Why Uprooting My Gallery Space Is the Best Thing I Can Do for My Artists
Portrait of Wendi Norris in front of Julio Cesar Morales’s Mr. Potato Head Full of Ecstasy (Narco Headlines Series), 2015. Photo by Steven Bransetter. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
This is the second in a series of opinion pieces from contributors in positions across the art industry on how to create an art market that better serves artists. In this installment, Wendi Norris of the eponymous San Francisco gallery describes how moving towards a decentralized model and away from gallery-based programming gives her artists the flexibility they need to realize ambitious projects all over the world. Please send feedback, or your own suggestions, to [email protected], and check out our first installment here.
I have run my gallery in San Francisco since 2009, after I left a successful career in the tech industry in order to follow my passion for art.
It worked. My Jessie Street gallery in San Francisco thrived. We mounted critically acclaimed exhibitions, published scholarly books, and more artists that I admire joined the gallery. We made important breakthroughs for them, including placing them in nearly 75 museum shows in 2017–2018 alone, and I am proud to have been able to help their careers flourish.
But at heart, I am a data junkie. Over the past four years, I have analyzed where and how my sales are generated—across art fairs, gallery exhibitions, client referrals, artist/museum/biennial activities, and personalized outreach from the gallery to individual buyers. Less than 10% of our millions in sales over these four years originated from gallery exhibitions or gallery events. Despite all of the success we have had, the data is not adding up for me or for my artists with respect to maintaining a stationary gallery space.
A recent article in this publication claimed that galleries may have to “adapt or die.” We are in a period of market shifts. Artists work everywhere, collectors are global, art fairs and biennials continue to proliferate, and all but the largest galleries are struggling to keep up with these shifts. Many are closing altogether.
For the past few years I have observed these market trends carefully, and although I love my gallery on Jessie Street, I know that if I want to serve my artists and stay healthy, it is time to break open the traditional gallery model. To that end, I am moving the gallery to a new global headquarters in San Francisco’s lively, historic Hayes Valley neighborhood, and will focus on creating exhibitions for the gallery’s artists around the world, not just in San Francisco.
Eva Schlegel, Skywalk, project rendering, 2016. 1601 Mission, San Francisco, CA. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Much of my work today already occurs outside the gallery walls, spearheading or supporting my artists’ museum exhibitions, biennials, public art projects, and publications. The artists I work with are scattered around the globe, as are their collectors. All of us are connected through technology, so being tied to one gallery space in San Francisco doesn’t fit with what is happening in the world.
Though the pace of exhibitions and art fair participation can be exhilarating, the reality is that this intense cycle of productions does not serve the artists’ best interests. The blood, sweat, and tears that gallerists and their artists put into each exhibition is often not met with the audience anticipation and enthusiasm we once saw before the frenzied era of art fairs. If it’s not in the best interest of the artists, maybe it’s time to do things differently.
What am I proposing that is different? Others have already moved towards different models. Prominent gallerists are opting to simplify, such as Andrea Rosen’s decision to end artist representation and focus on representing the estate of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Stefania Bortolami’s “Artist/City” presents artists in pop-up shows in cities and sites around the country, experimenting outside of her standard gallery shows. New, collaborative gallery communities such as Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco, Cromwell Place in London, and Condo in New York and London are emerging, whose members aim to support one another as they navigate the shifting market environment.
In my case, the data I have analyzed pointed to another option for me and for the artists I am dedicated to serving. This new model is not about the space, but about the art and what’s best for the artist. How can we provide each artist with the ability to authentically connect to as many people as possible? I saw an answer in the real estate market.
In the past few years, while working with major developers on both their private projects and major public art projects like San Francisco’s Salesforce Tower and The Shipyard, I saw the glut of vacant commercial space that exists in most major art markets, which are also sites of job creation and significant urban development. Why not activate these underutilized spaces around the world by using them to present audacious art shows? Instead of frantically following the art world calendar, we could slow it down and work with our artists to select the most optimal place in which to showcase their work, in a market where collectors and key advocates are sure to engage. We can continue to promote, to program, to publish and connect our artists and their work to audiences, but in a targeted and global manner.
I recall one of my trips to Mexico City in 2008, where I was first introduced to Kurimanzutto’s initial site-specific model. I walked into an autobody garage—not a gallery—and was in awe. Moving through “Poor Tuning,” an exhibition of Thomas Hirschhorn’s modified, humanized and bedazzled auto sculptures, was an unforgettable experience. And I look at those Kurimanzutto artists—a few of whom I consider friends—and see how liberating the process was for them. To those artists, with whom I’ve done several exhibitions in my beloved 5,000-square foot Jessie Street space in San Francisco’s SOMA, I now ask, “Where shall we go next and why?”
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Venice Biennale, 2013. Cuban Pavillion, performance, San Marco, Venice, Italy. Courtesy of Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
Today I am announcing a new artist-led direction for my gallery. At my new global headquarters, my team and I will work hand in hand with our artists and artists’ estates to produce exhibitions where they are most relevant, when they are most relevant. Rather than dance to the drumbeat of the relentless exhibition-and-art-fair cycle, we will tune in to the rhythm of our artists’ studios, and allocate our resources more thoughtfully and strategically to help them connect meaningfully with their target audiences.
Our first project will launch at San Francisco’s Presidio National Park in January, with María Magdalena Campos-Pons, one of our newest artists. After that, we are creating an exhibition in Guadalajara, Mexico with Julio César Morales. We’re planning well into 2020 at a pace we choose. For instance, Ana Teresa Fernández wants to present her next project near a body of water. Now, we are scouring the globe for the markets and spaces best suited to this work.
This is the new way of working: data-driven, market-savvy, and above all, driven by the artists’ visions and needs. Our aim is to create indelible moments for each person who engages with our exhibitions, to catalyze and promote our artists’ ambitions, to increase the socialization of the art world, and, in so doing, re-invigorate existing collectors and cultivate new enthusiasts.