With galleries closed, art dealers rethink their real estate needs
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With galleries closed, art dealers rethink their real estate needs
Pieces from the "Indigenous Woman" series by Martine Gutierrez at Ryan Lee during the Frieze Art Fair on Randalls Island in New York, May 1, 2019. Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times.

by Scott Reyburn

LONDON (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The showrooms are shut, the street all but deserted.

This, on Feb. 19, was Cork Street in Mayfair, one of London’s prime locations for contemporary-art galleries. After almost a year of coronavirus-related restrictions that have hampered gallerists’ ability to display and sell art, the Britain-based fair organizer and publisher Frieze has chosen this address to offer dealers another way of doing business.

From October, about the time of the scheduled opening of the Frieze London and Frieze Masters fairs in Regent’s Park (both of which were canceled last year), a new Frieze initiative, No. 9 Cork Street, will host dealers’ temporary presentations in three new gallery spaces, rotating throughout the year.

“The question is whether galleries will continue to have space in London,” said Frieze CEO Simon Fox, explaining the thinking behind No. 9 Cork Street. “The answer to that, in time, might be ‘No.’” Frieze is seeking to diversify its business model and develop a “year-round relationship” with galleries and collectors, not “just during fair time,” he said.

For centuries, dealers have used their own real estate to frame and enhance the experience of looking at art. These brick-and-mortar galleries validated the reputations of contemporary artists, and the prices asked for their works. But the coronavirus crisis and digitalization are forcing this generation of gallerists to rethink and adapt.

The idea of an upscale “hub” that proves flexible working environments for art professionals was pioneered in October by the Cromwell Place initiative in the South Kensington district of London. But lockdown restrictions in England have prevented that venture becoming fully operational, and its galleries are temporarily closed, according to its website.

“It hasn’t even started. It’s not working at all,” said Lisa Schiff, an art adviser based in New York and Los Angeles, who rents an office in the complex. “But maybe it’s confirmation that Cromwell Place is a good idea,” she added, referring to Frieze’s plans for a similar London hub.

Good ideas are exactly what contemporary-art dealerships have had to come up with since March, when art fairs, which had provided as much as half their turnover, converted into less-lucrative online viewing rooms (sometimes called OVRs) and lockdowns forced physical galleries to close. During the first half of 2020, sales at such dealerships fell by an average of 36%, according to a report published by Art Basel and UBS.

“You have to do things that are different from before, be original and distinguish yourself from your competitors,” said Stefan Ratibor, director of the London branch of Gagosian, a mega-gallery that has 17 exhibition spaces across the world. “You can’t just take 10 images and put them on your OVR.”

Gagosian has invited Damien Hirst and his studio to take control of one of its London spaces for a year. When restrictions in England are lifted, the program will open with a show of works by Hirst, including some of his hyper-realistic “Fact” paintings and sculptures.

“It’s a full takeover without any restrictions or instructions,” Ratibor said of the artist-led project. “Two years ago, the idea of handing over a space to someone would have been preposterous.”

Similarly opportunistic thinking has seen dealerships set up shop in the Hamptons, located on Long Island in New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, where many affluent Americans had gathered to escape pandemic-blighted cities, and could still visit galleries.

“It wasn’t about just following the wealthy collectors, it was more about keeping the system energized,” said Marc Glimcher, president and CEO of Pace Gallery, which last year opened outposts in East Hampton and Palm Beach. In January, a show of five new paintings by Julian Schnabel, priced between $500,000 and $600,000 each, was included in Pace Palm Beach’s compressed program of smaller, shorter exhibitions. All sold on the first day, according to Glimcher.

“We’re in a serious situation. Our business has to react,” said Glimcher, adding that sale revenues at Pace were down about 30% in 2020.

Some major-name spaces have closed. Marian Goodman in London, Gavin Brown in New York and Gagosian in San Francisco have permanently shuttered since March. But compared with the main-street retail sector, where the coronavirus and a move to online shopping have caused a swath of bankruptcies and job losses, top-end contemporary-art dealerships, with their higher price points and margins, have so far proved relatively resilient.

Although sales might be down, international galleries continue to expand their brick-and-mortar footprints. Italian dealerships Massimo De Carlo and Continua have opened branches in Paris, underscoring the growing importance of the French capital in Europe’s post-Brexit art market. Xavier Hufkens is extending one of his Brussels exhibition spaces to triple its size. And then there is Hauser & Wirth’s long-planned, 16,000-square-foot art center in a decommissioned naval hospital on Isla del Rey, on the island of Minorca.

Opening in July with a show of works by Los Angeles abstract painter Mark Bradford, this museum-style collaborative project maintains Hauser & Wirth’s reputation for counterintuitive “outlier” locations, including its branch in Somerset, in the English countryside.

For the mega-gallery’s founder, Iwan Wirth, and many other dealers, a prestigious urban location is no longer the only key to success. They point out that international collectors have now become accustomed to bidding big-ticket prices at online auctions for artworks they have yet to view in person.

“‘Phygital’ is the future of commercial art galleries,” said Wirth, referring to a hybrid business model that blends digital and physical experiences. This new way of working had emerged during the pandemic, he added.

“It needs bricks and mortar. Artists respond to a physical context, but it’s digitally accessible to everyone everywhere,” said Wirth. As an example, Wirth pointed to Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor, who has recently created a body of work at Hauser & Wirth’s locked-down gallery in Somerset. On Friday, this became viewable and available online, priced between $65,000 and $750,000.

“Every generation prompts a new model of how to run a gallery,” said dealer Jeffrey Deitch, who has galleries in New York and Los Angeles.

His West Coast space is currently showing monumental, politically edged, black-and-white drawings by Robert Longo, for between $65,000 and more than $1 million. The works can be viewed, with prices, in an online gallery on the dealership’s animated website. Sales were “OK,” Deitch said.

“The digital has allowed us to have an international audience, and that’s a big expansion,” Deitch said.

But why, at a time of economic and epidemiological crisis, when so many companies are vacating buildings, and so much is moving online, are some galleries still physically expanding?

“The art world is not a normal business,” Deitch said. “Galleries that can safely accommodate large groups of people are going to thrive.”

The millions of dollars in three-figure sales achieved by the Artist Support Pledge on Instagram, and the $580,000 recently paid for a flying cat “nonfungible token” on a website specializing in digital goods, have shown how successfully art can be sold with just a few clicks.

But dealers who trade in seriously priced art that physically exists still need somewhere to show it. “The more things change, the more things stay the same,” said Fergus McCaffrey, a gallerist who has spaces in New York, St. Barts in the Caribbean and in Tokyo, and who, like many Manhattan dealers, has been operating on an appointment-only basis since March.

“We’re waiting for the return of the physical encounter,” he said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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