Summer 2020

As a handful of legacy art galleries are taking greater control of the world’s top artistic talent, here’s the future for artists, independent dealers, and collectors.

Eden Gallery in Soho, New York. Courtesy Eden Gallery

Most of what I remember from Art Basel is fluorescent, endless whiteness. In that labyrinth of fame, hype and clout, the vast, white walls shone with unabashed brightness, as if they alone were the spectacle thousands came to see. The whole place was whiter than I remember in years before, credit due to the large booths commissioned by even larger, more powerful galleries.

In fact, their radiance was so dominant that the halls came to be reflective of the overarching industry discord that has emerged within the last few years: like the white booth walls, the galleries commissioning them were drowning out the art too, rather than acting as a supportive platform from which the real masterpieces could shine.

In 2019, independent galleries reported a 9% YoY decline in sales. Mega-galleries reported a 16% increase within the same period.

Jeff Koons. Balloon Dog and Rabbit. Derick McKinney

Back in 2007, curator and dealer Jeffrey Deitch predicted that the art world would be run by a handful of a few corporations, “just like Hollywood.” Today, that prediction has actualized: at the end of 2019, smaller independent galleries, defined as those with $500,000 to $1 million in sales, reported a 9 percent year-over-year sales decline, while larger galleries, or those with over $30 million in sales, reported a 16 percent increase within the same period, according to Art Basel and UBS’s 2020 Global Art Market report.

Enter the “Mega-gallery”, institutional powerhouses that not only rule art fairs, but also have collectively dominated a majority of the collector market disproportionate to their size. Experts cite a few reasons for this boom. First is globalization, where large galleries can afford to have multiple locations throughout the world and easily access local collectors. More international art fairs have followed, which disproportionately benefit galleries with the means and staff to exhibit at them all, says Emma Fernberger, director at mid-sized gallery Bortolami. “Fairs provide opportunities for us to expand our client base,” she continues, “however, in the last couple of years we have experienced what a lot of others have, which is that there are too many.”

Ellie Rines, founder of independent gallery 56 Henry, added that Megas have a habit of branding their artists based on market desires, and dump them once that trend fades. “A great gallerist’s responsibility is to give an artist freedom to make what they want to make, not to brand them,” she says. Megas also have the resources to run their own publishing houses and magazines, which she says influence collector trends in their favor, too.

Calman Shemi. Golden Notes, Mississippi Rock. Courtesy Eden Gallery

But above all, the greatest reason for Megas’ dominance in the market takes root in how art itself is valued. In commodity markets, value is grounded by the material and labor costs of the commodity and in the market’s demand for it. The price of an artwork, however, is determined almost entirely by the shared opinion of a select few, i.e., the Megas. Once those few christen an artist as genius, he or she becomes so, and the work can command any price.

This paves the way for a few players to monopolize the market on immensely outsized returns for works whose prices are backed by little more than groupthink. This provides capital to reinvest in further globalization and publishing efforts, in turn reinforcing the shared opinion of what’s genius and what’s not, and the cycle perpetuates ad infinitum. In this sense, Mega-galleries pose a unique threat to newer, smaller galleries and artists than, for example, Coca-Cola does to new soda brands. In this world of “magic”, the sellers, not the buyers, determine what’s worthy.


However, not everyone believes the dynamic between large and small galleries to be so simple. “The notion that Megas solely drive trends is an over-simplification,” says Elizabeth Dee, CEO of Independent Art Fair, a New York-based invitational fair. “Every collector market is unique to that artist.”

Likewise, Cathia Klimovsky, founder and owner of Eden Gallery whose artist roster includes Alec Monopoly, Angelo Accardi, SN, Calman Shemi, Dorit Levinstein, and David Kracov, insists that a name alone does not exempt any gallery, big or small, from their first obligation to their collectors. That means representing artists whose work they believe can live on their collectors’ walls for years and are not merely trendy for the short term. “When I see my collectors in five or six years after selling an artwork,” says Klimovsky, “I have to be consistent in representing the artist that I first sold to them. If I’m not with that artist, the collector could feel that the work was sold as an immediate financial benefit to Eden, rather than as a collector’s piece with long-term value.” If nothing else, that’s the very faith collectors place in their gallerists.

“It’s a gallery whose survival is dependent on every sale [put bluntly, a small, independent one] that might be tempted to orient the artist into collector trends”

Cathia Klimovsky, founder and owner of Eden Gallery

A Mega, she maintains, has the financial freedom to allow the artists to explore their own creative freedom and break from trends.

