I Heart Galleries

Leonardo Da Vinci invented the bicycle. At least, he made a really compelling drawing of one, a good three centuries before the technology required to actually build it existed.

Incredible! That little sketch alone is proof of his profound imaginative gifts.

Lower down on the very same page is another imaginative flight of fancy; a procession of dicks heads towards a slightly puckered hole with the name of Leonardo’s favorite assistant written over it. Talk about inspiration!

It’s hard to say which came first: the bicycle or the butt sex, but clearly one helped inform the other. And that’s how on one smallish page, Leonardo managed to demonstrate that the mechanism for accessing creativity means lifting the lid on a lot of things, and then having the guts to explore whatever might be in there. For that reason, the true difficulty in putting curiosity in charge is acceptance – that is, allowing the implausible, or the ridiculous, or even the forbidden, to lead one forward towards a destination unknown.

Leonardo’s notebooks are historic examples of what we now call pure research, which is the exploration of a subject simply because it seems interesting, rather than because it poses a problem that needs solving. Pure research sounds to our contemporary ears like a lark, an indulgence, a rat hole. Who in their right mind would support, with actual money, the pursuit of whatever-the-fuck just because it sounds fun? Efficiency matters, and pure research would seem to be the poster child for going in exactly the opposite direction.

Except that inefficiency pays. Here are the authors Benjamin Jones and Mohammad Ahmadpoor talking about the link between pure research, and the practical application of that research: “Uber and other location-based mobile applications rely on GPS to link users with available cars nearby. GPS technology requires a network of satellites that transmit data to and from Earth; but satellites wouldn’t relay information correctly if their clocks failed to account for the fact that time is different in space – a tenet of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And Einstein’s famous theory relies on Riemannian geometry, which was proposed in the 19th century to explain how spaces and curves interact – but dismissed as derivative and effectively useless in its time.” (The Conversation August 10th 2017)

Plenty of useful things that we take for granted came out of pursuing interesting things, simply because they were interesting. Microwave ovens, lasers, Magnetic Image Resonance machines or MRI’s, and gene editing are just a few examples. It turns out that fully 80% of pure research ends up having an impact on market ready products somewhere down the line, which is an incredible figure.

The pure research approach paid off for Leonardo as well - and not because one of his works just sold at auction for a mind-boggling $450 million dollars. (Even with the full understanding that it only might be his). And not because another one of his works – The Mona Lisa – is the most famous painting in the world, by far. And not because he is still one of the worlds most celebrated artists, also by far, centuries after his death. The pay off was to change art itself, from a decorative trade, to one based on curiosity, research, and exploration. He managed to single handedly set a direction and a tone that is still being followed by artists today.

How did he do it? By being as famous for his research as he was for his art. Remembering him for his art alone would have always been a difficult task  – he was never a prolific painter, and today there are three or maybe four completed works by him that survive. Compare that to the 7,000 pages of his notebooks that are still with us, out of an estimated 13,000, and we find Leonardo’s real interests – geology, the tides, mathematics, human anatomy, flight, hydraulics, language, and more, all beautifully illustrated and annotated. Leonardo was the archetype for what we now refer to as the ‘Renaissance Man’, someone who sought knowledge for its own sake, and in so doing, became representative of progress itself.

Some out there might say that this ‘pay-off’ came a little late for him to actually benefit from it. Sure it’s great being viewed kindly by history, and changing the trajectory of art, etc, but that didn’t exactly help him with the day-to-day business of living. Luckily for him, he had a guy. A royal guy who basically allowed him the time and space to paint a couple hours here and there, and go off and dissect a cadaver now and again, or study a rock formation, all while still paying him. Clearly, he was an enlightened guy, or at least a sympathetic one, and that allowed Leonardo to follow his muse. Thanks for that Duke Ludovico Sforza!

But a little scrutiny makes clear that Leonardo’s situation was less than ideal. That’s because, being professionally beholden to the whims of royalty meant a 24/7 immersion in satisfying the needs of others. And those needs were pretty fickle - if you have ever wondered why there is so little work left over the entirety of Leonardo’s life, it has much to do with the fact that he was moved from project to project before he completed most of them, and that plenty of them were half-hearted to begin with. Insisting that Leonardo paint a mural on a wet wall is a great example of that – The Last Supper, which was painted for Ludovico’s wedding, started failing almost immediately after it was finished, exactly as one would expect. It was a wreck a little more than a year later.

