Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Damien Hirst takes a shark-sized bite out of traditional galleries by taking a different marketing path

The Kingdom (lot 5, Evening sale)tiger shark, glass, steel, silicone and formaldehyde solution with steel plinth, 214 by 383.6 by 141.8cm., executed in 2008.

Sotheby's London is in the process of auctioning off 223 artworks by Damien Hirst directly from the studio of the artist. The Sotheby's London auction, titled Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, has caused much debate concerning the harm it could have on the primary market. Some traditional galleries and supporters of traditional galleries have been in an uproar over the influence that an auction house can have on the art market. The success of the first night has made their concern a blunt reality.

Hirst has played his part in fueling the fire. While he has stated that he will never stop working with galleries he has also went on to say that selling at an auction house is a very “democratic way to sell art” and that it is a “natural evolution for contemporary art”. Hirst has made other statements that question the validity of traditional galleries and enforce the assumption that they cater to specific collectors. Such as, “There’s a hell of a lot of money in art - but the artists don’t get it”, and, “The artist doesn’t make any money, but everyone else does.”. Concerning the current auction, which ends today, Hirst stated that he embraces the challenge of selling his work in that way. For weeks critics and art world insiders have speculated about the risk that Hirst had taken with his career. Criticism aside, the result from last night was in Hirst’s favor. Will other artist heed his call?

Needless to say, hundreds of traditional gallery owners and supporters do not want the primary market to evolve in that manner. What Hirst observes as evolution is considered by many to be an unneeded and possibly dangerous revolutionary step against the long-standing system of art commerce. Only time will tell if that success will spur other artists to deal directly with auction houses instead of their galleries. One thing is for certain, some traditional galleries focusing on major artists are undoubtedly nervous about the success of Beautiful Inside My Head Forever.

My guess is that the plight facing traditional galleries will become worse before it gets any better. A good gallery owner learns to adapt to changes in the art market. However, galleries are faced with stiff competition in the market of today. Many feel that they have to scramble to be accepted into major art fairs before rival galleries ‘steal’ their slot. If the art fair is invitation only they wait on pins and needles hoping that they will be selected. Now they have even more competition to face in the form of auction houses representing the blunt of an artists career.

Traditional gallery owners are faced with questions about how they can remain valid in a market that appears to be dominated by nontraditional ways of conducting commerce involving art. It is as if there is a joint front against the way things were, so to speak. The question is… will this shift in art market dynamics be a positive change for artists? Or has Hirst bitten off more than what others will be able to chew?

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Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


Anonymous said...

I think this is true of all commerce actually. Now that there are more less conventional streams of obtaining income, it's time for all businesses to get savvy and stay aware of the changing tide.

I think Damien Hirst makes some valid observations and is wise to thumb his nose at convention. It's true, there is a lot of money in art and most of it isn't seen by the artist. So what's wrong with getting a little more of what you are due?

There is much changing in the world of business all the way around, and art should pay heed. Smart marketers stay aware of trends. Kudos to Mr. Hirst.

Balhatain said...

I'm not exactly saying if it is good or bad. So I hope the post did not appear as if I'm taking one side or the other. It is wonderful for Hirst. That said, I personally know some of the gallery owners who are worried about what this could mean. Will it cause change? Will that change harm or help ALL career driven artists. We shall see.

It may have positive, negative, or no outcome on the market. However, imagine if the big name artists started flocking to auction houses leaving their galleries in the dust. The end result could mean that one by one galleries would start to close if they lost their figureheads, so to speak. After all, you can't be a high profile gallery if you are not representing high profile artists.

In this scenario I think it would be hard for most galleries to remain open if their big time sellers left without warning in order to pursue the auction house path. It would be doubtful that the lesser known artists in their roster would be able to attract the same collectors and crowds. From the business side, it would be like a company no longer offering their top of the line products while another company offers them-- and more.

There are other issues to consider as well. For example, emerging artists have a hard enough time breaking into the gallery scene. That said, I doubt that a major auction house would take anyone on unless the artist is already famous to begin with.

In a scenario involving auction houses controlling the market my bet is that they would focus mostly on mid-career artists with a decent sell history. So what happens to emerging artists if the galleries loose their influence on the market and the auction houses become the primary source for art commerce? Will an auction house flock to recent graduates? Probably not. Will they take a chance on someone who has only sold a few pieces? Probably not. I realize that some people feel that would be a good thing.

At the same time I can see positive-- at least for artists-- outcomes from Hirst's recent success. Based on some of his statements it could be that he desires these outcomes. For example, galleries might think about changing some of the ways they conduct business so that artists receive more for their efforts. They may think twice about dumping a time tested artist for the new kid on the block. They may take time to foster the expectations of emerging artists instead of trying to rush their careers. They may treat their artists better as a whole so that artists think twice before damaging the artist/gallery relationship by jumping ship, so to speak. NO, that is not to suggest that all galleries have these errors.

