How to Change the Art World
There is a new art gallery in Seattle with a lot of momentum behind it, buoyed by a groundswell of artists frustrated with conceptual art as mode du jour, which has been quietly forming in the last decade. Figure|Ground Art Gallery in Pioneer Square, opened by Brett Holverstott, has all the markings of greatness in a time of transition. Holverstott is corralling a pool of talent making figurative art under a new philosophy and economic paradigm.
This is the perfect time to open an art gallery. Many galleries were unable to endure the financial difficulties that the coronavirus pandemic placed upon their already stressed budgets and were forced to close, but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, new galleries are being born and there are great opportunities in exploring new business models.
Historically, galleries have been able to use times of transition to their benefit. Consider the Durand-Ruel Gallery, the first superstar gallery and “Dealer of the Impressionists,” where in 1865 young Paul Durand-Ruel took over his parents’ gallery in Paris, moved it to fashionable rue Laffitte, and began representing avant garde artists like Whistler. He then went on to establish the careers of many Impressionists such as Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Cassatt, Sisley, Morisot, Degas, and Renoir, whose new style was often rejected by the French Salon.
Durand-Ruel started mounting solo exhibitions in his gallery (a practice unheard of at the time) and instead of paying stipends to the artists in his stable, he adopted a free-market model and paid them a share of the profits when their work sold. He invented a new paradigm for the artist/dealer relationship during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), a time of great upheaval in western Europe. Paris itself was besieged by German forces for four months.
Leo Castelli fled his surrealist gallery in Paris when WW2 broke out, immigrating to NYC where he became friends with the artists who would later be known as the Abstract Expressionists. There he opened the Leo Castelli Gallery, selling work by Jackson Pollock and de Kooning. He went on to represent Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual artists like Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. Castelli was smart enough to see the decline of Surrealism and the ascent of the new Abstract Expressionist movement erupting on the east coast, just as the center of the art world was shifting from war-torn Paris to New York. He was also a master salesman; De Kooning once said of him “That son of a bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” But Castelli’s real gift to the world was taking the new art movement and placing it in the canon of art history.
Castelli then opened another NYC location in the 80’s, mounting group shows with Mary Boone of the Mary Boone Gallery, an aggressive art dealer known as the “queen of the art scene,” who represented powerhouse artists like Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Barbara Kruger, and Eric Fischl.
Boone was a shrewd businesswoman, inventing a new business model for galleries alongside the rise of Wall Street in the 1980's. She was the first dealer to require waiting lists for collectors to buy artworks that had not yet been produced. She was the first to write “the right of first refusal” into her sales documents, requiring buyers to offer the art back to her before selling to anyone else (this is now common practice) so that she could control market prices for her artists. She did not support the idea of a meritocracy, where the best and most innovative art rises to the top. She manipulated the art market, ultimately for her own financial benefit.
Boone became very wealthy, although it eventually caught up with her. In 2016 she settled a 7-figure lawsuit with Alec Baldwin for selling him a fake Ross Bleckner painting and in 2018 she pled guilty to charges of tax evasion. She’s currently in prison.
The rise and fall of Mary Boone correlates with hyper-capitalism. Economists in the 21st Century have been critical of the concentration of money in the hands of the few and the economic and social inequality that hyper-capitalism breeds, all of which has hit even harder during the coronavirus pandemic. In no other market is the gap more exaggerated than in the art market, with starving artists bearing the brunt.
Visual artists have long struggled to make a living wage. Statistics on wages for independent artists are scant but in 2017 Artnet News reported that an artfinder.com study found that 75% of artists make less than $10k from their work.
In 2018, another study on independent artists, this time conducted by Kickstarter, found that 60% of artists made less than $30k annually. In 2019 the average living wage in the US was $68,808, so independent artists are falling well below that average and the numbers will surely be worse for 2020. Art exhibitions were cancelled across the board during the pandemic and with no where to show their work, independent artists saw a significant reduction in sales. Art Basel’s annual report The Art Market found that art dealer sales were down to $29.3B in 2020, a 20% reduction. That means a 20% reduction in income for the artists they represent too. Many more artists lack representation; the previously mentioned Kickstarter report found that only 29% of independent artists are fortunate enough to have such support.
The primary art market (sales made at galleries and directly from artists’ studios) has suffered enormously during the pandemic, although the squeeze started long before 2020. Small and mid-size galleries in cities like New York have been going out of business for years, as they find it increasingly difficult to compete with the mega-galleries like Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth, and David Zwirner. Smaller galleries tend to show less established artists in lower price ranges, yet are often located in the same fashionable areas of the city as the mega-galleries. As a result, rising rents have been a real threat to their survival. Couple that with an ever-expanding disparity in income between the haves and the haves-nots, and you have fewer collectors purchasing from small and mid-size galleries in the first place.
In 2015, researcher Magnus Resch launched an app called Magnus, where he mapped the careers of half a million artists with 20,000 exhibitions at galleries and museums and 10 million artworks offered for sale at galleries and auctions over three years. What he found was that artists could only really ‘make it’ in their careers if they managed to land themselves in one of two hubs: one surrounding the MoMA and Guggenheim, or, at mega-galleries like Gagosian and Pace. Only 240 artists of 500,000 were able to make the jump from small and mid-size galleries to the hubs.