That sucked. But the Last Supper did have a silver lining in that the Duke actually wanted Leonardo to paint something for him - for the most part, the Duke managed to keep Leonardo away from painting, and certainly away from his research, so that he could do other things. And what exactly were those other things? Party planning! And party decorating, ‘natch. ‘Party Planner’ would have been the first line on Leonardo’s resume, certainly above inventor, or artist. Sure, he worked with generals on war machines, and did some field engineering now and again, and sure, he made a painting from time to time, but the truth was that Lodovico liked a good party far more than all that other stuff. A bicycle, or a helicopter, or even a painting, not so much.

But what if there was a system in place during Leonardo’s lifetime that rewarded pure research, without any input from a royal patron? What if such a system worked by facilitating sales and commissions not just to royals, but to rich people from all over the place? What if such a system was agnostic about the actual physical objects that the artists produced? Imagine that this system created a culture that made daring, risk, and verve the main attraction to these patrons, and that the question became whether or not artists were daring enough. In other words, imagine for a moment that instead of working for the Duke, Leonardo had showed in a contemporary art gallery.


Now just to be clear, no system is perfect, and certainly galleries aren’t. I’ll get to the dark side in a minute. But for now, let me just say that galleries, as we understand them in a contemporary context, exist as a way for artists to push their work forward in whatever way they choose. There are no editors for artists, like there are for writers. There are no studio executives demanding changes, like there are for film directors. There are no producers, like there are for musicians. There aren’t even clients, like there are for designers, and architects. There is just speculative, pure research. It’s hard to think of another commercial model based on as much freedom as the commercial gallery model is.

Here’s a list of some of the things that have sold in galleries: cans of an artist’s shit, an art dealer taped to a wall, a guy jerking off underneath an elevated floor, and a guy getting shot. The more people roll their eyes at this stuff, and the more people out there exclaim ‘That’s not art!’ the more it only confirms that the model is working: that pure research of a truly expansive kind is not only being done, but being seen, and supported. That’s just an amazing accomplishment for a commercial model to achieve. 

All of us who are working as artists today have been shaped, consciously or not, by an enormous sense of freedom provided to us, courtesy of galleries. If you are an artist working today in an idiosyncratic, and personal manner, continually challenging the past, thank a gallery for even allowing you imagine that as a possibility. Finding your own voice and all of that is a luxury that galleries made space for.  It’s allowed working artists to define ‘art’ in whatever way they choose, and then sell whatever their answer may be, via an established support system.

Holy. Fuck.

It’s a pretty good deal. It’s actually an unprecedented deal. Which is why so many people want in on it - the number of people graduating from college with an art degree exploded after WWII, and yet the gallery system seemed to be able to absorb a tremendous amount of them. That’s because galleries grasped early on the clear benefit of getting more people involved. Only by accepting, and in fact encouraging, a really wide spectrum of speculative creativity, was it possible to discover the diamonds in the rough. And galleries have managed to discover a lot of diamonds. As a result, there has been an ever-widening acceptance of what we now consider art, due to galleries showing us a lot of things that would never have been given a chance not so long ago.

At this point, some of you might be getting a faint inkling of a flaw in the system. And it has to do with how successfully we are implementing the idea of inclusion. It’s fair to say that what we all aspire to is an art world free of any assumptions about where good ideas might come from, or who might author them, etc. Pure research in its purest form, am I right? In practice, however, that perfectly open system hasn’t quite arrived yet. What has arrived instead is an overwhelming amount of people who have something to say, and have deduced, quite rightly, that there is a sophisticated platform to say it. The resulting stampede of people has so overwhelmed the art world that it’s necessitated a network of gatekeepers to work the doors as artists clamor to get in. Which is how the age of the gallery has slowly morphed into the age of the Curator.

Curators, gallerists, call them what you will, but their job is basically the same – they spend their days looking at a whole lot of art, and saying ‘No’ to most of it. Sure they understand the radical inclusion principal as a philosophical construct and all that, but the fact is, not everybody is Leonardo Da Vinci. The amount of artists may have exploded in the last 75 years or so, but the amount of genius artists has stayed pretty much the same. That means that the task of a curator, or gallerist, or collector, to successfully find said genius, requires sailing an ocean of shit, every day. As Oscar Wilde said: “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.”

