The position of Art Gallery in art scene and art market: reputation, rating and credibility
Since its inception ArtKuwait.org was a place of art news, let’s say that for some technical reasons we were not providing any type of critics on galleries, exhibitions or artists. Obviously not every canvas with color on it – is art, not every person who decide to create something – is an artist, as not every space that was decided to be called a Gallery – is a real Art Gallery. Perhaps the best way to critic is to give the instruments of analysis and those readers who are interested to know the details of the process will be able to have their own opinion. That’s why we decide to publish the article of Omar Donia (Contemporary Practices, Volume X, 2012 pages 48-51). Contemporary Practices is the one of the best art journals about Middle Eastern Art Scene.
Galleries versus Supermarkets
By Omar Donia
This article is a continuation of an article published in Volume 8 of Contemporary Practices Art Journal about art market economics by the same author. This continuation is specifically focused on galleries in the Middle East and aims to critically explore the rise of the ‘supermarket’ gallery versus the ‘true’ gallery, which is increasingly becoming extinct in the Middle East where money, as opposed to talent, background and skill, can make anyone a gallerist overnight.
What is a supermarket gallery?
In short, it is a gallery that is not run by arts professionals who have studied art history and art business (whether academically or via experience), but by non-specialist groups and individuals who are primarily motivated by economic reasons to start a gallery. Thus, they do not invest properly in the development of their represented artists and generally lack curatorial direction, in turn failing to add substantial worth and projects to the greater narrative of contemporary art.
Please note that this essay expresses my personal, frustrated opinions about many galleries in the region. Although I am the co-founder of Contemporary Practices Art Journal, any views expressed in this article are mine and are not representing the wider publication.
The various criteria mentioned hereunder should serve as a tool to measure the legitimacy of galleries and can be used as a self-test for gallery owners, directors and anyone interacting with a gallery. The goal of this tool is to measure whether a gallery is a ‘real’ gallery or a thoughtless ‘supermarket’. Before moving forward, it is important to outline the key facts from the last decade (2001-2011) in relation to the Middle Eastern art scene and market:
- Regionally, art collecting has become more recognized as an asset class and a good investment, rather than as a primarily decorative object, which was the normal perspective in previous decades in the region.
- Prices can only be commented on in terms of the “wow prices” that pop up, especially every auction season (albeit, often inflated prices); prices of artworks have grown exponentially more than any other investment tool has in the past decade. Art has increased in value at a similar rate to that of the precious commodities which have experienced over 500%.
- There is growing governmental support for art in the region with the initiation of respectable art fairs, private and public collections and museums (already built or in the pipeline).
What is a gallery?
Due to the growing interest in art in the region, numerous investors and amateur collectors have jumped on the opportunity to capitalize on this growing trend, which any savvy investor would do with a trendy, highly marketable product. But this is just the problem, while art is a commodity, it is undeniable that it is in a class unto itself as rarely is art produced by an artist (except the sellout artists!) with price and economic gain in mind. Generally, art has a breadth and depth to it that warrants its value, aesthetically and conceptually, which makes it unique and different to any other ‘product’ in the market. But this is another conversation entirely. Going back to the rise in popularity of art collecting in the region and the economic value of art, which lures many investors into the business, nowadays, every “Jim, Jack and Joe”, as aforementioned, with the right resources can become a gallery owner.
Moreover, specifically in the Middle East, there is a new breed of uneducated individuals, many of them unnervingly young and without proper training in curatorial work, nor backgrounds in art history, who are self-proclaimed ‘curators’. Lastly, given the unanimous support that artists of Middle Eastern origin seem to receive, whether from fellow countrymen or from Western institutions and curators who often neo-orientalize the Middle East, there are a plethora of individuals with ideas, who are experimenting in art, yet call themselves and claim the title of ‘artist’.
Personal disclosure: I confess that I had an inclination to do some photography, yet I would never dare to classify myself as an artist as I have never seriously committed to the art of photography or received any artistic training, whether formal or self-taught. I am just an individual with an idea.
Just as one cannot wakeup one day and claim that they are a medical physician without proper education, I feel the same should apply the arts. Of course, in the arts there are some natural talents who do not operate in systems of formal education, earning BFAs and MFAs, but they are rare exceptions to the general rule and in these cases, these self-taught artists are committed and dedicate their time and daily existence to their artistic practice.
All this being said, I find it incredible irksome that most of the people in the regional art business-whether artist, curator, critic, gallery director or specialist in the region-lack even a base knowledge of art theory, have little to no background in art history and rarely visit museums or read publications about art.
Fifteen years ago when I started a banking career in a local bank in the United Arab Emirates, the CEO of the bank was/is a successful gentleman. Once I had the privilege of speaking to him on a friendly basis about his career and he told me that his first job in the bank (which is owned by his family), after earning a graduate degree from a prestigious university in the USA, was as a teller, counting cash. He explained, “like generals in war, they started as soldiers, I had to start from the bottom, to understand each and every process in the bank to ensure that when I am making my decision they are well informed. Generals who don’t feel the pulse of their soldiers are not worthy of commanding them.” Art is no different – whatever role you have in the art world, you need education, experience and dedication, other than, of course (especially in the case of the artist), real talent.
Moving back to galleries, the question remains, what makes a real gallery? In my opinion, there is a set of standards that each gallery should address, which serves as the measuring tool for a gallery’s credibility:
1. Artist they represent: since we are focusing on the art world, looking at the artists a gallery represents is the first criterion. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of artists/semi-artists out there. When choosing to exhibit or represent an artist, a gallery should look at the artist’s profile: what is his/her background, technique, vision and methodology when choosing the approach to their practice? What international shows has he/she been in and where have they exhibited? Are they showing development over the years or producing carbon copies of the same work year after year? These rigid criteria should be used for mid-career and established artists. For emerging artists with little, if any, exhibition history, their visible talent, artistic training and ability to explain thoughtfully their artistic practice should be used in place of the aforementioned.
* Gallery Question: how many ‘real’ artists do you represent?
2. Curatorial agenda: a gallery is about promoting art, and a gallery should have a clear vision of their long- term goals and objectives, planning exhibitions with substance, generally planning for at least two years in advance. A two-year timeline is advisable, while of course there may be leeway to make adjustments within the two-year plan. Running a gallery should not be treated as a regular business with a cash-flow process or asset conversion cycle, where you buy and sell merchandise like supermarkets! Nor should curatorial agendas lead them to show only what will sell, over-inflate the prices and pray on wealthy but uneducated collectors to make ends meet by selling artists who lack true substance and talent. Of course, it is clearly understood that at the end of the day, galleries need to pay their bills, yet they must not lose sight of the fact that art is an unusually profound object to consume in the consumption culture, and that selling art should not be merely about raking in a huge profit for the gallery.
* Gallery Question: do you have a two- years plan or you are just working to sell art for profit, without contributing to developing the art movement by showing good artist (not necessarily trendy) and thoughtful curation?
To be continued… Contemporary Practices: Galleries versus Supermarkets – Essay 2 Part
About the Writer
After many years in corporate finance and private banking, in 2007, Omar Donia co-founded Contemporary Practices Art Journal, a specialized semi-academic art journal concerned with contemporary art in the Middle East, Iran & Turkey, which he oversees the management of through a mandate while being supervised by an international advisory board. Contemporary Practices is the first journal dedicated to art from the Middle East, Iran and Turkey and is published twice a year.