FROM THE INCEPTION of the modern art market in the first half of nineteenth century, art dealers have definde their own identity as disinterested promoters and patrons rather than merchants and marketeers of art. At a time when retail markets developed and department stores arose in most Western European metropolises, art dealers steered away from commerce and consumerism. They were quick in refashioning their stores “idelologically”, as one historian writes, from “the equivalente of book dealers and antiquarians into rival of museums” (Jensen 1994, p.15). Moreover, art dealers have been wary of being identified with the economic elite that formed their clientele, and instead established close relationships with artists, critics, academics, and intellectuals (Green 1897, p.66).
Similarly, contemporary art dealers maintain that they aspire to distribute art for history, not for the market. At seminars and expert meetings that I attended, they spoke of their galleries as a “place for experimentation”, a “vehicle for ideas”, and a “mild biotope” in which art can flourish. Rather than providing a “showcase for goods”, they claimed the intention of engaging in a “privileged dialogue with the artist”. In an empirical study, German art dealers told researchers that personal and artistic criteria are more decisive than economic criteria when it comes to the selection of artists that the gallery represents. In interviews they call themselves “amateurs”, in the French sense of art lovers, who want to share their love of art with others; the function of galleries woul be to “provide people who understand art, who appreciate and devote themselves to art, with the opportunity to see it”, as New York art dealer Barbara Gladstone put it in one of these interviews (Coppet and Jones 2012, p.115,309). And on their websites, they write that they see it as their responsibility to “work for the long term development of each artist’s career, acting as a liaison to international galleries and museums, as well as placing works in collections, in order to create a historical archive of each artist and to act as an accessible public space in which exhibitions become an exemplary gesture of the power of subjectivity to the audience at large.” The fact that art galleries also sell art can only be read between the lines, if at all.
In writing this book, I ran into many other instances of this noncommercial self-representation among dealers of contemporary art. The gallery spaces I walked into for interviews with their owners or directors were pristine, white spaces, equipped more like museums than retail stores. The Works they were exhibiting, most often part of a solo show, surely were for sale, but I often failed to detect any initiatives to make those sales happen. In Amsterdam it was sometimes difficult to find galleries, either because they were located away from densely populated areas or commercial streets, or because they could hardly be identified from the outside as galleries. It should therefore not come as a surprise that people say they hesitate to enter a gallery space because of the psychological threshold that is being imposed upon them.
While conducting preliminary interviews, I was warned by fellow researchers, friends with a background in the art world, and dealers that my respondents would not be willing to discuss the commercial purpose of their activities. In this respect my background as an art historian proved to be an advantage. Before starting an interview I would usually ask questions about the current exhibition or about the artists the gallery represented; I also signaled to my informants that I was aware of the position of the gallery and its artists in the contemporary art world. My impression was that, after I had shown that my interests exceeded business matters, most dealers felt at ease to discuss commercial practices. Even then, however, my respondents revealed little about their strategies explicitly directed at maximizing profits, catering to the demands of the market, or finding niches that had not been exploited before. Instead they emphasized that they were “more attached to art than money,” and that they would have chosen a different profession if they wanted to become rich. Treating art commercially has no “cachet” or “savoir vivre”, they said. With respect to their program, the dominant answer was that they continuously tried to “stay away from the trend”; they were only able to sell artworks they could appreciate themselves. One dealer described himself and his colleagues as “a bunch of dreamers.”
THESE ANTI-COMMERCIAL self-representations do not mean, however, that gallery owners discard commercial interests. As Nancy Troy writes about the illustrious art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who played a pivotal role in the marketing of cubist art in the early twentieth century: “In order to sell Works of art by avant-garde artists to the clients to whom they might reasonably be expected to appeal, [Kahnweiler] had to eschew the range of commercial practices associated with establishments that appealed to much larger markets. Whereas salons, like department stores, attracted enormous audiences to their vast and often highly orchestrated displays of disparate objects, and published extensive catalogues and highly visible accounts in newspapers and popular magazines, private dealers maintained the distinction of their products by not advertising them and by suggesting the elitist character and intellectual self-sufficiency of the works of art they displayed” (Troy 1996,p.122).
THE CONTEMPORARY art dealers I interviewed likewise seek to transform goods that lack any direct utilitarian value into some of the most valued commodities of modern retail markets: invariably, they sold artworks for four–, five–, six–, and sometimes even seven-digit prices. Especially if one takes into account the fact that many of these works are hardly meaningful, intelligible, or valuable to people outside of the art world, such accomplishments appear striking. It would be foolish, then, to take the art dealers’ anti-commercial self-representations at face value. Instead, it could be argued that these self-representations enhance the very pursuit of these interests. The solemn, austere gallery spaces, for instance, with their scarce references to commerce, transport people into a radically different environment, where utilitarian notions of value are temporarily suspended, and, when it comes to prices, different laws are at work.