State of the Union, Part I

A few days ago, an acquaintance walked up to me at an art event and asked, “Are you enjoying all your new leisure time?” I blinked, took a deep breath and finally managed to cough out something about doing some writing.

I felt like he had slapped me hard. He couldn’t have known that I took his question so badly, but his impression of my gallery’s reduced public hours is, evidently, that I’m sleeping in and then lazing around some swimming pool. This person, by inheritance, has uninterrupted and unquestionable cash flow. My gallery does not. When I sent out the press release for my most recent show, I included at the end of it a kind of postscript that announced reduced gallery hours. In this economy, plenty of people know how to read that kind of news, though this well-meaning acquaintance did not, or willfully chose not to, and for reasons of diplomacy I didn’t feel like I could set him straight. Not there, in public, while standing right next to one of my young artists.

All I can write is that when I sent out that press release via mass email, I spent two horrid, adrenalized days hovering over the “send” button, hand shaking, because I knew too well all its implications, and the message it would send to the art community —including, of course, my own artists and collectors, my creditors and vendors, the curators and the press — about not only how my gallery is doing in the downturn, but by association how the art community is doing. Until you’ve become a business owner, until you’re the one who signs the checks, you may not get how bad this is; while everyone —everyone — knows we’re in a recession and feels some pain, it seems that there are people like my acquaintance who can’t possibly understand just how close to decimation we are. I like this person who accused me of “enjoying my new leisure time.” How is he to know, in his protected position, that I’ve been sleepless and panicked since last September, and really, far longer than that?  My gallery started to feel the recession (which by all accounts started in December 2007) a full year ago.

Perhaps what I should be asking myself is: why not just put it out there? Things are shifting as I type this. A novelty of this recession is that more gallerists are talking about it, talking to each other, at least, about how crappy things are, and why not?  In the past, gallerist-dealers were reluctant to reveal much to one another about shrinking accounts, but now, galleries in large and small cities all over the world are shutting down, museum and university budgets are being hacked down to the bone, endowments on every level have dried up, auction houses are forced back to pre-boom basics. Art world people are losing their jobs; artists are losing their galleries. In my humble opinion, anyone who says they’re doing great right now looks like a liar, not a winner.

Like other failing markets, the art world needs help, right now, from the establishment, from the monied, from the people who claim to “love” art but who are more concerned with their collection of Birkin bags than their collection of works on paper. If there was ever a time for the wealthy to venture into local galleries and see what’s changed, what’s improved, what’s in store, it’s now.

Once a writer, now a salesperson, I’m a gallery owner these days. In the late ‘90s I was a full-time art and music critic, earlier this decade I was a broke and vagabond freelancer and for a spell after that, a full-time salaried magazine editor. But in the last five years, aside from press releases, a catalogue essay or two and one review of the Phil Collins show at the Dallas Museum of Art (for this publication), I haven’t been writing. I’ve been working the other side as the owner of Road Agent, a Dallas gallery.

I choose to live in Dallas — I came back home to Dallas from stints in London and New York — because I like it. I love the heat, the space, the big sky, the huge warm personalities and an entrepreneurial spirit. And in opening my gallery in Dallas in early 2006, I was hoping that the global spread of appreciation for contemporary art (one might even call it fashionable to collect contemporary art in this last decade) was taking hold here and would give this ambitious city a shot at cultivating a stronger, more cohesive and confident art scene than it had ever had before, including the one I had covered as a journalist here in the mid-to-late ‘90s.

When I decided make the jump to gallerist, I was seeing some great new work both here and elsewhere, and it felt like another venue for showcasing this work was a worthy endeavor.  I wasn’t alone. Holly Johnson, Marty Walker, Paul Slocum of And/Or, Brian Gibb of the Public Trust, Kenny Goss, Light and Sie — we all opened spaces in Dallas the last five or so years, and in the period of expansion, an economic boom, it seemed inevitable.

If there was ever any speculation about why, five or ten years ago, major Dallas-based collectors once avoided local galleries, one might have given them the benefit of the doubt and guessed that it was because of some arguable perceptions, including: a) the quality of the shows was, if judged internationally, perhaps too low; b) if the work had been shipped in from other markets, there wasn’t enough choice and/or it wasn’t always very well presented, which was depressing to those collectors accustomed to the polish of international galleries; and c) the regional art that was good enough for an international market wasn’t “validated” definitively by outside sources, i.e. museums, national critics, New York galleries. Of course for decades there have been stalwart Texas contemporary art collectors who focus on regional art, and Texas has a long and justifiably strong reputation for cultivating good contemporary artists, but there have also always been deep-pocketed Dallas-based collectors who prefer to bring home trophies from New York and Europe and elsewhere.