Effectively there are two art worlds: one that makes up 99% of all artists and exhibitions, and the other, where 99% of the money lies (in the two hubs). There is a lot of good art out there that is essentially ignored because the distribution of the market is concentrated into the hands of a few gatekeeping curators and art dealers, mostly in New York. Their world is insular. They are out of touch with the discontented rumblings of the other 99% and a new art movement gaining momentum that focuses on a return to the figure, narrative, genuineness, and meaning.
It is impossible to deny the new wave of figurative art and the growing amount of artists in the last decade making this work who are seeking to make Art an important philosophical practice again. Art ran askew in 1917 when Duchamp showed his ready-made urinal titled Fountain in the inaugural Society of Independent Artists exhibition at the Grand Palace in New York. The urinal-as-artwork was a stunt, taking the piss, with only art world insiders in on the joke. The uneducated masses still looked to Art to inspire and enlighten, hence the joke was on them. Duchamp sought to make Art crass and flippant, unimportant, void of any higher meaning. He devalued it.
Duchamp won the day. His ideas took off and generations of artists since have used irony as the main thrust of their work. In 2001 famed conceptual artist Damien Hirst installed and exhibited piles of trash such as ashtrays full of cigarettes and empty beer bottles at a London gallery. Hirst thought it amusing when the cleaners threw the installation in the trash the next morning. In 2019 artist Maurizio Cattelan duct taped a banana to the wall at Art Miami and it sold for $120k. Just a couple months ago artist Salvatore Garau sold an invisible sculpture for $18,300. Yes, you read that correctly. Someone paid $18k for nothing.
The recent rise in artists making figurative work is partly in reaction to the ridiculousness of Conceptual Art, but even more so, artists are looking to move beyond Duchamp’s nihilism to create a new paradigm, to bring meaning back to Art. In his book Evolution Through Art, artist and author Michael Newberry writes that the new figurative art movement strives for eudaimonia, the Greek word for ‘good spirit.’ Aristotle put forth the idea of eudaimonia, that we should be constantly striving for the highest possible human good in philosophy and ethics. Newberry takes it a step further, arguing that eudaimonia extends to the arts; that we can find the highest human good in skillfully-executed art focusing on humanism, happiness, and beauty.
Here’s where Figure|Ground Art Gallery comes in: monthly exhibitions feature work that will make your heart soar. The gallery is mission-driven to support the worldwide, grassroots resurgence in figurative art. The work is representational and not abstract; that is, representing real things that exist in the world, often human figures. Furthermore, the gallery promotes gifted artists who present an honest assessment of ourselves as human beings and artwork that is an exciting breath of fresh air, in order to help bring about a flourishing art culture in our time. The gallery seeks to show work that is bold and critically-acclaimed, yet non-partisan, as it is important to promote art that transcends the here-and-now of our politics and makes a mark in art history.
Figure|Ground is located in Seattle’s art district Pioneer Square. It occupies the same second-floor space that the well-established and reputable Foster White Gallery once held when it first opened. Figure|Ground’s founder Brett Holverstott has a deep love for art and its power to connect with viewers on a personal level. It is expected that collectors are there for the love of the art and not for investment opportunities. Art flippers will be swiftly shown the door.
There will be no negotiating to basement prices, for Holverstott envisions a new economic model that addresses the enormous inequalities in the art market and the difficulty that even great artists have in building a career. Holverstott proposes to charge market rates for artworks but encourages collectors with financial means to pay more, which in turn directly benefits the artist and increases the value of the purchased artwork. Holverstott is also exploring other methods of support; for example, he has been securing funds from patrons to go towards art training for young women artists.
Artists take enormous financial risks as it usually takes over a year to prepare for an exhibition, and there is no guarantee that the work will sell in the end. Financial stress is the number one reason why so many artists cannot pursue their careers. Critics may argue that this is a successful way to cull the herd down to only the best artists, but the truth is that many artists who could make a significant mark on history are forced out because they didn’t have the right dealer or the right type of art at the right place or the right time. Often women and people of color are the first to go.
Think of van Gogh; he never earned a dime from his art and we only know about him because his sister-in-law aggressively marketed his work after he died. Collectors have a real opportunity to support the van Goghs of this generation by paying above and beyond the ticket price; this could help artists reach a living wage so that they can continue to create art. When they are able to create more and better work, the value of the art in the collector’s collection increases in value too: it’s a win-win.
There are certain patrons of the arts in history who have been able to make an impact with their financial support; in the visual arts we can most easily recall the Medici in Florence. They were a family of bankers whose power and influence grew with their wealth, in no small thanks to the artists they bankrolled, such as Donatello, Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. Their art promoted the Medici empire by promoting the virtues of the human spirit. There was a real flourishing of the arts and humanities at the time; indeed, a renaissance of Greek philosophy and ideals. The Renaissance.
In the art world today we are emerging from Duchamp’s Dark Ages and moving into the light, at a time where we are emerging from the pandemic and the economy is on the upswing. Patrons and art collectors have an opportunity to support a rising community of artists working on the project of eudaimonia, the next renaissance. Figure|Ground Art Gallery is leading the charge.
Jen Brown is a narrative painter, curator, and art historian working in Portland, OR. She has a Master’s degree in Art History and a diploma in Curatorial Studies. Her work may be seen on her website, Instagram or on Medium (Artist Jen Brown). She writes daily about narrative painting on Instagram or at narrativepainting.net.