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Nearly a third of all museum solo shows feature artists represented by 5 megagalleries

Arne Glimcher of Pace Gallery

Julia Halperin of the Art Newspaper reports that “Nearly one-third of the major solo exhibitions held in US museums between 2007 and 2013 featured artists represented by just five galleries.” She writes about the conflicts of interest that arise when monied blue-chip galleries frequently front resources to museums for their exhibitions.

She writes:

Nearly one-third of the major solo exhibitions held in US museums between 2007 and 2013 featured artists represented by just five galleries, according to research conducted by The Art Newspaper. We analysed nearly 600 exhibitions submitted by 68 museums for our annual attendance-figures survey and found that 30% of prominent solo shows featured artists represented by Gagosian Gallery, Pace, Marian Goodman Gallery, David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth (for methodology, see below).

The figure raises questions about the growing influence of a small number of galleries in a rapidly consolidating art market—especially when they often offer logistical and financial support for exhibitions. At the same time, some wonder whether museums are doing enough to expose the public to art they would not otherwise see.

Museums “should be looking at a much wider swathe of artists”, says Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art. “Curators are abdicating and delegating their responsibilities… to more adventurous gallerists who, aside from the profit motive and in some respects because of it, seem in many cases to be bolder and more curious than their institutional counterparts,” Storr says.

Close relationship
More than 90% (or 11 out of 12) of the major solo exhibitions at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum between 2007 and 2013 featured artists represented by the same five galleries. A spokeswoman for the museum says that it selects artists “by the excellence, uniqueness and relevance of their practices, not by which galleries represent them”. She adds that the museum promotes emerging artists through smaller exhibitions and projects like the UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. (If these smaller shows are taken into account, around 55% of the museum’s solo exhibitions featured artists from the five galleries.)

The number of big-name artists in museums’ programmes varied widely depending on each institution’s size, mission, audience and budget. Around 15% of the solo exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, featured artists from the five big galleries. The figure was around 45% for single-artist shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Some say that an overlap between top galleries’ rosters and museums’ exhibition schedules is inevitable. “These galleries take on artists in their mid- to late careers; in other words, at the very stage where their longevity and critical recognition reaches a peak [that means] they are likely to be the subjects of solo exhibitions,” says the museum consultant András Szántó. The dealer Marian Goodman says her gallery chooses to work with artists “who will be recognised not just for a year or two but for a very long time”.

Helen Molesworth, the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (LA MoCA), sees the statistic as “a symptom of how culture works in general, which is towards consolidation”. The museum dedicated more than 40% of its solo shows to artists represented by the five galleries. “What are you going to do? They have amazing groups of artists. You can’t be wilful and say, ‘I’m not going to show this person’,” she says.

Some note that gallery representation does not guarantee exposure to a wider public. The New Museum, which is committed to “bringing New York audiences the art and artists that otherwise would not be shown”, according to Massimiliano Gioni, its artistic director, dedicated around 40% of the major shows submitted for our survey to artists associated with the five galleries. But around 85% of these artists had not previously had a major museum show in New York or the US, according to Gioni. (A spokeswoman for the museum says that less than 25% of its overall programme featured artists represented by these galleries.)

The over-representation of a particular gallery’s roster can also be an unintentional consequence of shared tastes. After the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston held several shows of work by Latin American artists, Molesworth, the museum’s former chief curator, realised that “we ran the risk of being Kurimanzutto north”, referring to the Mexico City-based gallery. “We had to make adjustments. The [aim] has been to avoid even the appearance of that problem, even when it emerges very naturally out of legitimate interests,” she says.

Tunnel vision
Nevertheless, some say that museums are missing out on the opportunity to steer the conversation by focusing disproportionately on an elite group of around 300 international artists and estates. The pressure to draw crowds and keep the budget for every exhibition in the black has made curators less likely to organise “monographic shows that essentially introduce an artist to everybody”, Robert Storr says.