But in the last few years, many of the earlier shortcomings of local art spaces have been addressed. Have you been to any Dallas galleries lately? Dallas galleries look good these days. Well-designed spaces; well-presented shows. Local gallerists — through the technological ease of networking and also through participation in international art fairs — are more likely than ever to bring in art from other places, giving greater depth and context to their programming, while providing an opportunity to show local work to an outside audience. And much of this outside work plays well with local artists’ work, giving the whole enterprise an impressive, progressive feel, while upping the game of local artists themselves.

Even in the recession, Dallas-Fort Worth is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. People moving here from other cities come here looking for culture. About half of my best collectors are transplants — from California, New York, Canada. And a good number of my best clients build their collections, slowly and thoughtfully, on average or just-above-average incomes. 

Which, by contrast, throws harsh light on some of the richest native collectors and jet-setting socialites who claim to love art. I attended the DMA’s annual Art Ball a couple of weeks ago. It’s a massive, swish fundraising auction and dinner. It was packed with the richest people in Dallas. Far, far more money was spent on non-art auction items. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Vacations, jewelry, spa packages, home décor. Getting people to bid on the donated artwork was — just ask the visiting auctioneer, Sotheby’s’ Oliver Barker — like squeezing a dry sponge. There were only a few gallerists there, and next to no artists, which was a blessing. I left feeling like I’d boxed twelve harrowing rounds with Mike Tyson and lost both ears in the process. It was demeaning, exhausting, and I’m afraid a real indicator of how so many of the wealthy want to spend their money in this recession. Strings of pearls and weekends in Cabo. It was so fucking weird to be reminded of this reality at the museum.

I cannot, will not, tell people how to spend their money. But as a dealer I owe it to my artists and to my community to (gently, gently) push. These nice, well-meaning rich people seem to believe that the regional galleries  (and by extension, artists), can and will continue to work the trenches without ever receiving much recognition for this effort, beyond wealthy gala chairpersons asking (over and over) for artwork donations to their rapidly multiplying charity auctions (and that, dear reader, is fodder for another column).

There seems to be a kind of belief, or perhaps blind faith, in a trickle-down theory of art collecting, which is really about influence and role-modeling; I’m not sure the practice has ever been fully realized in Dallas, though what may have been developing in that direction during the boom is certainly falling apart in the bust.

The idea goes like this:
Ultra-rich and influential 50ish Dallas collector spends one million on a painting at the Basel Art Fair; the 40ish collector who just moved here sees the painting at a dinner party and is inspired to spend one hundred thousand on a sculpture in New York, which in turn inspires the enthusiastic 30ish collector who sees that sculpture in a Dallas magazine profile to spend ten grand on a piece at Conduit during an opening while a graduate student looks on, and a week later that student decides to live without cable for another few months so he can buy a $250 drawing by someone he just met at 500X

The bigwig collectors and socialites seem oblivious to the idea that their very presence in the local galleries could have an impact on the current mood. Perhaps they’re concerned that by even stepping into a local gallery they’ll be pounced upon by a desperate dealer, but the truth is that their visible support for or interest in what’s happening here would be a massive boost to the morale of the young artists and the new young collectors who are looking for guidance and validation.  If the ultra-rich believe in the power of trickle down, they seem to have forgotten how it actually works.

Jack Lane, the recently retired director of the Dallas Museum of Art and a bona-fide art lover, came to my gallery every other month when he was still here. He signed my guest book every time. For the next few weeks following one of his visits, my artists would walk in and see his signature in the book and get excited. Jack Lane had seen their show. I truly believe this made the artists work harder, which made for better shows, which in turn made for a stronger art scene all around. I can only hope that Jack Lane’s successor, Bonnie Pitman, will do the same.

