As Jerry Saltz recently noted in a column in an October 2013 issue of New York Magazine: among the most common topics of art-world discussion are the four titans: Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, and Pace. With unlimited capital, efficient business strategies, huge spaces, multiple branch galleries, PR networks and burgeoning staffs, these ‘mega’ galleries are easily able to scoop up artists, money and media attention. They may all have started small, but they’ve since transitioned into huge, omnipresent corporations; and they’re still growing.
Saltz dubs these galleries ‘megas’, ‘conquista’ galleries and even ‘Death Stars’ despite having positive things to say about some of the dealers. Yet, as Saltz laments, something happens to artists who sign with the megas. Often artists are brought in at mid-career, and thus poised for a decline. Exhibitions by living artists are presented as career retrospectives with much of the work already sold. These super-sized shows are also frequently padded with B‑grade material and little room is left for debate about merit. Then, regardless of the quality of the artwork, the PR/Art Criticism machine fires up: the artist becomes a brand and the brand supersedes the art.
While some artists decline and others bloom when they join mega-galleries, something always happens. Any gallery will say their goal is to nurture talent and help artists succeed, but what they do is more like branding: they find a ‘buzzy’ artist and get his or her name out there. To emphasize his point, Saltz quotes Pace co-owner Marc Glimcher’s interview in the New York Times: “Everybody wanted to take on Julie Mehretu; we all went to her studio … she’s a bona fide, couple-of-artists-in-a-generation-type genius.” Saltz counters this hyperbole with his own experience, mentioning that the artist was his student and that he likes her personally though he insists that her work is, “handsome but mediocre” while she, as an artist, is saleable.
Saltz also points out that this is nothing new: in 1964, Allan Kaprow said, “If the artist was in hell in 1946, now he is in business.” That said; don’t blame the galleries for being businesses and behaving as such. Artists signing with them know what they’re in for despite claims that they only want to do what’s best for their work, while it’s often obvious that going with a mega is the opposite of what an artist needs.
An aesthetic crisis looms, Saltz warns. To grow so huge, galleries increase overhead and decrease their artistic complexity along with their capacity for innovative thinking. The time in a plant’s life when a branch consumes the same amount of energy as it produces is called the ‘compensation point’ and – with the exception of historical shows or exhibitions by the few, living artists who survive the vision-crushing force of mega-galleries – these galleries have reached their own compensation points, becoming systems too big not to fail.