What Do Galleries Owe Us?

In the distant past, an art gallery was like a small, private museum. Not only were you stopped at the door if you were a random passerby, you were only allowed to cross the threshold with an appointment. Art dealers in Paris, London, and later New York accepted this as standard practice. After all, who would ever allow the plebeians – out there – into the sheltered cubes of pastoral landscapes and a few scandalous, Impressionist canvases?

Leo Castelli’s eponymous space in Manhattan heralded a shift in dealers’ behaviours: the first publicly-attended “art fairs” like Art Cologne and Art Basel were in their infancy, and galleries became places to be, to be seen, to be photographed, and to be noticed. But somehow, even with a more relaxed door policy, the insufferably aloof “gallery girl (or boy)” at the front desk endured as a part of an art gallery’s persona.

I suspect that no one appreciates such treatment, whether you’re a student, an artist, a tourist, or just a curious citizen. You may think to yourself, “Doesn’t this gallery want me to be here? If they don’t, what is their criteria for pushing me away? What if I secretly had a million dollars and wanted to buy a whole artists’ catalogue? They’d change their tune then, right?” And it’s true, a gallery can’t survive on the tastes and patronage of ten or even twenty well-heeled buyers, alone. These days, more than ever, a gallery’s social media engagement is a core element of their business model. They want its young users and their money, also.

So, what does the contemporary art gallery owe us, the general public? In their minds, generally very little. They pay their rents, they constantly wrangle with artists works/exhibitions/cataloguing/press/collectors, they squeeze their funds to keep the lights on and their programmes front-and-center at the now ubiquitous global art fair…the list goes on.

Isn’t that their job? In the words of the almighty Jerry Saltz, “This is a volunteer army. No one asked you to do this.” If anything, after my own fifteen years of experience working in and with them, I think the gallery owes much more to the general public than ever before. Gone, are the days of single-patron collectors sustaining a whole space. Vanished, are the evenings spent fawning around a single critic, waiting breathlessly to see if they will praise or doom months of hard work.

Art dealers who know better know that attitude is – still and always – everything. Most of the most successful and well-regarded dealers I’ve ever met were patient, informative and passionate people who were all too happy to chat with a humble, little wannabe art writer. They know that any sale could come from anyone, anywhere, and that their front-facing staff should never (-at least, not immediately) treat a potential client like someone who isn’t worthy of attention.

And in case you’re interested, you should conduct your own experiment when it comes to a gallery’s demeanour towards you. You’ll find that the ones who treat you with respect are the ones that will capture your attention and, perhaps someday, your fledgling collection.

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