A New Art Season, a New Test of Survival – The New York Times

A New Art Season, a New Test of Survival

The art market is in crisis, and the art fairs are largely to blame.

Mr. Velthuis specializes in the sociology of the arts.

Now that the new art season has begun, one question on everyone’s mind is: How many more galleries will close by next summer? In the past five years, notices of galleries shutting their doors have become as commonplace as announcements of new exhibitions.

According to The Art Market 2018, a report on the market’s current state published by Art Basel and UBS, in 2017 more galleries closed than opened. In the same year, the number of new entrants to the market was 87 percent lower than a decade before.

While a small number of very large dealers, like Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner and Gagosian, are profiting greatly from the booming interest in contemporary art, a majority of galleries in the global art capitals, both West and East, are barely surviving.

told The New York Times.

In the meantime, the largest dealers continue to announce the opening of new, ever bigger gallery spaces around the globe, sometimes rivaling public museums in size. They snatch up the most promising artists — who often also bring in the most revenue — from their smaller rivals, severely eroding the financial security of these galleries and, more and more often, their ability to keep going.

The fairs are in a unique position to break the current deadlock: They are the only institution where the entire market meets. Some of the fair operators pride themselves in being the market’s custodian of sorts, and they have made some important changes. This month, Art Basel announced that beginning next year, it will charge smaller galleries less per square foot for their booths, which is expected to result in an 8 percent savings (other fairs organizers have announced similar price breaks). The additional revenue gained from higher fees paid by the largest dealers will be used to subsidize fees for mid- or lower-level galleries. Some megadealers, including David Zwirner, Pace and Thaddaeus Ropac, have already expressed support for such pricing, and all the art fairs should, at the least, follow Art Basel’s lead.

But moreover, the major art fairs should acknowledge that the nature of artist representation is changing and that the traditional model of a fixed gallery is losing legitimacy, in large part, ironically, because of the popularity of the fairs. A concomitant decrease in gallery visitor numbers has led several art dealers to turn to alternative, hybrid or nomadic galleries that depart from the traditional model centered around a fixed, expensive, exhibition space. The biggest art fairs should relax their admission criteria and open up their events to more curators and directors behind these new gallery models.

While all these efforts will help, they will not be enough to fix the systematic problems that galleries are facing. We need to experiment with a more professional transfer system, akin to the one that exists in the soccer world, where the smaller galleries get compensated financially if an artist leaves for a bigger competitor and where these types of transfers are more regulated.

The current structure is in nobody’s interest. It is in the broad, fertile basis of the market where innovation and experiment happen, where young artistic talent gets discovered and where new adventurous gallerists can be nurtured. A rich, diverse ecology is a collective good that everybody within the art world directly or indirectly benefits from. The market’s long-term health depends on it.

Mr. Velthuis is a professor in the Department of Sociology of the University of Amsterdam, specializing in economic sociology, sociology of the arts and cultural sociology.