Will the decline of galleries reshape art?

Heidi Mitchell reports (NYT):

“The gallery is a format that is struggling,” said the Argentine curator Ximena Caminos, formerly of the Malba museum in Buenos Aires and now chief creative officer of the Honey Lab cultural space in Miami’s Blue Heron hotel and residential project, which is now under development. “It’s transactional; the artist doesn’t have that much creative freedom, and there is a lot of pressure to make money in a short period of time.” Artists, she said, are seeking new places to showcase their work, especially if the pieces are large in scale.

If the number and relevance of galleries were to decline (continue to decline?), how might this affect artistic content?  Here are a few hypotheses:

1. More artists will commission pieces for corporate lobbies and condominiums, as the article reports.  That will tend to favor mainstream abstract art and disfavor political statements and obscenities.

Erica Samuels notes:

“There is a great responsibility on the real estate developers that maybe they don’t even realize, while at the same time, the stigma of an artist working with a rich developer is fading.”

2. Corporate-owned works are usually less liquid and may not be sold at all, short of bankruptcy or liquidity crunches, when they are sold under panic conditions.  Artists therefore will be less likely to have dominant dealers who prop up their prices and cultivate markets for them.  That will likely encourage greater artistic output, though also lower quality output, as might be defined by elites.  The resulting art will have to appeal to buyers at first glance, as the artist cannot count upon “sophisticated” galleries to persuade or educate potential buyers.

3. Some artists will take their craft directly to the street, as is done in Belfast or Newark, New Jersey.  They will paint for local community status, and for the joy of it, and for political self-expression, rather than for pay.  They will use cheaper materials, brighter colors, and indulge in themes and images with strong local meaning.  Political art and paid art will separate further.

4. Galleries pursue their own coherent reputations, which encourages carried artists to fit into slots which match gallery reputations.  So there are “conceptual art galleries,” “Pop Art galleries,” and so on, and artists in turn target those styles, so as to achieve entry to galleries.  When galleries are weaker, the slottable categories are created by some other set of intermediaries — might it someday be Instagram hashtags?  eBay search terms?  Something else?  In any case, those new slots or styles might have to be less “you know it when you see it” and more “you can type those words into a search function.”

5. The decline of browsing has hit published books as well, especially fiction, which saw a big decline in sales over 2013-2017: “The most commonly shared view is that it has become extremely difficult to generate exposure for novels. Fiction, more than nonfiction, depends on readers discovering new books by browsing. Now, with the number of physical stores down from five years ago (despite a rise in ABA membership), publishers cannot rely on bricks-and-mortar stores providing customers with access to new books.”  It is easier to type the topic of a non-fiction book into a search function.  In this world it is harder to develop new authors [artists], and the link directly above, while about books, is a good way to start thinking about the galleries issue.

6. Most galleries, either intentionally or not, create a distinction between what is shown on the floor and what is held in the back room.  Non-gallery art is less likely to be bifurcated in the same way, even if some pieces are more prominent on the home page than others.  That may make internet-displayed art less “bubbly,” less subject to elite manipulations and prejudices and enlightenments, and also both fuzzier and lower in price.

7. If there are fewer galleries, perhaps more will be bought and sold at auction.  The winning bidder will be less likely to be ripped off by say 3x on the price, so it will be easier to experiment with buying unfamiliar styles: “I liked the Persian carpet I saw at Sotheby’s, and figured the winning bid wouldn’t have too much winner’s curse in it.”  You can’t say the same when you go to a gallery relatively uninformed.

8. Galleries offer high implicit returns to regular buyers, who end up getting a crack at the best works in advance, even before the show opens.  That encourages buyer specialization, whereas internet and auction-based methods of selling do not.

9. What else?


There could be a space for very large galleries that rent the space to artists and work as simple landlords? They could change the price of the space according to the reputation or the perceived quality of the artist, allowing also third parties to bet on an artist renting large space for him and charging a percentage of sales. Rich would-be artists would be the (happy) suckers of the arrangement, of course...

Worked great for Cafe’ Photo in Sao Paolo in the ‘90s, although in a slightly different category.

