Recently, a young Dallas reporter was interviewing me in my gallery and asked, “Is there anything you’d like to say to the collectors in the face of this recession?”
At that moment I sat back with no comment, feeling sorry for myself and the collectors, but as you may have guessed if you read the first part of this column, I’m happy to get into it here, now.
My gallery has never made a lot of money. That’s not why I got into this business. I was more than happy to break even, and I’ve never pulled a real salary for myself. And while my gallery is a business, it is, admittedly (like a lot of other young, small galleries), something more akin to a non-profit, with presenting art as the primary objective and “breaking even” as acting incentive. I’ve shown art I think is important, and drawn in people—all kinds of art lovers—to engage in a kind of communion that felt right, that feels hopeful and engaged and productive. It has proved a hardscrabble but worthwhile existence.
There are different kinds of contemporary art collectors and would-be collectors in any large city, of course, and during downturns, their various profiles are thrown into sharper focus in the eyes of all who depend on them for their existence, which includes galleries and the artists they show. What’s happening to the Dallas art scene in the recession, and the way collectors are responding to it, is happening everywhere.
Since Lehman Brothers went down last September, I’ve been to galleries here as well as major galleries in other cities, and there’s no denying the massive drop in sales, as confessed by the gallerists or self-evident lack of red dots on the wall. Major, veteran dealers are sweating it out in the international market by cutting staff, cutting programming, etc., but smaller, newer galleries—especially the ambitious ones that are trading in real art without financial backing and without the resources to break into secondary market dealing (which takes time and is where the real money is)—are getting pounded.
While I’ve kept selling work at Road Agent, I also can report this: There are at least a dozen excellent pieces from recent Road Agent shows—produced by well-liked, sale-generating artists—that I know would have sold this time last year and have not sold, due entirely to the economy. I’d bet my trusty calculator on it. I saw regular clients who would have loved to have the work, and last spring or summer would have bought it. And I’m hearing similar stories from other dealers. Offering discounts or installment plans doesn’t work on those who are seriously upset about their finances.
These lost sales, after theoretical discounts and minus the 50% paid to artists for the consignment, add up to roughly 90% of my operating costs for two or even three months. I’m now the sole employee of the gallery, I’ve cut my costs down to the wire and yet these losses kill me on basic, functional overhead. Which means, I suppose, it’s time to do a bit of a rain dance to shake out the other potential buyers.
This kind of lost revenue might stress the galleries who weather recessions with some kind of financial backing or family money, or years of profit-turned savings (again, often accrued through secondary market dealing, which is more prevalent in larger markets and which, really, is fodder for yet another column), but these galleries dip into reserves and strenuously tighten their budgets to keep their doors open. More power to them. We’ll need them around. The loss of sales is devastating, however, to those of us who exist on sales alone. (If you’re wondering about the wisdom of a business model dependent on “sales alone,” I can report that until this recession hit hard, my net sales were incrementally increasing by every fiscal quarter. So, sales alone for a small gallery like mine works in a boom, not in a bust.)
With that out on the table, let me stress that there are a few dozen art-buying loyalists in this town who I think are, on their own steam, keeping the entire gallery scene alive right now. You all know who you are and I thank you with every cell in my body, and I believe there are 72 top-shelf margaritas waiting for you in heaven.
I wrote in Part I of this address that I’m not interested in telling people how to spend their money, but that “…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.” I’m also wondering why, this late in the game, I shouldn’t let readers in on what it’s like to be in the gallery, day after day, greeting the various types who come in, as well as give a general breakdown of types of collectors or would-be collectors I’ve learned to spot and deal with going on four years now, and continue to plead with them to grasp their role in our art scene’s long-term health.
The unintentionally amusing are legion but easy to summarize. From conversations I’ve had with other dealers in this town, these scenarios are common. Some examples from Road Agent:
So a new person walks in the door and says to me:
1) “Hi. Wow! Are you the artist? Did you make all this art?” (This is especially good if there’s a really wide-ranging group show up.)
2) “Hi. Oh! Can I come in? What’s the price of admission?” (Sweet but kind of sad, and easily remedied.)
3) “Hi. I’m an artist; I’m looking for a gallery. I think I like this one. I brought my portfolio. Do you work here? When does the owner get back?” (And… stay tuned for “Letter to Artists: How Not to Approach a Gallery” in a future column.)
4) “Hi. This work is really weird. Do you actually like this stuff? But anyway, my nephew is a woodcarver and he’s doing these fun birdhouses now, and I’m going to tell him to call you.” (Please leave.)
5) “Is this a frame shop?” (?)
Now, let’s look at the other kinds of people who show up at opening after opening—the more promising ones.
