the most interesting proposals and generally tries to promote work from the emerging scene. Anyone can submit a proposal with only a nominal entry fee and the show generates some of its income by taking a percentage of the sales, in partnership with the artists and curators. The show’s main draw is its reputation as an excellent showcase for emerging art. 

Artists seem to be getting by without galleries but they do need partnerships. As these partnerships take on new shapes we may find that we need to redefine what we call a gallery. WM

Kourosh Mahboubian

Kourosh Mahboubian is a veteran New York art dealer, advisor and appraiser.

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