Art Market

7 Art Dealers Reveal How Gallery Waiting Lists Really Work

Alina Cohen
Jan 23, 2020 5:29PM
Liz Magic Laser
Artist's Proof, 2013

Sold-out gallery exhibitions make news, which can lead art collectors and enthusiasts to believe the phenomenon is a frequent occurrence. We hear about Loie Hollowell selling out at Pace, Carol Bove at David Zwirner, Brice Marden at Gagosian, Ebecho Muslimova at Magenta Plains, and Avery Singer at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler.

What happens, in such circumstances, when more collectors want the work? What if demand for an artist’s work exceeds supply? Often, rumors circulate about massive waiting lists drawn up by galleries, organized according to mysterious priorities, and kept hidden from public view.

But according to many dealers, that’s hardly standard industry practice. Below, seven gallerists share their experiences with waiting lists and the delicate art of handling collector demand while protecting their artists’ interests.

Short on waiting lists

“There aren’t that many exhibitions here or in a majority of places that sell out,” said Magda Sawon, founder of Rome- and New York–based gallery Postmasters. From her perspective, waiting lists are rare, especially at medium-size galleries. The phenomenon is more common at the lowest and highest ends of the gallery world: Low-priced artworks by emerging artists showing with small galleries can sell out; so can works by household name artists represented by mega-galleries.

“It always comes as a surprise to me,” said Rachel Uffner, founder of the eponymous New York gallery. “I’m happy for it, but it’s rare when this happens.” Some artists “hit” at a certain time, she added, which can surprise even seasoned gallerists.

What drives dealers’ caution

In building a long-term market for their artists, gallerists must be vigilant about whom they sell work to—whether or not there’s a waiting list.

Uffner noted that she and her colleagues have to be “careful that the collectors love and want to live with the work and build up a collection, rather than looking at art as a quick investment.” This is true for all shows, she said, not just those that sell out.

Once a collector decides to turn a profit by consigning a work to auction, both artist and dealer lose control to speculative pricing. The danger, Uffner said, is that artists’ markets can “spike,” quickly inflating and then dropping off altogether. Such dangers increase when an artist’s market takes off—and when a waiting list might start to build.

Waiting list principles

Waiting lists aren’t sophisticated algorithms that collectors must learn to manipulate, and they’re not especially democratic, either.

Nathalie Obadia, owner of Galerie Nathalie Obadia in Paris and Brussels, said she and her team of directors establish a priority list of collectors and institutions “according to their loyalty to the artist and to the gallery and the importance of their collection.” Those at the top are often given the first opportunity to preview work.

While this kind of savvy business practice is often the safest bet for the artist, it also penalizes new collectors who may just be starting to buy art and haven’t had the chance to establish such “loyalty.”

That said, collectors can take specific steps to advance their positions on waiting lists and demonstrate their commitment to artists and galleries. “The best approach is to learn about the program and think about how you can help in its development,” said Ellie Rines, the owner of New York–based gallery 56 Henry. In other words, consider purchasing art by other gallery artists whose work you truly enjoy.

Wendy Olsoff, the co-founder of New York–based gallery P.P.O.W, similarly appreciates collectors who express interest in her program by collecting other artists at the gallery. “We trust them more than someone we don’t know at all,” she said. But, she added, “We never suggest anyone buy work from us just to gain status on the ‘waiting list’ and would never want anyone to buy art in this manner.” Buyers who use this strategy to try to curry favor with a gallery will just end up unhappy with the collecting experience.

Rines is candid about another waiting list no-no. “It drives me nuts when collectors Instagram DM artists trying to push their way up,” she said. “The artists should be focusing on their studio and it’s totally intrusive. That’s grounds for disqualification.” It’s naive to think in-demand artists will be more accommodating to a stranger than to the gallerist who’s exhibiting their work and supporting their long-term growth.

Why institutions get priority

Galleries almost always privilege institutions on their waiting lists. As Erin Goldberger, director of Half Gallery and owner of New Release Gallery, put it, “It is integral to us to place work in important and strong collections.” An institution meets both criteria.

Olsoff added that when a museum purchases a work, the dealer and artist can be confident it won’t be resold. “It also means that in the future, the work can be accessed for historical shows,” she said. “Works in museums have long lives for future generations.” In other words, institutional acquisitions mean that works will be recontextualized and reinvigorated amid generational and ideological shifts for decades to come.

Yet the institution itself need not be the purchaser. Goldberger noted that some private collectors who are “really serious and passionate about an artist” will buy a work with the specific intention of donating it to an institution. Sometimes, in such situations, the gallery will offer a second painting for the collector’s personal collection.

A waiting list now means little in the long run

Seasoned gallerists agree that a sold-out show ultimately means very little for an artist’s long-term career. “I can tell you artists that had sold-out shows in the past have had recent shows that didn’t sell at all,” Olsoff said. When people ask her how her shows have done—implying their curiosity about sales—she’s started saying that “it did really well—nothing sold.” In her 37 years running P.P.O.W, she said some of her most famous artists “had shows that sold very slowly and are now in all major institutions.”

Sold-out shows may be lucrative for artists and galleries, and great fodder for the press. But they can also signal a misalignment between supply, demand, and value. “Most of the exhibitions sell out, but that’s because I need to raise my prices,” said Rines, whose gallery typically shows emerging artists.

Artists worried about waiting lists

Every artist has their own practice and way of working, and—unless specifically commissioned to do so—they aren’t going to tailor future pieces to a single buyer’s specifications. If demand for their work spawns a waiting list, they won’t necessarily be interested in creating editions, either. While this would offer a quick way to get more of their art out on the market, at a lower price point than that of a unique piece, the practice isn’t always in the artist’s best interest.

In the long term, Obadia said, “the most renowned artists recognized by institutions and by the market are those who have remained ‘honest’ in their creative process and who have not responded to short-term requests.” She called such situations “market hysterization.”

P.P.O.W doesn’t do much work with prints or multiples at all—“it just isn’t our expertise,” Olsoff said. “The only time we suggest this is to have work that can be donated to benefit auctions.”

Ambiguities reflect collectors’ diverse desires

Just because you’re a fan of an artist’s work doesn’t mean you want just any work that comes out of their studio. Different collectors have different desires, which leads to ambiguity on a waiting list. “I’ve never believed it when a gallerist says they have ‘a hundred-person waiting list,’” Uffner said—one piece is not “going to resonate with a hundred people.” Collectors on a waiting list “don’t always know what work they’re waiting for,” she added.

Robert Dimin, a partner at Denny Dimin Gallery, echoed Uffner’s skepticism. As a collector himself, he’s been placed on waiting lists. He recounted an instance in which he wanted a small work by an artist and asked their dealer to let him know if the artist decided to do an edition. “I knew for certain that there were at least 30 people ahead of me,” he recalled, though the gallery made the list sound much, much longer. “Three-hundred people seems a little insane.”

When collectors are interested in work by an artist whose show at Denny Dimin Gallery has sold out, Dimin added, he asks them specific questions to get a better sense of what they’re looking for. Large work or small work? Do they have a color preference? This gives him a better idea of whether the next work out of the artist’s studio might be a good fit. Dealers are ultimately matchmakers between collectors and artworks, and knowledge of collectors’ desires—even when the gallery isn’t yet able to fulfill them—helps them do their job better.

Alina Cohen