“Curating in the Gallery Field,” de Appel arts centre

Report in response to the Gallerist Programme workshop, “Curating in the Gallery Field,” de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam. Published January, 2012

online at deappel.nl


Critical Reflections on “Curating in the Gallery Field”
de Appel arts centre
November 2011

The issue at the heart of the workshop “Curating in the Gallery Field” is found within the title itself: What does it mean to curate in a commercial context? This question invites a constellation of further inquiry into the dynamics of presenting or encountering creative and intellectual work in a financially driven setting, and whether or not it is possible to make value judgments outside of capital. Can or should we separate altruistic from for-profit motives, or are the two necessarily intertwined and co-dependent? To these questions, all far too complex to be fully covered in a two day session, the total cynic would answer that a commercial gallery is no better than a high-end shop display. The optimist would say that financial context is irrelevant, the art and exhibition stand on their own. The middle ground is left staring at the pieces of this puzzle, resolved to the conclusion that the answers are simply too difficult, or worse, don’t matter. Of course, these problems do matter and as the badge wearers, paycheck collectors and title bearers of any position in the art world matrix it is our job to wade through these complications and work towards an understanding of that ever more complex philosophical, ethical and logistical knot.
De Appel’s Gallerist Programme is looking to begin this conversation in order to work towards making transparent the ways in which art institutions and the market already collaborate, and to develop new models and standards for best business practices in the commercial gallery field. The workshop could have been called “The Business of Exhibition-Making,” or “The Profitable Gesture” etc., but instead a notion of curating as practice, theory and creative act was privileged over making decisions based purely on the likelihood of sales, thereby coloring the discussion with the assumption that the intellectual and artistic rigor of an exhibition will always take priority over the guarantee of a financial return. This lens is certainly due in part to the mission of de Appel, but more importantly it is due to the reality that we as curators, dealers, collectors, critics, artists and viewers do in fact want the exhibition itself to come first, which in the best cases requires a lot of risk taking, devotion, and mutually beneficial business practice.
In a post-workshop conversation it was observed that the only speaker to discuss actual artworks was Jennifer Flay, director of the FIAC art fair. While her presentation highlighted the growth of the fair and its spectacular events, Flay is no mere marketer, and expressed a genuine interest in supporting artists’ projects and fostering a dialogue around their work. This enthusiasm was almost ironic, as the art fair is often assumed to be the context that is least about the art. At a time when many of the major fairs are owned by a conglomeration aptly titled Merchandise Mart, the fair director is the figure we would expect to be a money-minded and unromantic businessperson. Instead, Flay’s dedication is what we expect of the best curators, educators, and founders of not-for-profit galleries and artist run spaces, yet it came from the face of one of the most powerful and exclusive international art fairs in the world.
Undeniably, a well-executed commercial enterprise requires an extreme level of personal dedication, as evidenced by the high risk inherent to investing one’s time, assets and reputation; ironic too perhaps is that working as an artist requires the same sacrifices. Most dealers regard setting their own terms as a strategic and creative choice. Because of their independence, dealers are able to facilitate controversial or production-intensive exhibitions and artworks that institutions would be hesitant or unable to support due to financial or political limitations. The collector or gallerist as patron is still a relevant model and it is not uncommon for such projects to receive all or most of their funding from these private sources, regardless of whether or not the work is saleable in any traditional sense; where there is an entrepreneurial will there is a profitable way, and there is a lot of evidence in defense of this model as a win-win scenario.
Commercial exhibition platforms may certainly also be creative and artistic gestures, as evidenced by numerous historic and contemporary venues which operate(d) with alternative for-profit models. Despite their radical approaches, these remain businesses in essence and by definition. Importantly, this is why the artist and the gallerist remain different roles – even if they are played interchangeably by the same person – and is a key distinction to the benefit of both art and business. Art, in its most basic sense, is about a kind of self-determined lawlessness, the point of the game is that you make your own rules; in effect, it has no real winning or losing, only theoretical or aesthetic gain. Business on the other hand, especially once the high prices of the art market are considered, does have very real consequences, and therefore demands agreed upon and enforceable terms.
