Why is it so GOD DAMNED hard to sell a piece of art around here? I can’t help asking myself this as I soon join the ranks of civilians outside the Art World proper and close the doors on my 4 year long project, Lisa Boyle Gallery.
Seems I am in fashion though, since a handful of my compatriots are shutting down near the same time. 40000 last December, soon Navta Schulz, Gesheidle and others. Closings here, closings in New York, even my friend in Boston are hanging it up. What gives, you ask? A writer for Time Out Magazine recently talked with me and a couple of the other dealers about this little black cloud and what conditions exist that make this happen, particularly in a clump, as often occurs. “Whose fault is it?,” she wanted to know. I told her in a conspiratorial tone that I had plenty of ideas.
Oh now. To consider Chicago alone, it would be very easy to slide into that familiar unison of voices about how collectors here don’t collect, museums here don’t connect with the galleries and local artists, there’s not enough critical attention, Chicago can’t compete with LA and NY, etc. Actually, it come out as easily as my breath to shout out a mental “Here, here!” to accompany these tired voices of disappointment. And I could maybe also choose to take a trip down the path of righteousness and talk about people who’ve started galleries with seemingly limitless free financial support and how all the successful galleries are connected in an incestuous web of nepotism and homosexual ego stroking. After all, these are the things I gossip about in my spare time (to people who can’t get back at me, of course).
But here’s the big bad bald truth, people: I’m just not that good at running a gallery. No, thank you for your support and encouragement, and I truly appreciate your assessment that I have a “good eye”, I do! It’s just an unavoidable truth to me that we’re being flushed out of our excuses, me and all the other quitters, by the simple fact that there are a few people out there who have been able to sustain important programs and be happy running a successful gallery in Chicago and certainly elsewhere. In other words, it can be done, so there’s no use in talking about how hard it is to do it. After examining this enigma from all possible angles as I sit contemplating in my quiet, ever so quiet little art space, it has shown itself to be a simple organism. Making a life (if not a living) out of selling arbitrarily priced objects that no one needs is a very competitive venture. Not as easy as it looks. You have to want it. I mean really super bad. If you are going to create a successful system of supporting artists, connecting with institutions, and staying happy and successful as an art dealer, you have to want that more than a lot of other things. Like more than a paycheck, for example. More than every single Saturday for the rest of your natural born life. More than healthy exposure to the sun. You have to welcome payment in the form of some awkward social cache rather than in money, and you have to not mind being chained to a desk between four white walls for years, with the exception of those times you pack up your wares, like a traveling salesman, and take the show on the road. All of these things have to be fun and exciting to you. Additionally, should be armed with the knowledge that this span of time from start-up until you can comfortably travel the world attending all the most exclusive art parties will very likely stretch out longer than you or any one else expects.
I know, I know, there is always the matter of the art one shows. I can see it- I can imagine this wickedly brave program where every exhibition brings up weighty conceptual questions. Where shows at Lisa Boyle are all intellect and no charm (craft only a carefully neglected by-product). Each exhibition parading its unsaleability all the way to the pages of the Almighty Artforum. I can see it. I know the program and which artists show there- I lusted for it with one half of my heart. I just don’t want to afford it. I don’t want it bad enough to work another job and dump hours a day into a black hole in order to pay my gallery, and I don’t have the ambition to get a backer and join league with the true business class of art dealers.
I had fantasies of finding my gallery in a booth at NADA or ZOO in London, where all the collectors flock and fight over work. I coveted the idea that I would bring home checks in the amount of 4 months’ rent for each of the artists I showed there. But even with good intentions, I was hobbled by the lack of fortitude or schmooz-ability to get there. Truthfully, I’d rather be perfecting my technique at the Playdoh Fuzzy Pumper Barbershop and writing a book than skulking down Vyner Street in October trying to catch an invitation to a party for a fair I’d never get into. And it occurred to me that I should just do what I’d rather be doing.
Finally, the answer to the question about what created the conditions for this spate of gallery closings is a valid one. As I’ve stated, my reasons are personal, but there is a broader vapor enveloping a lot of galleries in the same genre as mine. The financial downturn is affecting art sales in the lower and moderate ranges. There is also this sea change regarding art fairs’ role in the life of a gallery. While a great load of fun for some people, they have grown over everything like a suffocating mold and swallowed up a whole heap of what an art dealer has to do on any given day. All for the honor of showing work in ramshackle booths along with a fuckthousand other artists. It’s a different job, being a gallery owner, than it was even five years ago.
And there is any combination of perennial issues with how many emerging galleries Chicago collectors will support, how much institutional involvement occurs, and how galleries here can compete on a national and international level. It’s different for everyone to be sure, but I suppose it’s safe to conclude that in general, all that has happened is that some of these challenges have become more pronounced recently (as they do in cycles) and squeezed out the least hardy of us. Fortunately, a new crop will grow up in our place, as we move on to make a mark someplace else.
As for me, I can be reached at the Korean Student Relations office of Robert Morris College where I am taking students to the “next level” using the wizardry of ESL instruction. (On a part-time basis.)