I read somewhere that Vincent Price was a buyer or curator of modern artwork for Sears & Roebuck and would select pieces that customers of the Sears catalog could purchase through the mail. Apparently some Picassos and other famous artists were sold this way, back in the day. Good investment!

9. Patronage - the concept should not be all that hard to understand, particularly for anyone who has both benefitted from it or practices it.

Unless one is too wedded to a market perspective to realize that much of the greatest art work from the last 5 centuries was the result of patronage, and had nothing to do with galleries.

Oddly, one would have thought that such a large fan of tech would have pointed out that someone like Musk could just as easily support a number of artists instead of selling flamethrowers (which just might be seen in a certain light as being a wonderfully dadaist comment on what happens when being a tech magnate allows the realization of any stray thought without any concern about realizing a profit).

The concept of patronage is covered under #1, even though the word "patronage" is not used. In fact, the entire thrust of the NYT article is that increasingly "patronage" is an alternative to traditional galleries. The fact that these are mainly corporate patrons rather than the House of Medici or the House of the Catholic Church doesn't mean it isn't "patronage".

This is not what I would consider patronage - 'commission pieces for corporate lobbies and condominiums.'

I mean a patron in the sense that Michelangelo or Mozart would understand the term. Of course one can imagine situations where a property owner or CEO used their position as patronage.

The distinction is one that Prof. Cowen might appreciate, him now breaking into the patron market with Emergent Ventures, which is not supposed to be a quid pro quo transaction or investment opportunity, at least most of the time.

It seems probable that museums will step into the gap left by the decline of galleries. According to this article a record number are opening around the world annually.


Surely an economist should not see the decline of galleries as some exogenously given process. Rather, it is a response to some kind of market condition and depending on what is driving the process we expect different changes in other art.

yes, and one possible cause could be implied, corporate sponswered art would "disfavor political statements and obscenities." Perhaps the general public isn't that interested in political statements and obscenities either. I'm not sure much great art, that lasts across generations, is political or obscene.

+1. Less self-proclaimed artists with generally no background or education in the field and a lack of aesthetics in their work. Hip-hip hooray! \o/
+2. The motion picture industry always welcomes talented creatives - it's a great career for sculptors, painters or photographers alike.
+3. Art aimed and custom made for upper-class private buyers just like in the old days? Why include the middle-man (auction house) when you can ask the artist directly for a painting of your favorite economist (I would like a Cowen portrait to hang in my house) or cityscape in the style you'd like?

Do the most successful artists and writers sell art and books because they are exceptional artists and writers or because they sell art and books. The same question could be asked about politicians and economists: are they successful because they are exceptional or because they are recognizable. Are reputations earned or created? Galleries served as filters, separating wheat from chaff, as did publishers and political parties. Direct selling (by artists, writers, politicians, etc.) relies on the consumer to serve that function. With politicians, the consumer has failed. Should we expect a better result for art or books?

This is a nice point. Market disruptions have some element of both morphing and moving specialization. The buggy whip thing. They also tend shift a new burden on the consumer (a bagain he is willing to strike). Living changes. Driving a car requires more than maintaining and operating a carriage. Thus always? The flying shuttle made running and maintaining a cloth mill more complicated as it made the weaving simpler (I'm thiking of the milliner as the consumer, not the cloth-buyer). Shopping in the Amazon stores make new demands on the shopper over the A & P model, which shifted more work to the consumer than the general store which it replaced. Radio (which obsolesced piano tuners) is an exception? Using a radio put net fewer demands on a household. It created a new industry and put all the specialization there. Somehow, barbers ended up losing a chunk of their trade (surgery) without the impact I'm talking about.

I'd be interested in people sharing examples of these kinds of disruptions, how they changed and reallocated specialization and how that changed this thing we call life with a lower case 'l'. With some pondering, we might create a (gentleman's) betting market for what will transpire in the arts arena. Will average consumers aquire the discrimination of arts patrons? Will they adopt some other least effort filter? Will the filter be primarily demand driven or supply driven (perhaps the role of artist becomes unappealing for exogenous reasons)? Will consumers abandon the arts market all together? Something else?

Policy is stickier than fashion, I'm not willing to doom painting because we are stuck with a mess in government. The arts are nimble.

