Are Art Galleries the Labor Unions of the Art World?

An art gallery functions much the same way that a labor union functions. Both of them seek the best price and conditions for labor. One negotiates with management for a group of workers, the other negotiates with collectors for a select group of artists. There are Teamsters Locals nationwide and Gagosian Locals in over a dozen countries, each making sure that the top dollar attainable is achieved. When the negotiations fail, a labor leader calls a strike and an art dealer ends the sale, effectively putting the artist on strike from joining a collection until the proper wage and conditions are achieved.

While a serious art gallery does not collect dues from its members, taking a percentage on sales of art achieves the same result.

When you visit an art fair or walk into the door of an art gallery intent on getting an artwork at a discount, imagine that you are a business owner wanting to pay as little as possible to build your empire. Jimmy Hoffa or Donald Fehr want you to build a great empire because they know you will compensate the labor they represent even more if you succeed. But your great business empire will not be built for free, and neither will your art collection. The labor that builds it will be compensated.

A great labor boss keeps the wages high and a great art dealer keeps the prices high, each ensuring that there will be no free ride for the folks at the top when they seek to benefit from the specialized work of those beneath them.

In my gallery's booth at a prominent Miami art fair last week, many collectors asked me for the prices of the work on the wall. Some rattled off a list of questions as if they had just attended a collecting seminar:

Is this artist in a museum collection? I would answer that if the artist were, the work would be sixty thousand dollars and not six thousand dollars. Like a labor boss, an art dealer's job is to keep management realistically informed.

How old is this artist? The need for collectors to feel an association to youth is akin to management resenting senior employees who know the workplace better than them.

What collections is this artist in? Management wants the best workers at the lowest price and art collectors want bargains on masterpieces. Neither wants to cultivate careers or waste time and money training new hires. Labor unions and art dealers get this dirty work done so that you don't have to.

The biggest criticism of labor unions is from the right wing of the political spectrum, itself heavily-subsidized by corporate welfare, deep defense industry lobbying and tea party retirees sucking on the Social Security teat. The biggest criticism of commercial art galleries is from the non-profit wing of the art world, itself heavily-subsidized by grant money, corporate donations and trust-fund kids who have no concept of earning one's living through labor.

The biggest beneficiaries of these two systems of organization are the people who make their respective worlds actually work. A good labor negotiator finds common ground and a good art dealer finds the right buyers for art. Without these important middle-fixtures, exploitation is the rule, not the exception.

The legion of "art coaches" who insist that any artist can "do it on their own" without a gallery are encouraging artists to cross picket lines and produce a cheaper price for an inferior art product. That doesn't fly in the Miami art fairs or on the assembly lines of civilized countries.

Collectors shop at galleries because they ultimately benefit when dealers keep lower-priced art off the market. Management wants union labor when it is highly skilled and hard to replace. Galleries and unions can make it a win-win world for the hand that creates what commerce distributes.