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Opinion

Op-Ed: In this age of glossy art fairs and mega-galleries, can public museums survive?

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Galerie Emanuel Layr’s “Focus” at Frieze London in 2018.
(Linda Nylind / Frieze)

When London’s premier art fair, Frieze, opens for the first time in Los Angeles this week, it will make a bid for popular appeal.

The celebrity-studded parties, performances and product launches will follow the template pioneered by another fair, Art Basel, which in recent years has become a destination and brand along the lines of Burning Man or Coachella. With breathless coverage — Cardi B performed! Kanye attended a Prada party in sweatpants! — even the tabloid press has taken notice of the Miami fair.

Now Frieze, too, aims to transcend its origins and reach beyond the rarefied circle of industry insiders. The goal is to become a cultural phenomenon, with Frieze signifying a place to be and be seen.

As arts nonprofits struggle to stay solvent and art magazines falter, mega-galleries are pouring money into both ventures.
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As the public’s interest in art has surged alongside such developments, its understanding of art has come more fully under the influence of commercial interests than ever before. The trend is unlikely to abate. The consolidation of power taking place in the art market, as in the broader economy, means that the loudest voices are getting louder.

Even some museums are taking cues from the market. American museums have long relied on support from private sources — whether individuals, foundations or corporate sponsors — but increasingly they are looking to art market players as well. One investigation revealed that nearly a third of major solo museum exhibitions in the U.S. between 2007 and 2013 featured artists represented by just five galleries: Gagosian, Marian Goodman, Hauser & Wirth, Pace and David Zwirner. It is no coincidence that these “mega-galleries” are the most able to share in the costs of staging shows.

Meanwhile, these same commercial galleries are positioning themselves to look more and more like museums, with ambitious exhibitions, research departments, publishing arms, and amenities like gift shops and cafes. Hauser & Wirth spearheaded this new model when it opened its 116,000-square-foot Los Angeles gallery in 2016. Not only does the space encourage public use — its open-air courtyard, for instance, features communal tables, an herb garden and a chicken coop — it also hosts community-oriented programming, including a partnership with Cal State L.A. Several Yelp reviews identify it as a “museum.”

Today, Pace is in the process of consolidating its New York operation, currently spread over three locations. The eight-story headquarters it is building will be larger than New York’s New Museum when it opens in September. Mere blocks away, David Zwirner is planning a five-story, $50-million gallery designed by Renzo Piano, and Hauser & Wirth is constructing a multi-gallery building that will include a bookstore and a restaurant.

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As arts nonprofits struggle to stay solvent and art magazines falter, mega-galleries are pouring money into both ventures. In November, Hauser & Wirth announced the inauguration of Hauser & Wirth Institute, an independent nonprofit foundation that will facilitate scholarship through a fellowship program and study center. Both Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian have launched lavish art magazines.

What appears to be a means of supporting artists, or even the art ecosystem as a whole, can also be viewed as a push for vertical integration. Why take out ads in art magazines when you can have your own glossy quarterly, with your own advertisers to boot?

Such initiatives may be serious and valuable endeavors, but they create a feedback loop that benefits galleries’ artists and bottom lines. Their extensive networks and large budgets ensure impressive content — why else would Louis Vuitton place an ad in a publication that is effectively an ad itself? — but these efforts fundamentally support a commercial agenda.

With troubling signs that nonprofits, including think tanks and charities, are being used to advance private interests, independent voices matter more than ever. Even at their best, the narratives and agendas promoted by major galleries can’t help displacing alternatives from smaller, independent and public institutions.

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The public museum was born out of the same historical circumstances as the modern state, making an intangible idea — national power — physically manifest in the form of a shared cultural heritage. Its neoclassical architecture emulated ancient temples, suggesting authority and permanence, much like its doppelganger, the courthouse.

Given this lineage, museums throughout most of the world were, and continue to be, largely government-funded. But this was never true in the United States; today the typical U.S. museum derives less than a quarter of its operating revenue from government sources. As a result, American museums now charge as much as $25 per person for admission.

In contrast, admission to commercial galleries is free. But galleries are not courting the public with costly museum-like spaces and programming in order to be philanthropic.

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Even if few of the 75,000 visitors to Yayoi Kusama’s 2017 show at David Zwirner could afford her work, the extraordinary turnout enhanced the art’s value and boosted the gallery’s brand. However subtle, a transaction is always present. As with the offerings of so many name-brand tech companies, we should be clear-eyed about who is the customer and who is the product, and what of intangible value we stand to lose.

Natasha Degen is chair of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology and editor of “The Market.”

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