Successful artists, as well as some smart youngsters, are in no rush to secure big-league representation
When Haunch of Venison closed in March 2013, the Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos was left without a gallery in London or New York—the two cities where Haunch, which was bought by Christie’s in 2007, had spaces. Since her gallery closed, Vasconcelos’s career has been on an upward trajectory: she has represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale, unveiled public sculptures in Porto and Lisbon, and produced several new works for a retrospective at the Manchester Art Gallery. Vasconcelos is not alone. Rising stars such as the British-Japanese artist Simon Fujiwara have successfully negotiated the intricacies of the art world without major gallery representation while others at the peak of their careers, such as Anish Kapoor, regularly bypass their galleries to sell direct to clients from their studios. So do successful artists need galleries?
Joana Vasconcelos made Lilicoptère, 2012 (above), a Bell 47 helicopter decorated with ostrich feathers, gold leaf and Swarovski crystals for her 2012 solo exhibition at Versailles. The work, conceived as a helicopter for Marie Antoinette, was sold by Vasconcelos’s then gallery Haunch of Venison to an unnamed collector. But when this collector failed to pay for the work and Haunch closed down, Lilicoptère was inherited by Christie’s along with “hundreds” of other works by Haunch artists, according to a spokeswoman for the auction house. These works have been offered privately and at auction over the past year.
Vasconcelos, who employs a team of 45 at her studio in Lisbon, says she would like to join a large gallery but is in “no rush” to do so. “I have had a lot of invitations, but it has never seemed the right [match].” For now, Vasconcelos says she will continue to work with her existing network of smaller spaces: Casa Triângulo in Sao Paulo (which currently has a show of her work, until 3 May); Galería Horrach Moya in Palma de Mallorca, and Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris and Brussels.
“Vasconcelos already has all the necessary connections in the art world,” says the London-based curator Olivier Varenne. Her work is in major collections such as the one assembled by the French luxury goods magnate François Pinault, she has had prominent solo exhibitions including a 2012 show at Versailles, she is able to raise funds for the production of new works through her studio, and she communicates directly with collectors via a regular newsletter. “Why would she pay 50% commission to a gallery when she has her own network? She doesn’t need a major gallery,” says Varenne, who works for the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, and says he bypasses galleries whenever he can to work directly with artists.
Meanwhile, younger artists who have grown up in the era of instantaneous communication ushered in by the internet and photo-sharing applications such as Instagram, are incredibly savvy about promoting their own work, says the London dealer Kenny Schachter. “One day technology could obviate the need for full, traditional gallery representation. There are unsigned kids, like the Los Angeles-based painter Alex Israel [who is represented in Berlin by Peres Projects, in Paris by Almine Rech and shows with multiple galleries in New York but is not exclusively represented by anyone in the US] selling their art for hundreds of thousands of dollars…they’re not going to join some rinky- dinky gallery just for the hell of it.”
Artists therefore expect much more from galleries today, says Varenne. “Many galleries are signing artists and not doing enough to promote their work.” And in today’s hyper-charged art market, there are many alternative ways of promoting your own art such as working with a manager or hiring your own staff to take on the roles traditionally performed by galleries.
Such ways of working are, however, fraught with danger, says the London-based art adviser Emily Tsingou. “I don’t think these models work. Navigating the art market is very complicated. Galleries have experience doing this; they can control supply and demand with sophistication. There is a lot of price distortion and an artist’s studio wouldn’t necessarily know how to deal with that. It’s very hard to work alone.”
“Artists need galleries to sustain their work on the secondary market and buy their work at auction,” says the London-based collector David Roberts, who adds that buyers are reassured if an artist is represented by a well-known gallery. “A lot of collectors ask artists: ‘who are you with?’. If a big gallery doesn’t want to sign them up, they ask ‘why?’. It makes them nervous about investing in the work.” Roberts says he always prefers to buy through galleries rather than directly from an artist because savings from dealing direct with a studio are “minimal”, while for buyers good relationships with dealers are crucial.
And young artists who can prosper without a gallery are the exception rather than the rule, says the London dealer Joe La Placa, who runs All Visual Arts, a hybrid gallery and arts commissioning organisation with funding from a hedge fund billionaire. “When you’re developing, you definitely need a gallery. Artists are usually cash poor at the beginning of their careers; they can’t deal with production costs, shipping, insurance, promotion—people underestimate what galleries do. But I think once you’re a blue-chip artist, although you need close associations with galleries to show your new work, you can operate independently.”
A case in point, says La Placa, is Kapoor who “operates independently from any gallery although he has a profound relationship with Lisson [Gallery]”, with whom he has worked for decades. A spokeswoman for Kapoor says the artist has shown Nicholas Logsdail, the director of Lisson Gallery, every sculpture he has ever made to canvas the dealer’s opinion. Such relationships are extremely important for an artist’s development, says Tsingou. “There is a degree of mentorship when working with a gallery. It creates a context [for an artist’s work] and a critical discourse.”