There are people who come into my gallery and call themselves collectors, and at first I believe them, and they take up lots of time and energy. They come to my openings and network with my other guests for two hours and drink free wine and ask me to take them into the back to pull things out of my flat files to show them and they give me their business cards and request jpegs (and more jpegs, and more jpegs: “Not minimal enough” or, “Why does the artist have to put a rat in it?”) and not once in three years have they purchased so much as a catalog or tiny drawing. They are the time wasters, the tire kickers. They’re the people who make gallerists feel like charging an entry fee at the door. It’s the nature of the business, I know, to deal with these characters, but their behavior, during a recession, feels more like contempt than mere carelessness or narcissism.
Of course, a subset of this group are home decorators and bored social climbers on a power trip who have re-invented themselves as “art consultants,” a fast-multiplying breed who try to get attention by promising much and delivering zilch. (They might consider modeling themselves on the real, bona-fide art consultants in this town, of which there are only a few, as well as curators of fine corporate collections—educated and respectful professionals with clients who are building enduring collections. They never waste time or make false promises. Their respect for artists and the gallery’s role is palpable.)
Then there are the “kids” and the would-be hipster collectors who outnumber actual clients and gallery artists ten to one at an opening, but haven’t bought yet. They bring lots of vitality to galleries; make them feel alive and hopping. They tend to be enthusiastic about the work and are often creative themselves, and friends with the artists. They also often treat galleries like a kind of groovy satellite system to the museums and non-profits. They wear cool shoes.
Let me point something out. If one hundred of these young bohemians each bought one modest piece every third year from Gallery X, let’s say an unframed drawing for $300 (and they could pay it out in installments), then the gallery’s future suddenly looks brighter. You could even break it down in terms of how much that would mean they “spend” on each opening; if they attend maybe six Gallery X openings a year, then by buying one drawing every three years they’re paying about $16 a pop for several good hours of booze, conversation and educational diversion. They’d pay more than that to hang out at some new bar for two hours, but at the end of the day at a gallery, they’ve made an investment in an artist’s future. And trust me, some of these little cats drink far more than $16 worth of free booze at a single opening anyway.
It’s hard to run a gallery in a recession without anticipating the contribution of everyone who walks in the door. The curators are contributing connections and validation, the major collectors who do actually show up are contributing influence and inspiration, the artists are contributing priceless dialogue and a sense of community, the hipsters are contributing awesome photo ops and a sense of hope for the future and the tire-kickers and socialite-trustees are contributing… we don’t know yet. Their negative contribution is, I’m sure without them even realizing it, putting galleries in the kind of jeopardy that threatens the whole scene. Who are the socialites going to go to for charity auction requests if the galleries are shut down or too broke to donate? (Again, another day, another column. But, quickly, to give you an inkling: I’ve been taken to lunch by women who wear diamond rings that cost more than my house, and they plead with me to donate some of the best, most saleable things in my gallery to their auction, and they’ve never even set foot in my gallery. I cannot make this stuff up.)
And what contribution is the gallery making to the big picture? As I wrote before: I don’t expect everyone who walks through my door to buy something, because a gallery isn’t just a shop.
So—as promised in the my last column—feel free to shout the chorus along with me this time: A gallery, and by extension, its artists, serves 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 should be the engine of a city’s art scene, with the museums and private collections acting as the recipients and showcases for that effort.
Let me add to that now: The work of pretty much every modern and contemporary artist that appears in a noted museum or major collection anywhere was first shown in a gallery (and if the artist is still alive and working, they’re usually debuting bodies of work in the art galleries that represent them). The gallerist-dealer makes it his or her job to find the best artists and get the work in front of the right people, and to do it first. The private commercial gallery isn’t slowed down by bureaucratic red tape or endless committee and board meetings; it can and does get work out into the public eye more efficiently than institutions. In fact, I can see something spectacular in an artist’s studio on Monday and have it in my back room in front of collectors and curators and even press by Friday.
Let’s assume, if it’s not too late, that if half of the good contemporary galleries disappeared in this recession, then the artists would too, by either moving to other cities or taking the kind of draining day jobs (or second jobs, or third jobs) that wouldn’t allow them the time and energy to make work anymore. The art schools here would have a hard time luring or keeping smart students, because the smart ones are drawn to more vital art communities. The museums wouldn’t be able to send important visitors to any places in town that could represent what Dallas is capable of or how far it had come. The non-profits, those that are left, would have to import their exhibitions, and the remaining local galleries might too. Dallas’s legacy, if one could even call it that, would be nothing more than turning itself into a display case for stuff made everywhere but here. And one more central component of what makes a city truly great would be lost.
So, to sum up my answer to that young reporter’s question: Yes, there’s something I’d like to say. Rich high-profile collectors—please show up, Dallas’s galleries need your support. Trustees and socialites—show up and try to engage with the work that’s right here under your nose, and buy something from one of us for god’s sake, because we know you can still afford it. Cool kids—please consider buying one piece for now while you decide what kind of long-term relationship you’re going to have with art, and keep wearing your cool shoes. And tire kickers—either shit or get off the pot.
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.
Also by Christina Rees:
State of the Union, Part I