Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Sales Exhibition: Contradictio in Terminis

A principal, perhaps the principal, task of a gallery is exhibition making. It is, or at least it traditionally has been, the primary way of a gallery to make known what they have on offer to the public.
It thus strikes me as odd that some of the core aims while making exhibitions, at least in contemporary art practice, are in ways diametrically opposed to the core business that allows a gallery to exist, which is making sales.
In my view an artwork is something that has been manipulated in some kind of unusual way. In order to effectively communicate the what, why and how of these manipulations, the work is exhibited in such a manner that a careful observer is able to notice what is important or special about the work on their own accord.
Even if one doesn't share these particular views about the importance of the manipulation of material, it can still be asserted with near-absolute certainty that an exhibition which doesn't rely on any external explanation is more effective than one that needs some other commentator to convey its most important features.
Any sales activity will act as an intervention at that core characteristic of exhibiting. A sales pitch is essentially designed to be either an introduction to an audience who knows nothing about a product, or a descriptive expansion of a product that an audience has already expressed interest in. 
This kind of introduction or expansion of knowledge about the work necessarily imposes on the idea that the works in an exhibition are capable to convey the required information themselves.
Although passive information associated with the work, such as press releases and even titles to some extent, are often considered an integral part of any given exhibition, there is an argument to be made that these are primarily part of the sales tactics surrounding the work.

For an example of these two different ways of approaching the communication of a work to the audience, I want to bring up an exhibition I housed at my gallery in 2020. 
The exhibition was fairly sparse, with only two works being presented in the space. One of these works was a necklace made from bright red silk and its material description simply read 'custom made necklace'. With this description and its implied tight fit around the buyers neck, there was some implication of the violence that connect it to the other work. It nevertheless requires a fair amount of imagination and reasoning power to visualise this thin red 'cut' across the neck of a wearer and thereby realising the full impact of the work.
So while I had some interest in the work during the exhibition, I ultimately wasn't able to find any buyers for the work. I partly attribute this to my own stance towards sales, whereby I tend to only provide additional information about the work when I'm explicitly asked to do so.
The exhibition has since ended and the work is now offered by another party. They are two former gallerists that presently divide their time between the conservation of a number of private collections and activating those collections through various projects. To help fund their program, they also offer a number of editions from artists they collaborate with.
Their approach to selling this particular work is very different from mine. They don't have a physical space, so the work is only presented on their website and other online channels. In stark contrast to the lean presentation at the gallery, there the work is accompanied by 521 words of explanation and background information about its origins. Although I haven't recently been in direct contact with them, I suspect they will be much more successful selling the work than I was. 
In essence I was offering what seemed to be a simple red necklace for twenty-five times the price one would be able to acquire it at any jeweller, while they are offering the story and thought process that led the artists to make that work.

I'm not making any claims about the supremacy of either of these approaches, I'm simply stating that they are opposite in their way of reaching out to the spectator.
There is even a more telling example of these inherent contradictions at work in an edition from a different artist offered by the same organisation. This time the 14 photographs of the work are accompanied by a 213 word explanation, which ends with the following sentence: 'Like Ha'nish's original illustrations the works appear unmediated, with no accompanying explanation or attempt to contextualise them'. 
That sentence shows the difference between exhibiting a work and selling that work. In exhibiting the work, it can be shown 'unmediated, with no accompanying explanation or attempt to contextualise them', while in selling the work, one can only offer an explanation or attempt to contextualise the work, by explaining that the work is to be shown without explanation and contextualise the background by which this lack of contextualisation is justified.

While the contradictions between artistic practice and the economic functioning of a gallery is most clear in exhibition making, many other core characteristics of contemporary galleries are rooted in their economic function.
First there are the names these galleries take. Most of the financially successful galleries carry the name(s) of their founder(s). Given the individualistic nature of most of the artworks they offer, it seems odd that the gallery would also present itself from a very individualistic viewpoint. This tendency of galleries to name themselves after their founders is thus often seen as a wish to equate their own doing with the perceived prestige of artists. 
There is however a simpler economic signalling function to be found in this personification of what could be a large, anonymous organisation. By identifying an individual with the gallery, a gallery named after its founder gives the impression of a personal guarantee. There is an implicit loss of reputation at stake if the gallery offers works that somehow aren't worth their price. In a very opaque market, one can only afford to run this perceived risk if one is convinced the goods they offer live up to customers' expectations. Conversely, non-profit organisations don't have to project these kinds of guarantees, so their names are more conceptually oriented: Croxhapox, Onomatopee, TENT, and so on. 
It thus can be said that naming a gallery after oneself is an effective, yet effortless and therefore meaningless, method of projecting economic value to potential customers.

Something similar could be said of the idea of artists being represented by galleries. I have my problems with the way this practice is taken for granted in today's world, yet I also have to admit that it is a very public and efficient way for both a gallery and an artist to show their trust in each other as well as their long-term commitment to each other. That factual reality is often very different from this outward display doesn't take away from the strong signal it generates, especially considering the extreme cost of being really committed to each other for a number of years before the same signal could be sent to the outside world.

A further important signalling function is the physical space a gallery inhabits. The more successful galleries often boast of their large spaces and the famous architects that designed them. While a well-lit clean space is conducive to the perception and thus the sale of artworks, this can also be achieved with nothing more than a bit of plasterboard and some fluorescent lighting. 
The large and often empty spaces of galleries thus primarily show the ability to afford such large, cumbersome spaces in a world where real estate is forever increasing in price. The primary function of these spaces thus isn't to facilitate exhibitions, as one might be inclined to believe, but rather to act like the impressive offices of financial institutions. They show the gallery's intention to stick around for a long time and demonstrate the ability to do so, strongly implying that the customers money is safe with them.

In short, the most important task of a gallery that wants to stay in business is not to make exhibitions, but to gain the trust of its customers. A gallery can do this by providing as much information as it can about the functioning of the gallery and the artists and artworks it offers.
This is in stark contrast to exhibition making, which is almost always improved by appealing to an inquisitive yet sceptical audience. In an exhibition the relationship of trust is reversed and it falls upon the artist to create the conditions for the audience to be able to reach insights on their own accord and trust that they are willing to do so.