The Strange Relationship Between Artist and Gallery

I have in the past lamented the gallery that forces a photographer, or any artist for that matter, to work in a particular way.  In addition to often resulting in series of photographs in a certain quantity, I also mean that the gallery has a certain lay-out, a certain amount of wall space and will organize its exhibitions based on the limitations dictated by said space.  The walls are the walls and an accommodation must be made to bring the art to the space, as opposed to the space to the art. 

And here we have the crux of the matter:  A gallery has an artist in its stable with a contract.  Perhaps even an exclusive contract.  It befalls the artist to work with the gallery to get an exhibition of their work.  If the average gallery has between 6 and 10 shows per year, and a stable of maybe 20, or 30 artists, it does not take a world class mathematician to figure out that on average you wait 3 years to have a solo show.  This assuming of course that the gallery does not play favorites.  Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that the artists might be forgiven for trying to get their work to fit the gallery space. 

Further, it stands to reason that the gallerist fancies him-, or herself a connoisseur and has great sway when it comes to the work of the artists in the stable.  After all, they picked the artists and brought the artist a certain standing by having gallery representation in the first place.  Of course, I am generalizing a little, but for most artists, this is their reality.

Given that the gallerist will decide what work is shown in their gallery, the work will be influenced by the gallery space.  I have heard several examples of where an artist presents new work to the gallerist, only to be told that the work is not suitable for the gallery, or will not sell.  Short of breaking their contract and walking away, with whatever consequences this may entail, the artist is basically destined to conform to the wishes of their gallery.

Galleries seem to have had artists over a barrel for the longest time.  Sometimes this relationship can be a fruitful partnership that encourages an artist to do great work, but sometimes it is the shackles that stifle creativity and evolution of artistic expression.  After all, it mostly comes down to simply economics.  Supply and demand.  If there is supply and no way to create demand (as in no gallery representation), the supply is no longer relevant, however great it may be.  Case in point:  Dora Maar, once the muse of Pablo Picasso, and currently showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, was a great artist.  Picasso blackballed her work by threatening all the galleries in Paris with his wrath should they dare to show or sell her work after their tumultuous break-up.  Great supply.  No demand.

Let me give you an example from a very well known gallery in Italy, which has in its stable one of the greatest living photographers.  Out of respect for both, I will not name names. The photographer one day came to the gallery with a whole box of 30 cm x 40 cm prints that he had just finished making in his darkroom.  Each photograph was wonderfully printed.  The tonal range perfect.  The photographs were timeless.  And they will never leave the box.  Why?  Well, the subject matter is drawn from a number of old and perhaps forgotten cemeteries, where tilted and fallen stones, exquisite sculpture and the undeniable fate that awaits us all is shown, as only a great photographer can present it. 

The fact that these photographs will never hang on the gallery wall, or be shown beyond the confines of a single box in a sea of boxes, is a reflection of the gallery having decided that this work is unsellable and under no circumstances can it be shown or hung in frames along the walls of the gallery.  Of course, the gallery may be entirely right.  Not a single sale could happen, were the gallery to hang a show of dead people and their memorials.  But, is the decision not to show the artist’s cemetery work the gallerist’s to make? 

In a world where the gallery reigns supreme, there is obviously only one answer to this question.  But with public spaces abound, is it the only answer?  Sadly, here too, the gallerists hold most of the cards. Art is hung in public buildings, museums, and the like, but most often with a gallery deciding what should, or should not hang.  In a word, the gallery is the filter.  I can understand this, as it is easier for a public service, utility or institution to go to a gallery with multiple artists and simple say that we want a show each month and can you do that for us.  Easier because there will be a variety of artists represented by the gallery and instead of having multiple artists to coordinate, there is a single point of contact. Working with artists who might have different ideas, different frames, different demands, or even a different esthetic may proved challenging.  Working with a gallery is above all else simple.

I write this entry as a response to what I read in the most recent issue of Monocle.  A gallery in Milan run by Massimo de Carlo – the article calls him ‘Milan’s most prominent gallerist’ – has moved to a new location.  A villa, constructed in 1936. 

Massimo de Carlo Gallery – Milan

The article goes on to say that: ‘The space is embellished with a rainbow of mixed marble and ornate wall decorations’.  De Carlo is quoted as saying: “Artists don’t want cold industrial spaces and cement floors anymore”, he continues “The future of art is in locations with personality and history that can stimulate the artists.”

Massimo de Carlo Gallery – Milan

And there you have it.  The space for the artist to show his or her work is no longer merely a blank canvas to serve as a neutral background for their work.  No, now the artist has to accommodate the quirks of a 1936 villa, designed and decorated for the use of a family, not as a gallery.  Built at a time, when the Fascists ruled Italy.   Now, the artist is expected, as per de Carlo, to be inspired by the space and produce art accordingly.  This sounds a little totalitarian, does it not?

Harbel

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