09/12/2013 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Making It in the Art World

In the scope of the gallery world, it is hard to classify the broad area between “blue chip/upper level” and “emerging gallery” spaces. Many of the galleries trapped in this system are thrown into the category of “mid-level gallery” – a term too broad to cover the varying levels of galleries it refers to. Some of the galleries in question, whose stable may not be commanding six or seven figures but are still relevant and respected in the museum world, find this name to be somewhat derogatory and offensive, considering the demanding schedule, travel, presence and costs that are now associated with maintaining a mid-sized gallery.
Chart of current and upcoming fairs for September on
Most mid-career dealers (a more comfortable and appropriate term) today would rather not admit the intensely complicated routine that being relevant in the art world requires.  Not long ago, the life of a mid-sized gallery consisted of maintaining a handful of top-tier clients. For each show, a few transparencies of work accompanied by two type-written pages of compelling text about the art works for sale were circulated to a small, hand-picked group of clients. Work was acquired by trusted buyers, either via phone or by stopping in the brick-and-mortar gallery space during the run of the show. There were only a few art fairs spread out over the course of a year, and not all were expected to have a competitive presence in each city.
But, both the instability of the economy and the dawning of the digital age changed the art world and beyond. Images could be sent quickly by email, which also meant reaching hundreds of clients easily, rather than the chosen and dedicated few. As opportunities to reach a wider audience increased, so too did the expectations of both gallery and gallerist.  Subsequently the amount of work needed to make a sale and maintain a relevant reputation has grown exponentially.
Waiting for clients to roll into the physical gallery space was no longer sufficient.  Gallerists were suddenly expected to be everywhere at once. The usual travel destinations used to be Art Cologne, the Armory Show, Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, but now dealers are hopping on planes to FIAC in Paris, Art Hong Kong, Berlin Art Fair, Frieze in London and New York, Zona Maco in Mexico City, not to mention the biennale circuit and upstart regional fairs that continuously pop up. The life of a gallerist has become synonymous with a globe-trotter, and it’s not just for the fairs. Collectors and artists now expect their trusted gallerist to make the effort to meet locally – whatever corner of the world they happen to live in.
With the demands of this new excessively peripatetic habit, the overhead of running an art gallery remain. Keeping the lights on at the brick and mortar space is the bare minimum, with travel expenses, art fair fees, producing works with artists and the extra staff needed to have a presence simultaneously at a proprietary space and around the globe has blown operating costs to an insanely high level.
But do sales measure up with the increased intensity of mid-career gallery life? Recent press on the subject, including a panel at Art Basel this past June (The Place of the Mid-Level Gallery in the Age of the Mega-Gallery), recent articles in the New York Times, and additional commentary on Edward Winkelman’s blog, all reinforce this impossible new norm. Despite these new assumed requirements for these galleries to keep up with the Joneses, financial reports like the TEFAF Art Market Report by Clare McAndrew are showing that mid-sized dealers’ sales have fallen in the past few years. So why burn the candle at both ends just to make ends meet?
Clare McAndrew on the TEFAF Art Market Report
Most gallerists at this level, where artists are high caliber but funds are limited, seem to be caught up in this new cycle that renders them a slave to their jobs, in order to simply survive. Rather than closing up shop or joining another gallery, many of these gallerists have chosen to commit to their fight – operating as gallery, art fair, curatorial beacon, artist agent and global influencer all at once. Years are divided up into gallery exhibitions at home and participation in up to ten art fairs away, evaporating down-time and relegating gallerists, and their directors, to a frenetic state where they are constantly planning the next big project. With gallerists busy working and stressed with the responsibility of keeping financially afloat, artists have lots of opportunities to exhibit but often feel neglected.
One can only assume that wearing of all these hats increases the risk of burn-out or creative exhaustion.  Galleries at this level are expected to be tastemakers, while fostering the careers of the innovative artists they represent. But with the necessity to engage on all of these levels in order earn a reputation as an influential gallery, does that mean mid-sized galleries are setting themselves up for auto-extinction?
This puts the mid-sized gallery between a rock and a hard place, striving to maintain their individual and approachable mom-and-pop feel, while strategically navigating the competitive marketplace of 2013. But as the art world has always been, so will it continue: survival of the fittest will prevail. Just as New York’s ever higher rents expands desirable living areas to neighborhoods that were once thought of as totally out-of-the-way, the current requisite of bouncing around the globe will soon become the accepted and comfortable pace of making it in the art world.