The museum curators and educators and university faculty have been wonderful about getting out to see the shows — Suzanne Weaver was in every few months before she left for the Speed Museum in Kentucky, and Charlie Wylie comes by frequently; Terri Thornton and Andrea Karnes from the Modern in Fort Worth make trips into Dallas to see the shows. Yes, it goes with the art leadership job you might argue, but these people go beyond that call of duty and they send important out-of-town curators and collectors and dealers and writers into the galleries as well. In the last three years, art-world out-of-towners have crisscrossed through Texas and Dallas for business with institutions and private collections and auctions. During this time — and I know I’m not the only gallerist in town who can claim this — I’ve hosted curators from museums like the Whitney and the MCA Chicago, the curators of the Venice Biennale, some of the most prominent New York-based contemporary collectors in the world who are major trustees of the MOMA and the Tate Modern and the Hirshhorn, critics from Modern Painters and Frieze magazine, artists like Ron Mueck, dealers like Sadie Coles and Max Wigram, legendary dealer Anthony d’Offay, directors and associates of Gagosian and Hauser &Wirth, the national head of Sotheby’s… I could go on. This is truly just off the top of my head and isn’t name dropping — this is me wondering out loud why these people seem happy to explore Dallas further, while of the top ten Dallas-based collectors, only four or five have ever bothered to come to my gallery or my colleagues’ galleries.

And now, more than ever, we need their presence. But it’s not happening.

I wonder which scenario would be more embarrassing for an important Dallas collector: to be seen at an opening at a Dallas gallery which is debuting the work of a young, local, unproven artist, or to be told over cocktails by the director of Gagosian that a gallery in their own backyard has a really great show up right now, and that they should look into it?

I sometimes wonder if self-conscious collectors are frightened that what they find in their own city will be embarrassingly bad. Student-like work, or at least provincial; not ready for prime time; certainly not nearly up to the standards of what’s being shown in bigger cities. Or they know they don’t have the instincts or confidence to judge it against what’s being shown in New York or Los Angeles.

Or, most disturbingly, that what they find there will be just interesting enough to make them feel like they have an actual responsibility to engage with it, to stay invested enough over time to see it evolve. If they like art as much as they claim to, if they care enough about the state of art in this city to become museum trustees, how inconvenient is it for them to have to develop a relationship with art?  Looking at and collecting art is not a passive experience (or a passing trend); it is an active pursuit. Do they believe they can become informed and influential collectors, or aesthetic leaders of the art community, without breaking an intellectual or emotional sweat?

As gallerists, it is wonderful — and crucial— to sell work, but as dealers we also understand that if one of the top ten collectors in the whole city walks in, especially during an opening, their contribution is their presence and their respect for the process. That’s plenty. When Howard Rachofsky comes to my gallery, I don’t expect a sale. It’s a validation; a recognition by him of an economy and ecosystem right here in his hometown.

I’m going to print this next paragraph twice: once here and then again in the next column, because it’s the key to my point. What is lost to Dallas if the galleries are lost? Galleries, and again by extension, the artists they show, serve an essential social function for any large city; it’s a meeting place for the exchange of ideas and energy; it’s an established and smart alternative to churches and bars and living rooms for finding and building a sense of community, and ultimately, a good contemporary art gallery is the actual engine of a city’s art scene with the museums and private collections acting as the recipients and showcases for that effort.

If Dallas loses its galleries, it loses a crucial part of what makes it a great city to live in. It doesn’t bode well for the new Arts District, for the creative and entrepreneurial bent of this place, for the direction of people’s spending and the cultural and reputational riches that can reap. I mean, what good is a collection of Birkin bags in a cultural wasteland; an aesthetic ghost town? This is a recession that will damage many, but it needn’t destroy an entire facet of our cultural legacy.

Christina Rees was an editor at The Met and D Magazine, a full-time art and music critic at the Dallas Observer, and has covered art and music for the Village Voice and other publications. She is the owner and director of Road Agent gallery in Dallas.


Masthead image by Jessica Craig-Martin.

also by Christina Rees

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9 responses to “State of the Union, Part I”

  1. I have lived here through most of my “higher” education. In the past 10 years i keep hearing that texas “is going to be great” i just need to wait for it. we’re up and coming you know! as i move a long i realize that their are actually very few collectors in TX that give a shit, and when they do it’s for nice things that match their sofa’s. I’m getting tired, and I’m ready to move on as soon as i can. Can you blame me? You’re a trooper Cristina. The work you’ve brought to road agent has always been well put together and considered. I wish you the best of luck in keeping the doors open.

