Art galleries: their value for collectors

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Dorsey Waxter (l) and Linda Blumberg

While art fairs, auctions and online retailers are all the rage, there are still certain benefits that collectors can only gain from dealing with a real, physical art gallery, especially if you are seeking to build your knowledge and understanding of the work you are collecting.

While the number of art fairs has increased exponentially in recent years, with many dealers and galleries attending, Dorsey Waxter, president of the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) says that the real business of art collecting belongs in the gallery.

“That’s where you’re going to be able to study an artist, gain an understanding of what an artist is really about look at work for longer than just five seconds,” she says. “You are able to have a conversation with the dealer, who can give you much more information at home than they can probably give you in the time that they’re in a booth in an art fair.”

Linda Blumberg, ADAA’s executive director, agrees that there is nothing like being able to look at an artist’s work for an extended period of time in a setting that is more leisurely than the pressurised environment of an art fair.

“Art fairs definitely extend everybody’s reach, and that’s a good thing, but going to a gallery and seeing shows is a very different experience,” she says.

The same applies for buying online as compared to buying from a gallery. In Waxter’s view, the online art business is only able to exist because of the work galleries do to anchor artists’ careers by nurturing them, typically through a series of shows over many years.

Many art galleries employ far more than just salespeople: their staff work with documentation, exhibition organization, the publication of books and catalogues, and publicising the artists’ work.

“That expertise, that knowledge is essential and it makes it all work,” she says.

She adds that an area of concern for the ADAA’s members is the encroachment of the auction houses into the gallery world, which has taken a tremendous bite out of their business.

“The thing that makes it hard for dealers , is that when they are in discussion with collectors to sell works, there may be two tracks of conversation: what a dealer can do and what an auction house can do in private sale,” she says.

“I find very often that the numbers tendered by the auction houses in private sale are vastly beyond any real number that I can see either in transactions that I’ve performed myself or seen in the auction world.”

She says that if auction houses are given the work to sell but are unable to sell it privately then it goes to auction – and this gives them a dual approach that makes it very difficult for a gallery to compete.

“The subject of pricing is very tricky, she says. “People are very often seduced by numbers that in reality are unsustainable.”

The ADAA also has concerns about the affect auction houses can have on artists’ careers by subjecting them to the dramatic inflation and sudden slumps in sales that can be seen in auctions.

“An auction house’s job is to sell a work for the highest possible price, and then they are done with it,” explains Blumberg. “They don’t much care what happens to an artist’s career after that.”

Waxter says that in contrast, dealers are much more involved with the trajectory of an artist’s career and the sustainability of an artist’s market.

“That is a very different situation and a different business model,” she says.

“Dealers’ interest is not only in selling that one piece for the highest price – they also have a responsibility for the long term career of the artist. The stability of the market is very important to them.”

She adds that artists themselves are often uncomfortable to see their work selling at high prices at auction.

“If you were to talk to any number of artists whose works have been in the stratosphere at auction you’d find that they were very unhappy about what’s going on – and I don’t think it’s just the fact that they’re not participating in the financial gain that’s being taken,” she says.

“In general I think artists have tremendous trepidation about auctions because of the fact that they can go either way: you can sometimes kill an artist’s market.”

She says that from a buyer’s perspective, there is a real risk of ending up paying a vastly inflated price for a work at auction by getting caught up in the adrenaline of a bidding war.

“When you’re in an auction you don’t have control over the situation. You have no idea how many other people are going to be bidding against you and it’s a very easy thing to end up paying a lot of money. It’s also a very heady thing to pay a lot of money in a very public situation.”

In contrast, the buyer is very much in control in a gallery situation.

“You can have a conversation with a dealer about why something is priced the way it is – you may agree or you may disagree, and that’s part of the process. I’m not saying that there isn’t negotiation – of course there is, but as a potential buyer you can walk away from that if you don’t like it.

“I don’t think an auction house is protecting a potential buyer – they will never advise them not to go above a certain price because what they want to do is get the most money they can. People seem to think that auction houses are transparent but I’m not sure that’s really true. In many cases you don’t know who you’re bidding against.”