The gallery industrial complex

A new year. A new New York mayor. Old problems with art in New York. I have a collection of complaints and a few (very few) ideas for change.imgres

As Holland Cotter observes in the New York Times, “Money — the grotesque amounts spent, the inequitable distribution — has dominated talk about art in the 21st century so far. It’s a basic fact of art history. Emperors, popes and robber barons set the model for the billionaire buyers of today. Of course, it is today that matters to the thousands of artists who live and work in this punitively expensive city, where the art industry is often confused with the art world.

“The distinction between the two, though porous, is real. The art industry is the nexus of high-price galleries, auction houses and collectors who control an art market renowned for its funny-money practices. In numbers of personnel, the industry is a mere subset of the circle of artists, teachers, students, writers, curators and middle-range dealers spread out over five boroughs. But in terms of power, the proportions are reversed, to the degree that the art world basically functions as a labor source, supplying the industry with product, services and exotic color but, with the age of apprenticeships long gone, only uncertainly sharing in its wealth.

“Do I exaggerate? A bit. The argument can be made that labor is benefiting from its ties to management, in a high-tide-floats-all-boats way. Visit art schools or galleries, and you get the impression that a substantial portion of the art world is content to serve as support staff to a global ruling class.

“The reality is that, directly or indirectly, in large ways and small, the current market system is shaping every aspect of art in the city: not just how artists live, but also what kind of art is made, and how art is presented in the media and in museums. I got tired of money talk a while back. Rather than just sputter with indignation, I figured it would be more useful to turn in another direction, toward art that the industry wasn’t looking at, which is a whole lot of art. But reminders keep pulling you back to the bottom line. With every visit to the gallery-packed Lower East Side, I see fewer of the working-class Latinos who once called the neighborhood home. In what feels like overnight, I’ve watched Dumbo in Brooklyn go from an artist’s refuge to an economically gated community.”

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