Yet the art market is a grey economy and one of the largest and least regulated industries in the world. Many dealers who started their careers in the 1970s and 80s will openly speak about entering the business for their love of working with art and artists, but had little to no clue about the legal and economic logistics when they began; somehow after multiple waves of market booms and subsequent crashes, business training and regulation is still taboo in the gallery world. Understandably, this leaves a lot of opportunity for bad business as well. Because of the art market’s volatile nature, vast range in scale, and the complicated intricacies of mixing financial and gift economies, self-regulation is the only logical conclusion.
Such grey areas become more consequential once we examine the cross-pollination between the public and private sectors of the art world. Today as public funding is reduced even further in the US and in much of Europe, not-for-profits increasingly depend on private support. According to workshop lecturer and economist Olav Velthius, this creates a power dynamic that grants patrons indirect powers of curatorial decision-making, making them responsible for promoting artists careers and forming the discourse around their work. While many public institutions strive to support the work of unestablished artists, their reliance on private funding often pressures them to focus programming on those already approved by and successful in the market, as if that validation were a measure for the probability of a profitable return, both literally and figuratively. As Velthuis argues, in extreme cases, it could be said that the private funder – or private interest – has usurped the role of the critic. This is especially common in the United States, whose art economy operates almost entirely on private funding. Where strong systems of public funding have been in place, this series of passages may be reversed so that collectors will not invest in a work until it has gone through a similar vetting process by institutions.
The entropic nature of these relationships was examined in Andrea Phillips’ and Suhail Malik’s workhop “The art market affects us all: a demonstration of money mapping,” which had participants assume various roles and negotiate a hypothetical scenario in which an artist is asked by a curator to produce a work for a foundation she is ethically opposed to. The dilemma became exponentially more complex once the roles of the artist’s dealer and an interested collector entered, and we learned that the foundation’s exhibition will be the pivotal event needed to convince this collector to buy the artist’s work, therefore ensuring that the dealer will stay in business and the artist will earn a living. The artist’s complicity was necessary for cementing good relationships between the satellite figures of the foundation curator, collector, and public council, all of which had to convince the artist to bend or burn her ethics, and in essence, jeopardize the very message of her practice. The exercise revealed the unspoken economy of entanglement in the art world, the delicate balance between each of these roles and the precarity of the very notions of autonomy, dependency, and artistic intent. Working in small teams, most of the workshop participants devised a solution in which the artist re-configured her project to yield a tangible gain for the community outside of this closed set of actors. These proposals included negotiating a “practical” element to the project such as cooperating with the local council to provide a new space for public use or demanding the funding of other resources for the neighborhood, thereby folding in a subversive political act by naming it conceptual content.
Through this inversion of power and manipulation, the artist sought access into a wider-reaching gift economy in an attempt to shatter an established circuit of co-dependency. While a ‘practical’ benefit could be one way out of the contradictions inherent to the art commodity market and the notion of cultural capital, this solution presented just as many new problems as it tried to evade. It could be argued that the artist’s willingness to participate at all completely negated any political message that their work may have, or that the solution merely sidestepped around much larger ethical and philosophical dilemmas. Indeed, in each group’s version of the scenario this round of handshakes was only possible if at least one of the figures offered their position and currency with unrealistic generosity.
As this exercise and much contemporary art discourse demonstrates, it is apparent in professional, academic and institutional realms that there is a somewhat pervasive internal conflict concerning the ways both non and for-profit modes of exhibition making are proven to be symbiotically bound. Regarding gallery practice, also in dire need of discussion is the web of ethical and legal issues surrounding just consignment terms, the secondary market and artists’ resale rights. Hovering above all of this is the initial investigation into the impact of a commercial context an artwork’s creation, presentation and reception. These matters will only be fully examined when brought to and raised by professionals both already entrenched in and entering the gallery field. Remaining in conflict and irresolution will never be satisfactory and may even be ethically and professionally irresponsible, leaving no choice but for professionals, theorists and practitioners to begin unpacking these dilemmas, despite how awkward, clumsy, certainly taboo and occasionally offensive the necessary conversations may be.