Over the last several weeks, I’ve had several of you send me links to articles that decry the end of the gallery system. It seems like these articles come around every few years. Though each of the articles came at the question from different angles, the points can be summarized as:
- Art galleries are dead because now artists can access buyers directly on the internet.
- Art galleries are dead because they are too greedy and dishonest and aren’t treating artists well.
- Bricks and mortar art galleries are dead because the online sales of art are increasing.
I realize that all of these points are true, at least to a degree. One has only to survey the gallery market to see that many galleries that were thriving ten to fifteen years are no longer around. The poor economy from 2008-2011 certainly played a larger role in this, but it’s also clear that more and more art sales are shifting to the internet. It’s always hard to get any kind of well-documented industry figures, but I’ve seen Xanadu’s online sales grow significantly over the last ten years to a point where online sales make up about 15% of total revenue.
So is the demise of the traditional gallery model in the tea leaves? Looking at what’s happened in the music and publishing industry might lead one to believe so. It seems logical that the sale of artistic creations, whether it’s music, books, or artwork, can be done more efficiently and cost effectively online than in the bricks and mortar world. While many in the art industry (both artists and galleries) would argue that art is different, that you have to see it in person and touch it before you can make such a high value purchase, many art buyers disagree. I’m finding my clientele more and more willing to buy artwork sight-unseen. As we all become more and more comfortable with the internet as a medium for commerce, we’re willing to make higher value purchases.
If those purchases are backed by respected and trusted venues (like Amazon and well-established galleries) it seems possible, and even likely, that the trend will continue. Keep in mind, too, that if the current generation of art buyers, typically well-established in their careers and finances and aged between 40-70, can adapt to buy high-ticket items online, the next generation of buyers, who are digital natives, will have no problem buying art online (if they buy at all, which is another story altogether).
What does this mean for art galleries?
First, I believe that the gallery market is going to contract in the coming decade. The contraction began with the economic recession. Many smaller, and some well-established galleries, closed their doors for good. The bad economy forced many of these galleries to close, but even before the recession began, many galleries were struggling in the new digital environment. I’ve watched galleries on Main Street in Scottsdale (where my gallery is located) fade away. The profit margins of the gallery business are already razor-thin and the added pressure of competing with online retailers will push many galleries out of the market.
Second, I believe that galleries need to come up with aggressive online strategies. I don’t believe that anyone has developed the perfect model for selling art online yet. However, it’s not going to work to have a static website with a few images of artwork and artist’s bios thrown up for visitors to review. Deep and media rich websites are going to be expected, and e-commerce will be mandatory.
Third, galleries are going to have to place a lot more emphasis on the art-buying experience than the process. In some ways, buying art is more like the performing arts than traditional retail. Art buyers often visit galleries while they are travelling and are looking for a cultural experience as much as a retail one. Shows and studio visits have always been important, but they are going to become even more so.
Fourth, galleries are going have to become media experts. We’ve had success offering multimedia experiences to buyers – video interviews with artists, for example – and we will be doing ever more to create a richer experience for people who visit the gallery. Not all of that experience can be duplicated online, but a lot of it can. The tools to produce rich media content have become less expensive and more accessible. My staff and I have learned how to use DreamWeaver, Photoshop, Premiere Pro, and InDesign to some degree of proficiency, and we’re leveraging social media (including YouTube) to an ever increasing degree. There’s a learning curve, and the benefits have been slow to materialize, but I’m convinced the investment in the tools and education will pay big dividends over time.
Finally, I believe it wise for galleries to think of their relationship with artists in a different light. As artists gain more independence by using online tools and more savvy marketing techniques, galleries are going to have to think of artists as full partners in the business. While it should have been this way all along, many galleries have treated their artists (especially emerging and early-career artists) as minor partners or second-class citizens in the marketing of the artist’s work. Moving forward, artists are going to see galleries as only one of many marketing venues for their work. Galleries are going to have to earn their artists’ business.
What does it mean for artists?
Artists are at an interesting crossroad with the changes in the industry. There are seemingly more opportunities for exposure than ever. An artist can create a website in a few minutes and have a virtual gallery that has the potential to reach collectors around the world. The challenge, however, is that every other artist also has this same ability, and there’s a tremendous amount of artistic noise online. It’s very hard for the individual to get exposure and generate sales online.
Well-established artists have been able to siphon off gallery sales by selling directly to collectors online. This has certainly benefited those artists but has been another nail in the coffin of galleries who are promoting the artists but getting cut out of the sales. It also leaves a big question mark for those artists – what are they going to do if their galleries disappear and they no longer have a source for new collectors?
The contraction of the gallery market has even more impact on emerging and mid-career artists. It’s significant to note that in the reports I’ve read, Amazon and other online art retailer’s efforts are to be focused on well-established artists and galleries, not early-career artists. Until someone comes up with a better system (I’m working on it!) galleries remain the most reliable way for artists to gain broad exposure and sales. With fewer galleries and less gallery space out there, the path to gallery recognition and sales is going to become ever narrower. As the gallery market becomes more competitive it’s going to become more important for artists to bring their A-game to bear on their gallery relationship building efforts.
Artists are also going to have to take more of their sales efforts into their own hands. Establishing a track record of sales at shows and through direct and online sales will not only help an artist make a living, it will also help them prove to galleries that they are worth the investment of precious display space and marketing dollars.
Some artists will find that they enjoy the marketing so much and are so effective at it that they will decide not even to approach galleries at all. Instead they will run their own virtual and even, in some cases, their own bricks-and-mortar galleries.
Most artists, however, don’t want to spend their time marketing and selling their work – they want to be in the studio. Many don’t have an interest in that side of the business or don’t feel capable of doing it all while at the same time continuing to produce the artwork. For them, gallery representation is still the ultimate goal, and the best model for maximizing their profitability.
The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
So are art galleries going to disappear completely? As I said, I’ve recently read blog posts and articles suggesting that this is the case, and that their demise is imminent. I suspect that this assertion is somewhat premature and that, in fact, galleries aren’t going to disappear as an institution, but rather are simply going to go through a major transformation.
There are great opportunities ahead for both galleries and artists. Our industry is being disrupted by massive technological changes, but in the end, those changes are going to be broadly positive for artists and collectors. They will also be good, I believe, for galleries that can adapt and for those who find new ways to get the artwork out to collectors (the virtual art dealers). That said, there’s also going to be some real pain while we find our way forward, and not everyone is going to survive the changes.
As a gallery owner, I personally am looking forward to this brave new art world, and I hope you are too!
What Do You Think?
Do you think galleries will still play an important part in the art market? Has the internet made it possible for you to make more of your own sales and freed you from having to work with galleries? What do you think the future holds for artists and galleries? Leave your predictions, thoughts, and feelings below in the comments!