Are you a downtown collector?
I was in Chelsea, standing in a mega-gallery’s private viewing room. It was fancy. To get in, the sales associate moved aside a velvet rope as he ushered me away from the public exhibition space—where the masses strolled amidst million dollar works, snapping what I like to call “art selfies.”
I had asked to see an available painting by an artist the mega-gallery would soon represent. I was excited to learn more about her work. After all, I’m one of those collectors who does her homework; if you can tell me an interesting fact I don’t know, I get excited. Treasure hunt!
But once the sales associate and I were alone, my excitement soon faded, as he began to rattle off a list of the artist’s recent museum exhibitions. (Institutional acceptance? Check.)
Then, he named significant collectors and private foundations that bought her work. (Positioning? Check.)
It was effortless, as if he had delivered this monologue a thousand times before.
Meanwhile, I was getting dizzy. I just wanted to admire the work. I wanted to feel moved. And I wanted silence.
I recalled an episode at an art fair when a dealer was selling a painting by Mark Grotjahn’s studio assistant. In the process, he namedropped so many celebrities that I hadn’t heard of (and Richard Prince) that I needed a lot of fresh air to recover.
Sensing my diminishing enthusiasm, the sales associate at the mega-gallery pivoted: he began asking questions to measure my worthiness. “What artists do you collect?” “Who do you collect from?”
I mentioned a few galleries, including two on the Lower East Side of New York City. You know, the galleries that represent emerging artists in the $5,000-$30,000 range, who then end up in the Whitney Biennial or in the permanent collections of other museums, before getting poached by a mega-gallery like the one I was standing in right now.
For a millisecond, his face showed confusion, which then changed to distaste. He replied, “Oh, I haven’t been down to those Chinatown galleries.”
Our conversation ended soon after, and he escorted me out of the private room and back towards the masses. I took a few art selfies before leaving.
Could I afford the painting I wanted? Yes. Did I still want it? No. Nor did I have the energy to fake it.
Maybe I was naïve to expect someone working at a mega-gallery to tell me an authentic story about the artist or call upon me to engage with her work. After all, the mega-galleries are all about branding and positioning. But the whole experience did feel like I had been lured from Canal Street into a Chinatown backroom by the promise of (fake) “Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton.”
Leo Castelli—the famous gallerist who gave Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Frank Stella their first solo shows—once explained that he wasn’t in the business of art dealing so much as “myth making.” Despite advancing the careers of many famous American artists, Castelli often wasn’t profitable. He also paid his artists a monthly stipend, uncommon for American galleries at the time, so that they could continue making work even when it wasn’t selling.
Sometimes I wonder: How would a gallerist like Castelli survive in today’s environment? And if Castelli were alive today, would you find him in Chelsea or on the Lower East Side? They’re hard questions to answer, as the art market changes and becomes increasingly stratified. Most of my friends collect from galleries across all segments. But if you wanted to call me a “Chinatown collector,” that wouldn’t be so bad.
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