Regardless of what happens most of us will still be on the same boat we have been on-- a boat that often seems to be going nowhere. That is why it is important for artists, specifically emerging artists, to take some initiative and explore different paths toward success. The interet offers many paths for marketing success. There is money to be made by selling original art online and potential buyers are just a few key strokes away.

If anything, Hirst has shown that you don't have to follow traditional paths. Yes, I realize that his success at auction is due to who he is and what he has accomplished. Still, he went outside the box. He shattered the box. In that sense, his success is indeed an inspiration. Just so you know... that means a lot coming from me because I'm not exactly a fan of Hirst's work.

Anonymous said...

I for one am skeptical about Hirst’s ‘democratic’ motivations. Anyone who gets other people to fabricate objects which are then sold for huge sums of money, the vast majority of which goes into his pocket, is nothing more than a capitalist. Capitalists love talking about democracy as they exploit resources and people, while laughing all the way to the bank.

I don’t understand the capacity for greed among the rich. It seems that if one has more money than could possible be spent in one lifetime, the accumulation of more wealth is nothing more than ego and vanity. I think that in the case of Hirst, there is a high probability of a ‘political’ motivation to move away from the galleries that made his success possible. I also think that the power of greed cannot be underemphasized.

I think that ‘democracy’ in the art world would be represented by artist owned galleries who take no more than a 30% commission, for the purpose of paying bills for said gallery. I understand the necessity of traditional galleries, but can’t help thinking of them as parasites. I am personally interested in non-profit galleries and organizations. The problem is that in the world today the top 5% laugh at such ideas. Who would do something that is not for profit?

Anonymous said...

I hope many galleries DO go broke, there are far too many, with the same type of stuff over and over and over, no real differences in quality or meaning, split into about three of four themes, all the same after that. Would put pressure on ARTISTS to finally start creating meaningful works, ones that are outside the academic worlds small concerns.

But then, I could be dreaming. Dr Pangloss at it again, back to my garden.

Anonymous said...

No, you are talking socialism, or even commune-ism. We have seen how those two go with democracy, which actually only works in a thriving market, capitalist society. Read history, Bush cant, and why we are trying to force it down the throats of those for whom it is not a practicality. Countries evolve, not always for the good, as most mutations, which lead to evolution, are bad. Others will take that choice when it works for them. Also, having no enemies at ones borders, as with England and America, makes democrcy much more practical, and almost a luxury.

Pure laissez faire capitalism died in 1929, it eats itself and its workers up. Socialism never really worked at all, we are a combination of both, as is Europe. They just tend more towards socialism than we do, whatever works for you, in reality, there is no perfect "system".

Its the survival of humanity, or that culture that counts, not "justice" which most certainly is in the eyes of the beholder. Which is why we bind her eyes, she cant stand to see the actual practice.

Again, fewer galleries would promote competition among them, now its all about marketing and getting yours, not out doing another. Which would make "gallerists" love that phony art school term, actually work hard, to find what works in the long run. You know, survival of the fittest. Trendies die within a few years once the environment changes.

Anonymous said...

Trying to herd visual artists is like trying to herd cats. Hirst is not going cause a mass exodus from traditional galleries to auction house and artist ran galleries will never be the primary market for that same reason. If artists did not need business people running the show there would be no need for people to handle those affairs. That is why traditional galleries will always be needed and why it will hurt all artists if auction houses become the primary market.

Anonymous said...

I am not advocating any political ideology at all. I am only saying that Damien Hirst is more of a capitalist than an artist. I am only disgusted at the historically exploitative tendency of capitalists, by whom I mean the top .5%. Small business owners or even mid-sized business owners cannot really be very exploitative of people or resources. They do not have the financial resources to back them up.

I am not interested in a political conversation, but I will say that your assumptions seem to be based on putting words in my mouth, like “justice”. Maybe you have a libertarian axe to grind, I don’t know. I don’t care about justice. I am only annoyed by senseless greed.

What I am saying is that my interest is in the formation of galleries collectively owned by groups of artists, who share the responsibilities and expenses of the operation of those galleries. That puts the ball in the court of the artists. As an alternative, art based non-profit organization/galleries would contribute to the same goal. I am only speaking about my personal interests, not a universal system that will ‘save’ the art world, or ensure the “survival” of humanity or culture. I’m saying that if Hirst was really interested in ‘democracy’, then he would engage in something like what I just described.

I think that art galleries who take more than 30% are almost criminal. That is what Hirst and I agree on, that there is a lot of money made off of artists, and most of that money is not seen by the artist. I think it is repulsive that the rich make many times more money off of a given work than the person who produced it. I think that Hirst’s move toward direct auction only shows that he wants more of that money for himself, despite his already considerable wealth.

The problem, as I see it from my imperfect perspective, is that the rich do not take the types of galleries I described seriously, and we all know the middle class will not buy real art for the most part. I think the rich would reject non-profit galleries on principle, either from social or ideological disdain. But that is just my assumption. I don’t have any empirical evidence of that.