In its basic form, a fine art gallery is a store that sells art objects. Galleries do so in a myriad of ways, differing in the specifics of which artists, discourses and aesthetics they associate themselves with – as well as the mostly-invisible, highly personal network of people attached to them. Independently of their intention and reality, most galleries have an image that conveys distance, avantgarde and elitism: galleries might be stores, but few people enter them, buy there, or understand what they’re actually doing. To laypeople, galleries share aspects of churches: offering silence, adoration and mystery, as well as unknown rituals and unspoken rules. Like churches, they allege to be open to everyone, but in actuality are so only for those agreeing with their ideology; in the case of galleries, the ideology is art.
Galleries are gatekeepers to art, similar to museums. Yet where museums focus on researching, archiving and exhibiting, galleries focus on exhibiting and selling: the overlap is there, but not too big. The gatekeeping and showcasing aspects are also fulfilled by art documentaries or books, which are decidedly more accessible – but don’t offer people the experience of sharing a physical space with art objects. For experiencing physical objects, this difference can be existential.
Beginning artists often idealize galleries as a major (or even only) hope to get their work physically experienced by the world. The ideal gallery would not only be a premium gatekeeper, but also take care of all business operations, leaving the ideal artist to purely focus on their artmaking processes – without having to worry about non-artmaking tasks like pricing, networking, marketing, diversification, etc. Reality is more complex and challenging, but also offers more opportunities for the artist’s personal growth. Gallery-artist relationships come in immense diversity, with only a few overall, recurring aspects; some galleries don’t even aim to generate sales, but exist as pet projects created for often incomprehensible, but nevertheless real purposes. Galleries rarely take over their artist’s business operations – and neither should they.
The Infinity of Galleries
Galleries are businesses run by, collaborating with, and selling to individuals; on the surface, they are about showing and selling art works – yet first and foremost, they are platforms for human interactions. As such they are subject to the many facets and layers of interpersonal possibilities: trust, friendship, joy; misunderstandings, guilt, betrayal; power through collaboration, failure of communication, etc. A gallery can be seen as a multiplicity, an open, ever-changing network defined by the various individuals connected to it – an ecosystem consisting of owners, employees, curators and fellow artists; collectors, art critics and magazine or art fair staff. Many of the nodes and connections in this network aren’t visible (and are often intended to stay obscure), but cumulatively define the galleries’ market access, and their standing in the art world. The better you understand them, the more realistically will you be able to judge a gallery.
Galleries come in endless variety – the word itself doesn’t explain whether a project is for-profit, has a physical space, collaborates internationally, attends art fairs, or whether it is even actually capable of (or interested in) generating sales. The art world offers all sorts of galleries, including those that do not collaborate with living artists, instead aiming to sell works by deceased artists. These distinctions are relevant because it means that artists cannot simply look for “a gallery” when looking for “a gallery” – instead, they need to find one that matches their business expectations and realities. Judging galleries is its own challenge, which becomes easier the better an artist understands their own (and the galleries’) realities and fantasies.
When discussing galleries in the context of emerging artists, it’s sensible to discuss them as businesses that collaborate with artists. The collaboration specifics can differ tremendously between galleries, but already even between artists of the same gallery – artists might want (and get) significantly different things from their gallery, with some being able to negotiate way better or worse than others. Ideally, a gallery-artist relationship is the result of an ongoing dialog, where expectations and synergies are developed respectfully and transparently: exhibition frequency, communication modes, economic transparency, cost absorption, frequency of planning meetings, the degree of strategic planning, etc. This infinity of potential topics is why an artist’s curiosity and care about economic aspects matter so much when collaborating with a gallery: without it, how could an artist get the best deal possible?
Potent galleries with strong international networks of gatekeepers can showcase artists to a global audience; they can influence art writers and art fair curators to shine a light on them to a degree impossible for galleries with less influence. The art world isn’t meritocratic, but network-based: an artist’s options are not solely the consequence of their oeuvre, but strongly depend on and differ with the galleries they are associated with. While artists (with or without galleries) can manage to showcase their work abroad, such an “international exhibition” itself doesn’t denote economic success. Successfully connecting an artist with the world outside the gallery’s original geography is what the art market is all about: to reach (and generate) a large audience willing to invest into an artist’s work. This sort of market demand multiplies an artist’s economic value, and is most artist’s fantasy. It’s rarely a reality, with galleries often simply not having the network, curiosity or longevity to push an artist beyond their existing collectors and gatekeepers. Economic success is rare; if it does happen, it comes with real consequences: the requirement to produce, a dependency on the galleries’ network, etc. – not every artist will want this.