More than 200,000 fine artists live in the US alone, according to a 2011 report from the National Endowment for the Arts. More than 250 international galleries participated in the selective Art Basel in Miami Beach fair last year. “The concern is that art not related to a commercial mechanism of that scale will not get sufficient representation,” says the New York-based dealer Franklin Parrasch.

The data underscore the close ties between museums and top galleries, which regularly exchange loans and collaborate on acquisitions. Museums in New York, where four of the five galleries are based, were 75% more likely than museums in Los Angeles to dedicate a solo show to one of these artists.

Financial support
In the run-up to a major solo show, galleries often provide curators with access to archival images, pay shipping costs, pre-order hundreds of catalogues and help to finance the opening reception, according to sources. “If a major museum is flirting with a show, we’ll play ball as much as we have to,” says one director of a medium-sized US gallery.

“Museums are very important to us,” says Marian Goodman. “We’re not trying to buy the museums. We are interested in making it easy for them to do their research by giving them access to our archive or any information that we have.” (The four other galleries mentioned declined to comment or were unable to respond.)

More controversially, dealers sometimes finance shows directly. Gagosian, Emmanuel Perrotin and Blum & Poe each contributed a six-figure sum to a Takashi Murakami solo show at LA MoCA in 2007, according to the New York Times. Notably, exhibitions dedicated to big-gallery artists were over 40% more common between 2007 and June 2009, when the recession caused corporate sponsorship to plummet, than in the ensuing years.

“To ask any of these galleries for a couple of hundred thousand dollars for a show is nothing. It’s like asking them to pick up a lunch tab, especially when you consider the sales that might result,” says one New York-based gallerist. “Asking a trustee to do that is a favour, and you don’t necessarily want to call that one in.” Marian Goodman says she has “not been asked very often” to fund exhibitions directly. “I think the larger museums tend not to ask, and we’re mostly dealing with larger museums.”

The Association of Art Museum Directors does not have a specific policy on the kind of support that institutions can accept from galleries. Nor do most museums. (There are exceptions: MoMA and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, for example, say that they do not accept direct financial support for shows.) Furthermore, “gallery affiliations do not play a role in which artists have solo shows at MoMA”, a statement from the museum says.

Beyond statistics, the extent of commercial influence on museums is difficult to discern. “You’d have to have more information about who is making decisions, why they are making them and where the money is coming from,” says Sally Yerkovich, the director of the Institute of Museum Ethics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey. She likens the dynamic to one of self-censorship, where decision-makers are often loath to acknowledge that they have taken the path of least resistance. “Only the person censoring themselves can really answer,” she says.

Data analysis by Nilkanth Patel
• For our 2014 Visitors Figures survey see the April issue of The Art Newspaper, which is on sale now, or download the app from the App Store and Google Play

We examined 590 solo exhibitions of contemporary artists that were submitted by 68 museums for our annual attendance-figures survey between 2007 and 2013. Our data do not include every solo exhibition the museums staged during this period; some institutions did not submit data about their smaller shows and projects. We defined “contemporary artist” as an artist active after 1950 working in any medium except fashion, architecture and design. Representation was determined by the list of artists published on each gallery’s website, excluding those who had not had an exhibition at the gallery in the past ten years. The five galleries—Pace, Gagosian Gallery, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman Gallery and Hauser & Wirth—were selected based on size (number of locations, artists and staff members) as well as published estimates of annual turnover. The exhibition data and attendance figures from 2014, including exhibitions that opened in 2013 but closed last year, were not finalised in time to be included.

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There are a lot of interconnected issues to unpack in this report, but one thing I thought about while reading it is that arguably part of the problem is that the only galleries that can really afford to take a long-term view when it comes to supporting an artist’s career are the mega-galleries like Zwirner and Gagosian. Because small and midsized galleries can’t compete with the major players in terms of resources and connections, it’s become more or less inevitable that artists will be poached as soon as they achieve any measure of critical or commercial success. This may be overly cynical, but it seems like a byproduct of this kind of consolidation is that smaller galleries will have less and less incentive to really advocate on behalf of their artists, cultivate relationships with museums, etc., and will instead worry about selling as much as possible in the short term before a promising artist makes the leap to Zwirner.

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