Now finding good art, as it is happening, is tough. Despite the clear difficulty of such an undertaking, it’s remarkable how confident we are that our gatekeepers are succeeding - contemporary art consistently puts sky-high prices on things well before history has weighed in on them. And so far, nobody seems inclined to call that particular bluff. And to be clear, a system based on convincing enough people to simply trust the most charismatic, and persuasive gatekeepers out there is a bluff.

At some point, the public has to weigh in on a gatekeeper’s choices. They can’t be right all the time. Writers, moviemakers, fashion designers, or musicians, simply must connect with an audience in order to be relevant – it doesn’t have to be the biggest audience out there, but it has to be big enough, and passionate enough, to actually matter. The visual art world has essentially removed that component. That’s why it’s possible to walk through a contemporary art museum with a non-artist, and have them struggle to recognize, much less name, most of the artists shown. We’ve left it to the audio guide to tell them why it’s good.

Curators, and gallerists today, are by and large the product of an academic system that has made them into specialists. They are professional lookers, rather than artists. The problem with that is that art itself is not necessarily the product of an academy - if you think about all the musical genres that have come out of America, ragtime, jazz, blues, rock n’ roll, blue grass, rap, and so on, none of those particular genres were created, much less embraced, by the musical academies of the time. The thing that propelled them to relevance was the sheer usefulness they demonstrated for capturing the mood of a particular culture at a particular moment. Imagine that we traded all of that for symphonic music (the music of the academy) instead.

If we follow that analogy into the gallery system today, we see that the gatekeeper system has essentially undercut the way that galleries tried to involve a more general public, and have returned it to a more familiar system, where certain people, like the popes and royals of old, made all the decisions. Remember that the gallery system, in order to truly function, needs more people, more ideas, and more variation constantly moving through it in order to figure out what the most interesting thing is. The gatekeeper system on the other hand, streamlined that to the opinions of a very few. Sure there are loads of galleries out there. Excellent! But they are operating in a system that no longer needs them, or even wants them. Things have consolidated to the top, to a very small group of super-galleries, and that is where most of the actual art world resides. Today, the majority of galleries below that upper level are basically on life support.

Despite all of that, artists have little choice but to get in the way of these gatekeepers to have a chance at a career, because they are the only audience that matters. And usually the first step is to show in a gallery.

With that in mind, here is a short primer on how an art career in a gallery usually goes: for the first show or two, most artists essentially work for free, because sales will not realistically cover their costs. Also: there is a good chance that this will not end after the first couple of shows. Oops! What this means is that it is quite possible, and in fact typical, to actually pay to show. That’s crazy you say! Sure it is, and not only because so many people want the chance to do it. What’s really crazy is the amount. Consider the math: Artists are responsible for buying all their own materials, paying all of their rental costs, tool costs, health insurance, studio insurance, and so on. Artists run their own website and social media, because promotion is also part of an artist’s job. Typically, an artist shows every two years or so, which means the outlay of costs stretches over a very long time indeed. And in the end, the hope is that the show will sell enough, usually in a single month, that the previous two years of bills will be covered. That is, after the gallery’s cut, which is 50% of all sales.

I haven’t even got to the fine print yet, which is this: despite the fact that artists and galleries are, as mentioned above, 50-50 partners financially, the risk involved is in no way equally shared. That’s because galleries get twelve different chances, at the minimum, in a year to make sales. Artists on the other hand, have only one, every two years, for one month. (And yes, artists can make sales between shows. This does happen, but usually for established artists, and not for newbies.) Meanwhile, a gallery can lose money on a number of shows, and probably even most, but if there are enough strong sellers throughout the year to cover the costs, then the gallery makes money. For that reason, most galleries now don’t choose to nurture artists careers over the long haul, and instead head hunt talent that is hot in the moment. The gallery makes sales on low hanging fruit, and then later, they can simply drop that artist if they become less desirable. Brilliant! The truth is that in a business where all of the money collects at the top, most galleries couldn’t really operate any other way. Which brings us to now.

