The new template
September 25, 2012
Recently, I attended a pleasant dinner with one of my more successful art dealers. As most artists know, galleries are going through a fair amount of rationalization these days. We noted several prominent galleries of our acquaintance that had recently closed their doors or made the switch to online only. We also discussed the problems dealers have with represented artists who also have state-of-the-art, personal websites. As one who believes in the gallery system, I thought our discussion might be of interest to you.
I've found that picture framers are often a bell-weather to what's going on in the art market. My dealer told me his frame dealer reported that frame sales were essentially flat, but for the first time in living memory, sales of frames to artists had overtaken sales to dealers. The next day I phoned a friend who owns both retail and wholesale framing companies. He reported something similar. Ten years ago his main wholesale business was with galleries; these days his art-framing sales were to designers, artists, customers of artists, and art dealers, in that order.
On the retail side, artists who bought stretched canvases from him were sending in their clients to frame the completed works.
A lot of this transition is due to the advent of the Internet. Even a few years ago my friends and I were agreeing that folks wouldn't buy art on the Net. How wrong we were. Many of my best dealers now do 40% of their business online. And they're doing it not just locally, but worldwide.
An interesting parallel I would have never thought possible is Yoox. It's an international online fashion clothing operation based in Italy that sells up-market duds (Prada, Armani, Jil Sander, etc). Yep, expensive couturier stuff you have to try on to see if it fits. This company, started in 2000 by Federico Marchetti, is now one of the largest rags retailers in the world. They don't have a store.
The one thing Yoox lacks is the personal touch, which is one thing an artist's website can have in spades. Customers can stay connected, watch projects unfold, follow an artist's travels and triumphs and wait around to nail just the right piece. I'm thinking this is the new template and I'm guessing this is what the art world is in for.
It's personal, but I've found my own dealer-empowering but modest website to be a friend-maker that quietly helps me get on with my life and do my thing.
PS: "Just because you love clothes doesn't mean you love shopping in stores." (Bridget Foley, Women's Wear Daily)
Esoterica: It may be that the art world is changing from rarity and control to direct personal service and availability. While the middle-man has traditionally offered variety and advice, he seems now of less value than he once was, and often finds himself representing dead artists who tend not to have websites. (Dead artists are currently alive and well like no time in history.) Some dealers respond by corralling and controlling often substandard living artists--the "dealer's hack syndrome." One ill-advised brick-and-mortar dealer of my distant acquaintance has taken to taping over the names of artists who have websites. Oh, my goodness.