A regular reader of the news has likely seen headlines about a
show, a record price fetched for a
sculpture, or a new work of
. And there’s some visibility to the touchstones of an artist’s trajectory: group and solo shows at galleries, price appreciation and a good showing at auctions, and ultimately an appearance in a museum show or collection.
What’s less immediately visible to the wider world is the role that galleries play, and how a gallery itself becomes established. There are a handful of so-called “mega-dealers” whose names may be familiar even to those on the fringes of the art world, Gagosian
, Hauser & Wirth
, and David Zwirner
among them. But galleries are still the beating heart of the art world, the mechanism through which many artists find their way to institutions, the world’s great collections, or just the homes of people who love their work.
Galleries have multiple roles, both visible and invisible: to incubate and support their artists, often by going above and beyond the normal work of putting on shows, promoting their artists, and selling the works; and to providing services such as financial management or book publishing, in order to help their artists focus more fully on their work.
“There’s the things that you see in our gallery that are in front of the scenes, which are obviously the exhibitions, the publications that we make, then there are things that are behind the scenes, which could be everything from working with an artist on their archives or working on research for an exhibition for years or maybe researching artworks that passed through the gallery in terms of secondary market,” says Julia Joern, a partner at David Zwirner.
Galleries come in all ages, shapes, and sizes too. Art Basel and UBS’s Art Market | 2017 report estimated there were roughly 296,000 dealers and gallery businesses in 2016. Just under 40% of them had annual sales of less than $500,000, while a similar share had sales totaling between $1 million and $10 million. Nearly two thirds of all galleries employed five or fewer people, and only 4% had 20 or more employees.
Regardless of size, at the core of a gallery’s identity is its “program.” The term generally refers to the roster of artists a gallery represents, but can also describe a conceptual framework or area of focus that guides that roster, as well as other activities such as collaborations with other galleries, performances and lectures, or fair appearances. Most will stress that their primary role is to facilitate their artists’ production of great work, in any way they can.
We spoke to representatives from three galleries of different sizes and ages, recognized for their strong programs, to learn more about how galleries serve their artists, evolve as institutions in their own right, and what it means for them to succeed.