The following essay is by Adam Sheffer, president of the Art Dealers Association of America, and partner and sales director at Cheim & Read.
It’s a fascinating time to run a gallery. More than ever it’s a time for us to innovate, to be extremely forward thinking and open-minded. Those people who are truly right-brained, who approach challenges creatively, are the ones who are going to thrive.
As gallerists, we need to think about new opportunities to reexamine, refine, and reframe the vital and multifaceted role of the gallery in the cultural ecosystem. We must keep a focus on our unique relationships with both artists and collectors—it’s these meaningful and lasting associations that define and will sustain art dealers. At the same time we must reconsider how we deal with auction houses as they expand their private dealing; how we approach and capitalize on art fairs; and how we address and engage with new entities like online platforms—at a time when 85 percent of people say they do much of their looking at art online—and with artists’ agents and investor-collector-dealers like Stefan Simchowitz and his Simco’s Club. These new platforms and modes of business are not going away, and gallerists must continue to be nimble and open-minded in order to succeed.
These current conversations remind me of a moment in the early 1990s when Hans Neuendorf was trying to convince people that putting auction results online was going to change the business. There were a lot of naysayers. Of course, now we see that Artnet and others that followed really did change things, tremendously, and it’s something that has become very integral to my job and a lot of other dealers’ jobs.
The magic of the gallery system, of the best galleries, is that it’s run by people who are, for the most part, inherently creative in some form or another—some of us are failed artists ourselves. So we come to this business with a different state of mind, one that understands the significance of creative expression and the artistic process. That is a critical and positive trait of successful gallerists. While over the last 10 or 15 years we have been subject to a lot of people’s trying to impose economic principles and equations on our business, it’s clear to me that the art world cannot solely be explained by any single strategy or formula or computer analysis.
The art world is not going to promote and accept a business that is purely about profit. Art is not and can never be treated like a regular commodity—I think an important sign of that is that there has been a real resurgence of interest in people looking at art again, whether in a gallery, at an art fair, or online. With regard to the market, people are realizing that just because two people are bidding on something at one time, that doesn’t necessarily change the value for the artist’s entire body of work. A gallerist who has been working with that artist for a long time knows all the particularities of how to handle his or her work and that genre on a much deeper and more nuanced level.
Did the Havemeyers ask Mary Cassatt before they bought a painting if it was going to appreciate in value? I don’t know, but I do know that they were a different kind of collector. Art collecting is no longer a leisure-class activity. Today’s collectors are making their money and collecting art simultaneously. I think because of that, they are coming to art collecting sped up, from a different background. The art world has to accommodate itself to this new generation of collectors and meet them where they’re comfortable.
It’s also important for art dealers as a community to better convey what galleries do beyond selling art—from supporting new and complicated artistic projects, to nurturing artists throughout their careers, to advancing scholarship, and offering free and direct experiences with incredible works of art. As we all know, this is a business that is entirely based on relationships, and it’s as important for people to appreciate the diverse roles we play as gallerists as it is for gallerists to understand the new dynamics of today’s art collectors.