The severe economic downturn reveals an ugly truth about the art world, that despite the surface pretensions to progressive and radical thought, the economics of the art business are as cutthroat and reactionary as the most unregulated hedge fund or predatory investment bank. Collectively, things must change through cooperative action or otherwise the gallery world will collapse and it will be the artists, formerly the engine of prosperity and collector speculation, who will suffer the most. We will see more anguished letters like the one Joel Beck, director of the shut-down Roebling Hall, recently emailed to his artists apologizing for the monies owed to them that they will never receive.
How would a new gallery system work? The first step would be to require written contracts between a gallery and its artists. A gallery would commit to a stable of, say, ten artists for a contractual period of five years. Each artist would receive a monthly stipend to cover the basics such as rent, food and materials. In return, any monies received from the sale of works by gallery artists would go into a collective pool to pay these stipends and the expenses of running the gallery. Part of the stipend arrangement would require the artists to commit a small amount of time weekly to working in the gallery to cut down on labor costs.
This system would not only foster a secure environment in which artists would be allowed to mature in their creations, but also would block the ability of larger galleries to poach rising stars from smaller galleries, leaving those galleries with nothing to show for nurturing talent. Instead, the big fish galleries would have to purchase works from the smaller, feeder galleries if they wished to exhibit and sell choice pieces to their collector base. In the new matrix of generosity, it might also behoove major galleries like Gagosian, Marks, Zwirner, Gladstone, et al. to voluntarily provide seed money to smaller galleries to relieve the economic pressure on these spaces, and keep them alive.
Collectors can do their part, too, as they deaccession their unwanted art holdings, by spreading the secondary market around with a collectors' register that would provide a list of works available for resale to participating galleries, similar to the multiple listings in the real estate industry. Rich collectors might also consider donating a prized Koons or Dumas to a small, struggling gallery to be raffled or auctioned off for the benefit of said gallery. Collector-curated shows, such as the ones Beth Rudin DeWoody has produced recently, could also be a financial boon to prevent struggling galleries from closing, with such collectors generously leavening their hordes in order to keep struggling galleries afloat.
During the boom, there was much phony chest thumping about the generosity of the art world, which concealed a ravenous, dog-eat-dog environment of rich people trampling each other to buy choice items at art fairs. It is time for a significant behavioral change in our world, because nobody wants to see galleries fail and artists abandon their studios. Let's get to work, folks!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).