Commercial galleries

Artistic success in America means wearing the right old school tie

Despite paying lip service to diversity, New York’s major museums, galleries and university programmes are bound tightly together in a system that favours the privileged

When I saw the report in The Art Newspaper’s April edition that just five blue-chip galleries account for one-third of solo shows in US museums, I did not immediately click on the link to read the story. I really didn’t want to. After reading the article, I posted a single thought on Twitter: “Sometimes you just wait for the anecdotal observations to align with someone else’s statistical analysis.” I made the observation because the report demonstrated trends that I have been observing in the art world for more than a decade. Although the right gallery representation is clearly a path to major museum shows, as the reporter, Julia Halperin, quantified, it is also a reciprocal one that may require the right art degree.

In 2005, I went to see MoMA PS1’s Greater New York exhibition, which attempted to provide a more comprehensive look at the state of contemporary art than the Whitney Biennial. As I took in the art, I scribbled down the names of the galleries representing the artists. Although my notes are long gone, I clearly remember that the vast majority of artists had commercial gallery representation—and if they didn’t have it before the show opened, they had it after. I remember seeing the handwritten names of galleries on the labels beneath several artists’ works, reflecting how new those relationships were.

It struck me as one of the most interesting things about the exhibition, which represented hundreds of studio visits within the five boroughs of New York (and even some in New Jersey) and an open call that received more than 2,000 submissions. Perhaps I was naive, but I had expected to find artists operating outside the gallery system altogether.

Conveniently mutual taste

I’m still not sure what Greater New York would have looked like if the curators had sel ected a majority of artists without representation. The reality shattered any illusions I had about some division between institutional and market selectivity. They looked the same. What was most notable about the museum’s “exhaustive” curatorial efforts was the fact that they amounted to offering up a few new artists for the market system. Thinking back, the curatorial message today might read: “The best art is the most familiar art because the market is so smart. We are redundant!”

It was an illuminating moment for me, and coincided with my decision to fold my art criticism into my studio work. One of my first lists was a fictional drawing based on some of my clumsy notes from Greater New York. I ended up poking fun at a rather monstrous painting by Dana Schutz, who had done exceedingly well after graduating from the Columbia MFA programme into the Venice Biennale.

For me, any pretence of separation between the market and the museum had vanished. It was apparent that the two systems were completely enmeshed, one conferring selective curatorial value on artists’ work, with the other offering an opportunity for artists (and the market) to earn money in a way that US museums cannot provide.

WAGE, a New York-based advocacy group for artists’ fees, has done excellent research around these systems, where institutions are critically underfunded and artists are expected to parlay institutional prestige into art market sales. Ultimately, both systems tend to rely on the same patrons, who serve on boards and buy from the galleries. This is the way of our world.

The relationship between galleries and museums isn’t simply about conveniently mutual taste and the convergence of mid-career artists and museum shows. Successful art careers are built in this overlap between institutions and the market, which favours art that does well in both exhibition contexts. But what about artists who opt out of the gallery system?

How to succeed

Years after Greater New York, I ran into an artist who described how a curator at a major US museum offered her an exhibition in a project space. When the curator learned that the artist did not work with a gallery, the offer was rescinded, because the museum relied on gallery funding for the project space. My acquaintance was shocked to discover that her decision to work outside the gallery system would actively hurt her chances in the institutional art world.

Not long after that encounter, an artist I know was thinking about applying to graduate school. He decided to do some research and looked at the CVs of all the artists he respected at a number of galleries he could imagine working with. He noted where the artists earned their MFAs. Sitting in the back yard of a bar, he said: “Basically, 80% went to Columbia or Yale, with the other 20% going to Rhode Island School of Design, the University of California, Los Angeles, and—you’ll be happy—a couple went to Hunter College.”  

This artist quantified the feeling that there are only two MFA programmes that matter if you are looking to enter the gallery system, and he enrolled in one of them. He decided that the high cost of tuition was worth it to attract the network of dealers, collectors and curators who regularly visit (and buy from) open studios and MFA shows at Columbia and Yale. This is how programmes get fabulous reputations and dealers travelling uptown and to New Haven.

In 2005, I already knew about this narrow MFA-to-market pipeline. I was in an anti-art fair at Parker’s Box in Williamsburg, where I met a performance artist. He confided that he was the only person in his MFA cohort at Columbia who didn’t sell work in a recent open studio. He was the only one who wasn’t making paintings. I don’t know what happened to him and I haven’t heard much about his career. I wonder if he wasn’t good enough or if he chose the wrong programme or, more worryingly, if the narrow tracks of selectivity already determine the kind of art that makes it into galleries and museums. They tend to lead to the same places.

This is why I’ve spent several years examining how different forms of value are generated in the art world, from reputation to remuneration, against the backdrop of incommensurate wealth and privilege. It’s important to understand that there are specific pathways to certain forms of success in the arts, running from a few MFA programmes into five galleries and then into one-third of solo shows in US museums. There is a much greater degree of diversity of arts education among the artists represented by David Zwirner and Marian Goodman, but at the MFA level, there is a marked concentration in the programmes, based on a cursory statistical analysis. Yale and the Royal College of Art, London, make the most appearances.

Diversifying is difficult

It has been painful recently to watch intelligent, sensitive people in the arts from different racial, ethnic and gender backgrounds tear each other apart over the lack of diversity in a system that is oriented around the tastes and preferences of the (very white, very male, very rich) ruling class in the US.

As the retiring Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman said in a recent interview with the website Hyperallergic: “There’s a greater degree of difficulty in diversifying the board, because the reason you serve as a board member is not only because you love the institution, but because [you have] both a leadership and a fiduciary responsibility. And that fiduciary responsibility is constraining.” What Arnold is saying is that he could not replace the board in the same way he replaced staff members who dragged their feet on diversity. We are not in a position to replace our ruling class either.

If you look beyond the US, the class situation in the arts is all too similar. Patrick Charpenel, formerly the director of the Jumex Museum in Mexico City, told me that he didn’t view the city as the new Berlin so much as the new Dubai. He said that Mexico City had more in common with the Middle East, if one compared their relationships to the wealth concentration, which has been the fuel of the global art expansion. I’d point to Europe as an alternative, but it is busy moving to our neoliberal model of privatisation of the arts. The global art world, after all, is a reflection of its societies.