I think the gallery format isn't necessarily in a decline. What the art world is experiencing though is consolidation. Larger scale galleries are thriving while smaller and mid-size galleries are hurting. One of the reason for this is the art fair, which favors the larger galleries at the expense of the smaller galleries. This could of course change and the larger galleries could face disruption in the coming years.

One of the forgotten role galleries play in the art market is that they act as the artists agent. Apart from selling and representing the artist they also serve the important role of price control. If the gallery is absent, prices could grow or fall significantly for artists leaving them with a bad reputation on the market. I'm not saying that galleries are the only entities capable of controlling the price, but with them absent there could be considerable disruption in the market.

There should be lots of fantasy-sculptures (e.g. representing Tolkien-characters) in public places. People like to look at pictures of dragons and other monsters -- why can't there be lots of sculptures of them around for people to enjoy?

There aren't even many sculptures of people and animals produced anymore. On the surface artists would say that the abstracts are more sophisticated, by I suspect a portion of the reason is that it's hard and beyond the skill level of many artists to do a good large sculpture. If you make a 'mistake' in an abstract it can't always be ascribed to intent. But any cretin can point out an obvious screw up in a realistic statue.

For now at least, libraries remain a place where one can browse the new books area for fiction.

I hardly think that it's the gallery format that is putting pressure on the artist "to make money in a short period of time," but rather the need to pay rent, buy food, etc.

Who is the actual buyer for “corporate” art? CEO, CEO or Board member’s socialite wife, architect, some mid-level guy in purchasing?

I assume it varies, depending on among their things budget, but what’s the distribution?

Could be any of those, but mostly it's the PR department. There's prestiege in having a contemporary art exhibition in a 's main hall, it's a great way to impress clients and business partners alike. Insert random industry into .

...in a bank's main hall, that is. Sorry, the commentary section doesn't seems to cope well with >< signs.

9. Technogenic Climate Change is being brought to you by . . . CONVENIENCE.

I think this parallels what is happening in music, as well. Society is shifting away from a direct and communal relationship between artist and audience, toward a more passive relationship with art. Art is becoming part of the background of what we do, rather than a focal point in its own right. Music is becoming background music rather than a performance. The art on the walls is becoming a corporate decoration rather than a stand-alone statement. Even acting is moving away from being a performance for the people and toward being something that's going on on Netflix while we chill.

I'm not arguing that any of this is good or bad, only that it is happening. Art is no longer what we do, it's just what's happening while we do something else.

Your observation is spot on for a cretain population. But the opposite is also happening in other (perhaps overlapping, perhaps not) populations: Burning Man is more participatory/interactive than Woodstock and the other pop festivals were.

Art Galleries should push hard for VR viewing. They should promote it and get corporate sponsors to pay for it. And promote viewings at corporate and public events.

This would cost very little, increase public exposure and mental buy, and drive up future on-site paid admissions.

3. Some artists will take their craft directly to the street, as is done in Belfast or Newark, New Jersey. And not just Newark and Belfast, but 10s of thousands of cities large and small around the world, all sparked by the flourishing of graffiti in Philadelphia and NYC in the 1970s on through the 1980s and beyond. That's all aerosol based and name based (e.g. Taki 183, Dondi, Skeme, Revs, Kaws, etc.). And then in the 1980s came so-called street art, originally more European, more likely art-school educated, different media. Banksy, of course, is the best known street artist in the world. Note that graffiti and street art are not the same thing, though the line between them is often fuzzy. People will defend the difference, especially graffiti writers – and that's what they call themselves, because, after all, they're writing their name.

I know a bit about this as I've been photographing graffiti in Jersey City, NJ, and other areas for over a decade. I'm also involved in various mural projects that have been sponsored by neighborhood organizations, the city government, and private RE developers (e.g. Forest City).

The quasi-secret nature of graffiti as well as the "beef" between writers and street artists lead to a very interesting conjunction back in 2010-2011. A street artist known as Workhorse and a graffiti writer known as PAC happened upon an unfinished and long-abandoned subway station in Brooklyn, NY. Moreover it seemed that (almost) know on knew about it as they saw no traces of visitors in their initial exploration. So, over a period of 18 months they brought both street artists and graffiti writes down into the station for a night during which they would create a work. At the end of that period they brought in a reporter from the NYT and one from the Times of London and a couple of photographer. They showed them around, led them out, and sealed up the entrance.

