At Art Leaders Network, Some Panelists Challenge Themselves

BERLIN — International museum professionals and gallerists speaking here last week said they faced challenges to their way of operating, and showed a readiness to hit the reset button on some long-standing practices.

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At Art Leaders Network, Some Panelists Challenge Themselves
, New York Times

BERLIN — International museum professionals and gallerists speaking here last week said they faced challenges to their way of operating, and showed a readiness to hit the reset button on some long-standing practices.

Changes in the American museum world in the last three years have been “greater than at any time, I would say, certainly over my 30 years in the field,” said Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She noted that there was “a big collective rethink on the part of everybody involved about all of the assumptions that we had just not really questioned over the last few decades.”

David Zwirner, owner of the namesake gallery that is one of the world’s largest, indicated that he was having a rethink of his own. “Something is wrong with the current system,” he said, proposing that he and other large gallerists subsidize smaller ones at art fairs.

Temkin and Zwirner made their remarks during the two-day Art Leaders Network conference hosted by The New York Times.

Museums in the United States and Europe are living through a time of profound transformation. They are changing the art that they show and how they show it, as they reach out to audiences that are more demographically and culturally diverse than ever before, and keep up with advances in technology.

Temkin said that MoMA would continue to show favorite masterpieces such as Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” At the same time, the collection galleries are now “constantly evolving,” she said, and exhibiting works that “don’t necessarily have to fit into this genealogy that maybe, some decades ago, it seemed like they all needed to fit into.”

She said she and her team had noticed, for instance, that a painting such as Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series No. 20: Die” (1967), an evocation of 1960s race riots in the United States, was as surrounded by visitors as one of the classic Picassos or Dalís at MoMA. This is something that the museum has to be aware of when putting together its collections and programs, she added.

Technology is also transforming museum displays in a big way. Temkin’s boss, the MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry, said in a separate talk that he and his peers had to “learn to think digitally” by imagining “different relationships between objects, and between viewers and objects.”

Sitting on the same panel as Lowry was Markus Hilgert, director of the Museum of the Ancient Near East at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, which opened in 1930 and is undergoing a top-to-toe transformation. Hilgert agreed that the prevailing, century-old museum discourse was “not something that lends itself to digital media.”

He said museums had a duty to interact a lot more with audiences. That may include “a Tinder app for objects,” or a visitor guide that allows people in the room to connect, or a visitor guide that stores the stories of people from Iraq and Syria (of which there is a large number now living in Germany), as theirs “may well be different” from the narrative that the curators had in mind.

On the market front, 2017 was a brutal year for many small and midsize galleries. For the first time in 10 years, gallery closings outnumbered openings, according to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report published in March. Smaller dealers found themselves increasingly priced out of art fairs, where a standard booth can cost tens of thousands of dollars and where dealers last year generated an estimated 46 percent of their sales. The report estimated that $15.5 billion was generated in sales at art fairs in 2017, roughly a quarter of global sales.

Zwirner acknowledged that imbalance. “It’s not good that a few galleries are getting more and more market share and the younger galleries are having a harder time to compete,” he said. “Am I to blame? Probably. You know, it’s a competitive field, and I’m trying to do what my competitors do.”

He said larger galleries ought to help younger ones challenged by the costs and conditions of admission, and recalled that when he was an up-and-coming dealer 25 years ago, he got help from more mature and prosperous peers.

“I wouldn’t have any problem if we would pay a little more, we the larger galleries, so that some younger galleries are supported and can show their work in the fair,” he said. He admitted that he’d “lost track” of what a stand costs now, “and I don’t care, to be totally honest.”

He added that the proposal “would have to be an initiative that the art fairs start.” It is, he explained, “a little bit like a tax: You make a little more money, and you get taxed a little bit.”

A couple of other conference participants appeared open to the idea.

Arne Glimcher, president of the Pace Gallery — another of the world’s largest dealers — was sitting in the audience when Zwirner made his proposal onstage. Asked by Zwirner what he thought of the subsidy proposal, Glimcher yelled back, “Let’s do it.”

And in a panel discussion the next day, Elizabeth Dee, founder and chief executive of the Independent Art Fair, which takes place in New York and Brussels, sounded more than enthusiastic. She said a tax on larger stands was one way of getting the big galleries to help smaller ones.

Offering some back-of-the-envelope calculations to support the idea, Dee said that even if 10 percent of the galleries in the fair — meaning five or six of them — were each asked to pay an extra $10,000 for their stand, that would be “a drop in the bucket” for them. The money raised, if distributed “from the smallest stand up,” would translate into 12.5 to 14 percent discounts on almost 40 to 45 percent of the stands.

“We are very happy to do it,” she said. “We have been talking about this for a long time with the galleries, about how to do it.”

But Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, who shared the stage with Dee, had reservations. “In principle, it’s great,” he began, so long as the stands are paid for and the fair makes a profit. “But the question is how many galleries at the top of the market are willing to subsidize the rest of the fair.

“We have no issue with the idea of trying to work more closely in terms of helping the younger galleries at the fair,” he said. “But the way to do that, the algorithm for figuring out how to do this, is difficult to reach.” It is, he added, a question of “how much, and how many of the dealers at the top of the game” are willing to participate.

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