If I hear another person complain about private galleries, I think I’ll scream. Strange how people who take the risk of renting a space, paying staff, publish catalogues, print and mail thousands of invitations, provide light, heat, security and wine for receptions, and spend even more money bringing artists to international attention at art fairs around the world (cost of a booth plus transport etc at Armory approx €20,000) are then derided for taking a cut from the artists’ sales.
These are the people who will work with an artist over the years, supporting them through experimental periods putting on shows that don’t sell, writing funding applications for them, introducing them to collectors, curators, networking, encouraging, promoting, enabling. They are the galleries with an energy that was well rewarded when times were good, but now that art has dropped off the list of essentials for people struggling with tight budgets (or, in the case of some of the super rich, bankruptcies), many are just about holding on.
Perhaps it’s part of our relatively recent (in terms of the sweep of art history) discomfort with the relationship between money and art, perhaps it’s that having vested the responsibility for dealing with the grubby financial end of the art / collector transaction in gallerists and dealers, we then also vest our general anxiety about art as a commodity in them too. As the relationship between gallerist and artist is fundamentally a personal one, as with all personal relationships, some are better than others. But there are so many ways in which private galleries are treated as second-class citizens in the world of contemporary art: not credited in catalogues for exhibitions or at arts festivals; cut out of the equation by people who “don’t get it” in straight from the studio sales; ignored when artists are – yet again – asked for free work for charity auctions (after all, who was partly responsible for nurturing the value that those works then raise at auction?).
Yes there are examples, as in all walks of life, of art dealers who don’t exactly give the profession a good name, but Ireland’s relatively small (OK, absolutely tiny) network of first-class private galleries has played a huge role in the international profile that contemporary Irish art now enjoys. As private enterprises, the Arts Council are at a loss as to how to support them, and without sales, maybe more will go to the wall (following, for example, Fenton). They may seem to represent the money-ed end of the art world, but that view is erroneous. We would all be the poorer for their loss.