  2. Thank you so much for articulating the scene with the same passion you’ve always made publicly memorable.

    I was recently approached by a student who was writing a speech for school and was asked why it is important to support the arts. Among the many causations I listed, I told him: “Buying art supports both the artist and the gallery, but also encourages the artist to make more and other artists to keep making art as well (even encourage future, new artists). Of course just the act of telling people about
    the art for sale alone increases the odds of a sale…”

    Whenever I see Howard Rachofsky or the like in a local gallery, I immediately and without fail think (sometimes out loud), “Wow ______ is here. That’s cool,” because it IS validation. Even if no purchase is made or really if _______ doesn’t like the work, it’s still a warm-fuzzy for the gallerist to know you sparked some attention. And the feedback and dialogue is essential.

    Kudos to you for sticking it out all the while with a beautiful smile. You’re an inspiration and a Dallas icon.

    (Email me the name of the acquaintance and I accidentally spill my wine on him when I see him next. )

  3. There are many dialogues and monologues that take place identical to this one in Dallas every single day. And we all seem to walk away with more questions.

    We opened our gallery, The Cube Creative, just six weeks ago in the Bishop Arts District – an area of North Oak Cliff (A suburb of Dallas exactly 2 minutes from downtown by backstreets) so named because there is an actual abundance of local artists working loudly, collaboratively, brilliantly and steadfastly. No Potemkin Village here. Real working-hard artists.

    If one were to believe actions speak louder than words, what sort of gold-covered Brahmas have the Art Lovers built in the name of the “Arts” they believe to worthy of an icon?

    The “Dallas Arts District”, arguably one of the nation’s largest Arts Districts, apparently needs little or no representation or input from local artists. They apparently have it covered. Though the district means well, the signs downtown might as well say “Arts District: No Local Artists Allowed”, according to the local artizenry.

    I have to wonder: Given the economy, do local collectors fear being ‘found out’ that they can no longer afford to buy retail and have forgotten how to buy “wholesale” anymore by going to local art shows like Art Conspiracy, the DIAC Shows and the numerous Studio Tours instead of waiting to see WHO a gallery or Luxury mag might feature as “validation” for their brand of art, never mind the artist?

    And for that matter, if a local gallery shows only ‘outsourced artists’, what are they saying about their own backyard of artists by default? Are they perpetuating the NY/LA comparison by being exclusive with their “Arts District” while allowing local artists whose names they don’t recognize from the Luxury magazines produced in prodigious numbers in Dallas to fall by the wayside or witness their moving elsewhere?

    I, for one, love Dallas and the strong network of artists who decide to remain here and affect change, rather than show up with dusty leftover art for auctions, are about to be known in a very big way.

    Local collectors are about to witness a serious Dallas renaissance – a very loud group of talent that they will be proud to say are worthy of inclusion NOT in the Arts District, but in the “Artist District”. Even though we are gallerists, we are not the litmus for the state or quality of the art being produced here. Whether a local artist can survive is the only litmus Dallas collectors should be concerned with.

  4. Somewhat shocked it has come to this. I hope September finds you open full time.

  5. Thanks for hitting the send button. Too bad all indicators and decorum kept you from telling him to go fuck himself. And what better place than while standing right next to one of your young artists?
    They get it.

  6. and sometimes they don’t.

  7. I read your article with great interest. For the most part I can agree with what you are saying. However, having been in business for over 17 years, I can clearly remember many lean years bad economy or not. It takes time to develop clientele and a reputation. Just because you are an art critic or hold a masters in art or similar does not mean you automatically earn your stripes. You have to constantly work and then work harder. Are times good, no, but that does not mean that people do not have money to spend? They just want to spend it wisely. Don’t blame the collectors for going to NY or Europe to spend their millions. That is their perogative and a luxury most of us only wish we could do. I would prefer they spend their money here in Dallas and I will also say if you have something they or anyone else wants, then they will come and buy your product!

  8. Thanks Christina, for your insightful and passionate perspective. It truely hit home. You are a gifted writer as well as gallerist!!! I often look at Glasstire but I have never commented or written all these years, but today I felt the need, due to the importance of your words. Again thanks, and I hope you keep writing with such clarity, and insight building and connecting to the expanding global art community.

    John Pomara

  9. […] visual arts site Glasstire, demonstrating that some people in authority actually read this stuff. Rees’ angry young polemics appeared soon after Strick’s arrival in town and made him think, perhaps misleadingly, that […]

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