But whether it’s the Megas’ habits that stratify the industry or not, stratification exists. Dee sees the Independent Art Fair as one of the ways it can be corrected. Independent is an invite-only fair that democratizes the market by creating a space for top-tier and emerging galleries to show side-by-side. Designed to feel more like a large group exhibition than a typical fair, all booths co-exist regardless of size, where it’s not about the “gallery’s class status, it’s about curatorial engagement and quality,” says Dee.

SN, Flying Skull. Courtesy Eden Gallery


As Independent has grown since its 2010 founding, another hope for an industry democratizer has emerged alongside it: social media. Over the last decade, many gallerists looked to the promise of Facebook, Instagram, and other innovative social platforms as a way of restoring the balance between the Megas and the independent galleries and artists. And for some artists, it has. John Margaritis, the founder of art collective New York Sunshine, has not signed with a gallery at all, as he was able to successfully reach collectors through his Instagram instead. Margaritis has found enough success on the platform to self-fund his exhibitions at Art Basel and land him collaborations with Virgil Abloh and LeBron James. CJ Hendry, an Australian hyperrealist artist who has over 500,000 Instagram followers, has found so much success online that she was also able to fund her own in-person, multi-million-dollar exhibitions. Some of her works go for over $250,000 online, a great feat for even gallery-backed artists.

But despite these successes, the majority of the formal art world has remained deeply traditional and highly hegemonic, ironic as it may be for an industry that funds the breaking of cultural and social boundaries. Most large galleries typically have used their websites and social media profiles to display their artist roster and make announcements, rather than as a platform through which they could uniquely engage collectors. That is, until COVID-19.


Over the last several months, countless galleries have quickly and creatively moved all their operations online. Since the outbreak, Hauser & Wirth, one of the oft-cited Megas, launched HWVR in April, their first virtual reality exhibition of their Menorca location through a new in-house technology and research division, ArtLab. Chinese artist Pete Jiadong Qiang created a gamified online museum experience for the Beijing-based X Museum, launched just as the U.S. travel ban was instituted. The artist Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS, worked with Acute Art to develop an app that positions his limited-edition “Companion” figures in real space using augmented reality.

36% of HNW millennial collectors paid over $50,000 for a work of art or object online, including 9% who spent more than $1 million.

This major embrace of imaging technology couldn’t be more serendipitous. According to the Global Art Market report, 92 percent of high-net-worth millennials reported having bought art online. Of those individuals, 36 percent paid over $50,000 for a work of art or object online, including 9 percent who had spent more than $1 million.

Still, even with new technologies, the same pattern of imbalance emerges. “It’s the person with the biggest pocket that seems to be winning the lion’s share of the digital space,” contests Dee, even on social media. Experts agree that during the height of the pandemic, Megas were able to command outsized collector attention because they had the means to quickly pivot and excite clients about new works, even with closed doors and canceled fairs, primarily through sophisticated augmented and virtual reality technologies.

In a pre-COVID world, most sales of anything over five figures generally meant the buyer saw it first in person. For art, that meant experiencing the work’s texture, color, light reflection, angles, and even the very feeling of being in the room with the piece. As gallery doors shuttered, still pictures and video fell short of recreating that real-life experience for collectors. Virtual reality could, easing the decline of sales for Megas through the worst of lockdowns.

“We need to learn the lessons and ways in which we pay for and monetize the technological space. Let’s not replicate the problems that Google and Facebook have created; let’s be part of a new marketplace that is equitable for all dealers and artists.”

Elizabeth Dee, CEO of Independent Art Fair

KAWS, HOLIDAY Mt. Fuji, Japan, 2019 Nick Chu. Courtesy KAWS Studio

For example, she suggests that fairs could offer a platform where all of their exhibitors can build virtual reality booths, instead of the galleries themselves having to fund the virtualization of their art in-house. “A digital economy has to come out of this post- corona environment,” she says. “I see the next generation of collectors defining what they want differently, mainly by prioritizing experience over transaction,” which, thanks to the pandemic, will doubtlessly include online ones.

But regardless of whether a collector buys through a Mega, an independent, a fair, online, directly from the artist, or even during a global pandemic or relative calm, one thing will always hold true, says Dee: “The best collectors always look where no one else is looking.”




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