I heart galleries. The reason they exist at all is because certain brave souls based an entire business model on a simple, yet profound observation - audiences can be challenged with creativity, because audiences will look with creativity. That means a gallery only works under the basic assumption is that everyone is creative, and that artists and audiences coming together will be synergistic, and expansive.

I heart galleries because they encourage a pure research model, and as such, they are willing participants, and indeed key facilitators, in the ongoing discovery of art. By backing an artist, they back that artist’s exploration, and the gallery is then tasked with finding a way to determine the value of the outcome. For all the criticisms of galleries get, for all of the angst and hand wringing they inspire, most of these strengths that I’ve just described are still deeply baked into galleries today.

Still, it’s fair to say that artists aren’t exactly blind to the financial situation, which does put them in a significant pickle early and often. They’re also not blind to the concentration of influence at the top. Some of them probably think that galleries have always operated the way they do now. But consider this: at the beginning of the 20th century, Daniel Kahnweiler (Picasso’s dealer) would make regular studio visits to Picasso’s studio, and whenever he saw a particular work he liked, he would buy it. Over time, the works he collected would become a show that he would mount in his gallery. The sales in the gallery would be split 90% to Kahnweiler, 10% to Picasso. Over time, that shifted to 80/20.

That’s how the entire gallery system was run. Kahnweiler made sure that Picasso always had money, and never had to worry about financial ruin while he was making a show. The gallery system as it existed then essentially paid Picasso to paint. And in return, Picasso was motivated to work all the time, and make really good paintings. It also made sure that Kahnweiler was fully motivated to make sales - which involved a full-throated defense of Picasso as an artist - because he had already made a significant investment in the work by the time he showed it.

Over time, the system got overwhelmed with artists, and rather than figuring out a viable way to involve more people equitably, there was a return to a more familiar system of gatekeepers. What we are left with today is the premise of the gallery, which is no longer economically viable, grafted on top of a royalty/patronage model, which actually is.

So what would Leonardo do? Figure out how to get paid, that’s what. With that in mind, it’s worth remembering that the one thing everyone agrees on when they first see the Mona Lisa is how underwhelming it is. No one stays looking at it for long. And why do I mention that? Because being underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa reminds us that Leonardo was only a painter part of the time, by design. He never even delivered the final portrait. That doesn't take away his gifts as a painter, which were incredible, but he understood better than anybody that he got paid to be broadly creative, rather than to live or die on painting commissions alone.

He was aware of the fickle nature of taste, and would never have based his career on accommodating it. That’s why he wasn’t merely a painter; he was a thinker, a researcher, and a tinkerer. (And a party planner.) That whole package is what made him so important to his fellow artists. It’s what propelled Vasari to write about him in his ‘Lives Of The Artists’, and that in turn is what made him famous, then and now.

One more thing about the Mona Lisa: Leonardo would probably be amused by the fact that in order to even get to it, displayed behind its thick bullet proof glass, people have to walk by a whole bunch of other masterpieces, (including another by him), and they barely expend a gaze or a glance on any of them. They are singularly focused on the task at hand – to see the most Famous Painting In The World. And as they finally, finally, lay eyes on this important cultural artifact, this object beyond price, you can almost hear a faint scratching sound as they cross seeing it off their to-do lists, and then they slowly shuffle out.

Creative art lives when a creative audience shows up, and it dies when they don’t. A royalty patronage model does not require a creative audience, (it just needs a king) but a gallery does.

Yet... a lot of people seem to think, with understandable justification, that the gallery system no longer works, and we should just wash our hands of it. Galleries seem a little bit like democracy in America – an inclusive idea, that morphed into a pay-to-play system that grievously undermined it’s own principals. Maybe we should just toss it all aside… galleries, democracy…but before we throw the baby out with the bath water, consider the fact that the underlying idea is good. Like incredibly good. The pure research model the gallery system introduced is so good in fact that it has set the bar for everything else. If you are a furniture designer, or a public artist, or an illustrator, or a potter, or a tattoo artist, an Instagrammer, or just a regular old artist, the ideals and assumptions of contemporary art practice have fundamentally influenced you, have fundamentally convinced you that your individual voice is worth something. And it is worth something…

Because galleries. 

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