Is gallery space still worth paying rent for or will Instagram replace it all? Art Basel director Marc Spiegler gives us the answers
Thinking about galleries—individually and as an art-world sector—is a constant inside Art Basel. The organisation was founded by a handful of Basel-based dealers and remains very much driven by gallerists. Those who sit on our selection committees play a pivotal role for the fairs. We also strive to stay in close contact with the 500-plus galleries around the world that do our shows, hoping to serve them by gauging their present challenges and working towards their futures.
I gave a lecture at the Talking Galleries Conference in Barcelona at the end of last year, at a starkly transitional moment within the art world, and posed ten questions that every gallerist should be considering seriously because the answers they find will define their future.
1. Are connoisseur collectors a dying breed?
Gallerists frequently complain that the people visiting their booths and galleries know much less about art than before. What happened? In part, it seems simply a symptom of how fast the art world has grown; by definition, that means a lot of new collectors. Most do not come from families with a legacy of art collecting. Just as importantly, even the most experienced and engaged collectors today tend to have far less time for art than their predecessors. As the author Chrystia Freeland wrote in her brilliant 2011 article The Rise of the New Global Elite, in the Atlantic: “In 1916, the richest 1% of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold to 60%.”
The super-wealthy no longer represent the leisure class, at least not as the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen defined it. The newer art buyers at our fairs are often actively running hedge funds or start-ups; they may be super-wealthy, but they also are super-busy. However much they may be interested in art, they are rarely able to devote their Saturdays to visiting galleries. Instead, many use intermediaries to do their research; that’s why the ranks of art advisers are swelling so fast. Many of them also buy heavily at auction; it’s a quicker process and it feels more transparent to them, even if insiders know better. This deep demographic shift in wealth also explains why art fairs have grown to such importance: because they so efficiently offer the time-stressed collector an overview of an ever more global market.
All this means that gallerists will need to rethink what happens when a potential collector actually sets foot in the gallery. To be a successful gallerist 20 years from now, you must throw out the old ways of playing upon social hierarchies. Having people at the front desk who don’t smile is not going to work; nor is telling people that their collection is not good enough for your artists. They will find another way, and your artists will suffer in the process.