Then things got interesting. They opened a website for this Underbelly Project as they called. The reporters filed their stories, the photographers posted their photos to the web – absolutely standard in this world, BTW – and all hell broke loose. For some bizarre reason Workhorse and PAC thought this collaboration between graf writers and street artists would remain hidden forever, a lost treasure of a truce between these two communities. Fat chance. The site was found within days and others entered, photographed, and some vandalized.

I followed the whole business from my blog, New Savanna, with links all over the place, though many are likely dead by now. First post:


All the posts:


5. The downturn in fiction sales (to the extent that these metrics signal even feebly perceived qualities of fiction) remains largely a consequence of poor fictional choices perpetrated by the architects and graduates of dubious MFA programs as by the idiots who are this nation's publishers. (Contemporary fiction publishers have now perfected practically all of their institutional idiocies, hurrah.)

Marketing and networking idiocies have overwhelmed published content for decades, which explains why most crap on most existing bookstore shelves deserves to meet Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature, not the Bradbury title): the US book market is now at least as lousy as the US film industry, itself so keen to exhibit its digitized production values that its technical virtuosity conveys practically no human substance and offers virtually no human appeal (the advent of CGI has NOT enhanced "human imagination"--instead, with every visual detail supplied and every sonic assault reproduced, contemporary film has helped to KILL human imagination, routinely).

MFA idiots have been coached how to write what idiot publishers say Americans want to read: that Americans are tiring of overwrought elitist productions of all kinds is probably a good thing: our elites are now arguably more stupid than the Americans they purport to represent or lead.

The retreat of our effete elites remains incomplete.

Cafe's and Bistros are another alternative. But it seems the venue will always control the content. Doesn't really matter if it's a Gallery or a Corporate lobby, the venue will dictate what it will showcase. The artist would have to take to the streets to make politically controversial pieces or find other venues that align with the view of the artist.

Good point! One of my favorite paintings hangs in a restaurant in Chicago.

Social media. Post your work, get interest, let potential buyers get a chance to see your work. Added bonus: you're connecting and communicating with other artists and gatekeepers, and you're able to build your brand name through online display and association with others who have already done well.

Pankaj Mishra, just a little out of context:
“We may pretend to be entrepreneurs, polishing our personal brands, decorating our stalls in virtual as well as real marketplaces; but defeat, humiliation and resentment are more commonplace experiences than success and contentment in the strenuous endeavour of franchising the individual self.“ Adam Smith would’ve agreed.

8 -
Are you sure the returns are good? Buying at peak hype means paying peak price. Liquidity since Greenspan has been good to art markets. But all trends must reverse at some point. And, a 1% load on a mutual fund ruins it's odds of outperformance. Try a $10,000 dollar frame on a $400,000 dollar work, insurance, moving costs, repair, storage, appraisals. And you'll need new lighting to go with that painting. Bring the contractors in!

What artists really need to do is create more spaces like Meow Wolf in Santa Fe.

Regarding the publication of fiction, self publishing has largely superseded the gatekeepers. There is a plethora of fiction available, some good, some not so good, but you can now make that determination for yourself through the "Look inside!" feature on Amazon or similar, unmediated by "woke" editors and publishers.

There is probably more fiction available now than at any time in history.

Maybe I don't understand enough about 'high art', but this seems like a similar trend to what was recently reported about musicians having to commodify their songs, increase output, decrease length and quality. Rather than spend months or years building a collection hoping it will be a feature exhibit (the analog of crafting a hit album) they produce more one-off pieces for sale directly to consumers on platforms such as Etsy.... Where by the way, I see no durth of political and offensive works.

The result should be fewer 'rock star' artists, but also many times fewer starving artists, as a modest living becomes achievable to anyone with access to the platform.

“. . . the stigma of an artist working with a rich developer is fading.“
— At this point in world history, that’s too bad, and maybsignal a further decline in “art”.

“may signal”

Lots and lots of typos in many of these comments. You need an edit button. Although the quality of discussion seems much spottier than, say, 10 years ago. So maybe not a high priority.

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