In the run up to the opening of a brand new Sydney gallery, Michael Reid reflects on the Australian art world, the secondary market and the future of the white cube gallery space.
I am writing this on a 40c day at Murrurundi. I am sleepless and grumpy and possibly feeling a little too near Dante’s inner circles of Hell; my mind ponders the infernal negativity that one often finds in the Australian art world. It is ironic to say the least, that within this world where beauty is still celebrated there co-exists so much fear, anger and even malevolence towards ones industry colleagues. But as the Americans would say, haters be haters.
Reid’s work in progress: Kippax Street, Surry Hills
So much of the Australian art world is way too heavily invested in the old. So the new, that which is less understood, causes anxiety and often fear. The cling-on-by-their-nails attitude to an earlier way of doing things is remarkable for an arts industry claiming to be contemporary. I still remember one of Australia’s leading gallerists telling me in the early 2000’s – when I had just launched a website – that the information super highway was a complete waste of my time and money. The web was never going to succeed she said. Fair enough, I thought …..we all fuck up (I’ll just put my web rush to the head down to nearing middle aged escapism) but the point here being was the art dealers compulsive specific need to actually tell me that I was really wrong. Stop me she would have. And of course, she was so right.
With so many Australian gallerists having little inclination to do anything particularly new; their time is as a result often spent looking over their shoulder as to what they should have actually done. And playing catch-ups. Fine, all industries benchmark by referencing and calibrating their business to that of other businesses around them. However, benchmarking to my mind is best done at the time of change not after the event. In the alternative, looking over ones shoulder, is not actually participating in change, it is more often than not a figurative neck jerk reaction to the twin crimes of complacency and being an imaginative wasteland.
This Klingon (to use a bad Star Trek pun) to the old at all costs is to my mind a toxic by-product of the notion that the Australian art world is just one big pie. The imagery being that if you take a slice from that pie, many art dealers welded to the old order of things would see you as robbing them of their pie. Essentially the Australian art world pie is only that big and only ever that big. The notion that we can all work away doing what ever we want and thus help grow the art pie – is not an outwardly positive looking notion – that the old thinkers often embrace. It’s the glass half full thing. Some are positive to the activity of others, some see others activity of robbing them of the pie.
Me. I am baking lots of art world pies and I see anyone doing almost anything as basically good.
Truly, as someone who has stretched their business, and takes almost too big risks on any given day, I understand, or at least have been told about the world of the risk averse. I have been told to focus on one thing. I promise I will try. However, it is in the nature of some to embrace risk and be on the bleeding edge of disruption. I like change. If you don’t like change, all good- neither do my parents – but please whatever your position is on this subject do not attempt to drag me down to build yourself up.
Aside from a old world view that the art market is a relatively static thing that should be as it always has been, another miscomprehension amongst those who think old is a deficiency to fully appreciate the now implosion of High & Low art. There is not really any great hierarchy to the way art is constructed any more. Or for that matter, the way that art business is done any more (at least overseas there’s not). In the older days the hierarchy within the art market was painting, sculpture, watercolours and then drawing, on a descending scale of importance and worth. In the day there was really no photography to speak of.
Now, relatively so few actually paint and photography is one of THE great waves in contemporary art. Artists such as the much-maligned Damien Hirst working almost within a Warholian tradition of using materials in new ways has upended notions of artistic and industry hierarchy. Paint, put dead things in glass tanks, start your own gallery, pay for your own art museum show, start your own art museum, sell your work directly through Sotheby’s, employ 150 to do the work ……. and so on he rolls on and on. I kinda love it. Similarly, as the practice of art is changing so to, on an industry level is the very notion of how art is sold.
In 2013 Christie’s, the largest distributor of art in the world, held 13 online sales. This year they have scheduled 180 plus specific online only sales. Christie’s online sales grew in 2016 $80 millionAUD – or about half the entire turn over of art sold at auction in Australia. Spot the trend. Baby, we are moving online.
In terms of an actual art gallery space, in my opinion if you can afford the big white cube art gallery exhibition model – all power to you. I have just taken a new 250sqm space in Kippax Street Surry Hills, Sydney. I could do it, so I did it. If in the alternative, your gallery is – like one of my other galleries in Berlin – at 75sqm, again …all power to you. There is no particular model to any of this anymore. If you want to stay with one gallery only model, fine. Larry Gagosian, possibly the most significant art dealer in the world, has combined the huge white cube across 15 spaces. And really, he has all the power whether I wish it to him or not.
In the alternative another art exhibition model, again combining exhibition elements of this and that, is an evolution towards smaller, versatile, more gem-like premises in strategically more numerous locations – like my Berlin gallery. It’s this notion that you are geographically and within digital contexts where your clients live coupled with the new online reality that much art is now viewed through a Smartphone- so why the big, single purpose cube? Just asking. I ask that myself.
So if there is any thread to this article (and I have consumed way too much water and am on the boarder of aqua-side) it is simply that in today’s art world of do this, or don’t do that. Chart and flow with art trends or not. Have one art gallery or 3 like me. Change or stay. Even this very article itself, throw it way or file it away. Whatever. You Do You because I most certainly does Me.