When Galleries Close, Artists' Lives and Careers Suffer

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“I have the reputation of being pretty loyal to my artists, regardless of whether they sell or not,” said Andrea Rosen, a Manhattan gallery owner who specializes in mid-career artists. Still, earlier this year, Rosen informed all the artists she represented, around a dozen, that she would no longer be their dealer, that her focus was shifting to representing the estate of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Dead men pay no rent, but the artists she was talking to did and, out of the blue, they found they had major decisions to make. Who is going to exhibit my work in New York? How do you approach a gallery? How much do I have in the bank? (How long can I go without another dealer?)

Artists switching from one dealer to another gets a fair amount of press, especially when it is a big name artist and the prospect of “poaching” (new dealer) or opportunism (artist) is involved, but gallery owners regularly pare down their roster of artists they represent for a variety of reasons, of which choosing a dead artist over live ones is but one more.

Most often, it is because an artist’s work isn’t selling,” said Robert Fishko, owner of New York’s Forum Gallery. “I’ll tell the artist, ‘if we can’t sell your work, we’re not the right gallery to represent you.’” Put a different way, another Manhattan dealer noted that “after two exhibitions, we may have to reevaluate the situation.”

For New York City dealer Maxwell Davidson III, the breaking point is apt to be the quality of the artist’s work. “If the quality of the work is not as good as it used to be when you first started representing the artist,” he said. “we’ll move quickly.”

A lot of potential problems. The artist’s work ethic or the ability to produce enough work for the gallery to have regular exhibitions may decline. The artist may become irascible or refuse to help promote sales and exhibitions. Andrea Teschke, a partner at Petzel Gallery in Chelsea, complained of “artists who assume that gallery staff is at their beck and call and who use budget lines irresponsibly,” while Seattle, Washington gallery owner Greg Kucera referred to a particular artist who was “calling me up and bitching at me every day.” He also mentioned an artist who developed “substance abuse issues that made me not want to work with him anymore.”

At New York’s Alexander and Bonin gallery, the problem may be that the artist was a good fit with the gallery at a certain point, “but then the artist makes major changes in his work that doesn’t suit our program or our collectors,” owner Theodore Bonin said. “A mutual parting of the ways,” he added. Like a no-fault divorce, but still a divorce.

Andrea Rosen notified all of her artists by email, just ahead of informing the media of the change in focus of her gallery, following up with telephone calls or face-to-face meetings. Some of the artists she had represented asked if the dealer might contact other galleries about representing their work, and her reply to all was that she would see what she could do. Don’t hold your breath.

Not every dealer who severs the relationship with an artist is willing to contact other gallery owners on behalf of the artist. “If an artist asks me to contact a dealer on his behalf, I will,” Fishko said, “but I discourage them from asking me.” How do you give a rave review about someone you don’t want to work with anymore? Edward Winkleman, a former Manhattan gallery owner who, back in 2007, reduced the number of artists he represented, noted that he made calls to dealers on behalf of “several of the artists, although I don’t think it necessarily helped.”

Art galleries open and close all the time (dealers retire, get sick, die or go bankrupt), and artists migrate from one to another for a number of reasons involving the advancement of their careers. Judy Pfaff, for instance, left the Holly Solomon Gallery after 13 years, when the dealer moved from her more spacious downtown address to a fifth floor location on 57th Street “where I couldn’t get things in and out. There was only a passenger elevator.”

When Los Angeles’ ACE Gallery declared bankruptcy in early 2016, sculptor De Wain Valentine was contacted by two galleries “almost immediately,” including one in London, and the New York gallery, David Zwirner, arranged a one-person exhibition of his artwork from the 1960s and ‘70s. Still, he said, the closing of ACE “played havoc on my career, because the gallery still had eight works of mine that I had trouble getting back, and the gallery also owed me money from past sales.” He hired a bankruptcy lawyer in Los Angeles who had to “stand in line, because there were so many other creditors” petitioning the bankruptcy court. For this 80 year-old artist, the largest problem may have been that all the hassles resulting from the closing of the gallery “took away time from my work.”