Contemporary Art needs Big Gossip to survive

Contemporary Art needs Big Gossip to survive

A closed network of fairs, gallery shows, and exhibitions has become so crucial to developing and exposing talent at the top of the contemporary art world that, when people can’t gather, the market grinds to a halt.

Last June the art dealer Alexander Hertling filled his booth at Art Basel with 12 paintings by a young, relatively unknown artist named Xinyi Cheng. The Chinese-born, Paris-based painter depicts lightly surreal scenes: a naked figure cutting prosciutto, a vacant-looking man sticking his fingers into a glass of wine, a bearded nude caught in a circus net. All are executed in a layered, ever-so-slightly hazy, painterly style.

In his booth at the Swiss art fair, Hertling exhibited portraits of people Cheng had met over the past year—one for each month. “We’d sold her work before to some interesting collectors,” says Hertling, who co-founded the Parisian gallery Balice Hertling and was introduced to Cheng by one of his other artists. “But the Art Basel presentation opened her work to an international group of people.”

The setup itself wasn’t ornate: Cheng’s unframed paintings were mounted simply on the booth’s white walls. But her art struck a chord among collectors. Not only did every one of the works sell—depending on the size, they went for €10,000 ($10,874) to €40,000—but Cheng also won the fair’s Baloise Art Prize, which comes with 30,000 Swiss francs ($30,810) and a solo exhibition organized by the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. Since then, Cheng has gotten more commissions from major foundations, and there’s a waiting list for her art.

Cheng’s meteoric rise might be dizzying, but it’s not unique; in fact, her success illustrates how the contemporary art world uses group settings to form consensus.

Contemporary Art needs Big Gossip to survive 1-1

Illustration: SANY

“Art is a very social enterprise,” says Jeffrey Deitch, whose eponymous gallery has locations in Los Angeles and New York. “Look at the Art Basel online viewing platform,” which the fair created for galleries to showcase their wares after it canceled its Hong Kong edition in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It was so dry and stiff,” he continues. “What’s missing is when you’re in a booth looking at something, having a friend pass and say, ‘Oh, you’re looking at that? I bought one of those, too.’ It’s the social commentary that activates .”

But this year there won’t be an Art Basel in June to reinforce blue-chip fame and promote emerging artists such as Cheng. Along with dozens of other fairs, biennials, gallery weeks, exhibition openings, and auction weeks, Art Basel has been delayed, yet another commercial victim of the virus. “We did not take this decision lightly,” the fair wrote in an email to its VIP client base. “It has been made in close consultation with many of you and many of our gallerists, with the goal of protecting the health and safety of our community.”

Unlike with the sale of many other expensive, discretionary items (watches, second homes), the contemporary art market relies on face-to-face interactions to determine the value of new works. Much of contemporary art is neither good nor bad, at least not on the surface. It’s mostly through advocacy from the work’s representatives (dealers, critics, curators, the artist herself) that people make a determination about quality.

Other luxury goods generate buzz at large events, of course—troops of people travel to Milan, New York, and Paris for fashion shows, and collectible car competitions such as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance can do wonders for the value of an automobile—but the contemporary art world is unique in its reliance on large group settings to create and sustain value.

Last year 93,000 people trekked to Basel for the fair. Almost 600,000 people visited the 2019 Venice Biennale. Even smaller regional events are swamped: In February the art fair ArcoMadrid had more than 90,000 visitors.

Without these occasions for consensus to be formed—without discovering a work at an exhibition, or hearing about an artist at a gallery dinner, or being invited to another collector’s house and seeing something new and unexpected on the wall—the contemporary art market has ground to a halt.

“For us, like for everybody else in the business, the situation is quite daunting,” Deitch says. “How do we handle no income for three or four months or more?” When dealers can’t sell art, artists don’t get paid. An April survey by Americans for the Arts revealed that 62% of the 11,000 respondents had become fully unemployed because of Covid-19, and 95% had experienced income loss. The charitable initiative Artists Relief opened applications for a $5,000 emergency-relief grant; in its first 15 days, there were 55,744 applications for 200 spots.

Contemporary Art needs Big Gossip to survive 1

The Balice Hertling gallery’s booth at Art Basel in 2019, featuring Cheng’s work.
Courtesy the artist and Balice Hertling

For artists with decades-old reputations and existing markets, these next few months might not have an impact. “Established artists will have a variety of outlets for people to see and experience their works of art,” says James Cuno, the president and chief executive officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which includes a research center that’s heavily involved in the contemporary art world. “But for emerging artists, the flash of appearing in an art fair—with all that excitement and people in the room—it does cast a bright light for a time.”

It happens in noncommercial settings, too. Take last year’s Venice Biennale, when Suzanne Modica, who has an art advisory with her business partner, Ashley Carr, came into a room filled with photographs by Zanele Muholi. The 47-year-old South African photographer’s stark, large-scale black-and-white images were posted on a plywood wall. Impossible to avoid, the installation made an impression. “I walked away struck by the works that were presented,” Modica says. “The use of self-portraiture was done in a fresh and unique way.”

Modica has since introduced multiple collectors to Muholi’s work; several clients, she says, have subsequently bought photographs. Another example is the Ghanaian painter Amoako Boafo, who was the 2019 artist in residence at the Rubell Museum in Miami; two days after his show at the museum opened, every painting his dealer Mariane Ibrahim brought to Art Basel Miami Beach sold.

It’s not just about buying and selling. The pandemic has impeded museums’ ability to present many of the exhibitions that facilitate the serendipitous discoveries Modica describes. “I’ve already started looking at the possibility in the coming months, stretching into the next year, that there could be a lot of uncertainty, not just for personal travel but also for shipping art,” says Joanne Heyler, founding director of the Broad museum in Los Angeles. “I wonder if, in the near-term future, museums will have to rely more heavily on their own collections.”

Contemporary Art needs Big Gossip to survive 2

Visitors at the 2019 Venice Biennale in front of Muholi’s Faniswa, Sea Point, Cape Town, 2016.
Photographer: TIZIANA FABI/AFP

If that does prove to be the case, many artists outside of museums’ collections could find themselves missing out on career-making exhibitions. “Artists who are emerging or midcareer are going to have, in a concrete sense, some losses,” Heyler says. “And they already have had losses: an exhibition or performance, a contract with a gallery they were going to sign. And that, for sure, is going to be a difficult thing to overcome.”

Sculptor Richard Rezac was set to have his first show in New York in more than a decade, at the Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea; the day it opened, New York shut down. “Like any person, I would wish that my work is seen and appreciated by the public,” says Rezac, who spent a year and a half creating art for the show. “I know that an exhibition at Luhring Augustine is seen by many curators of museums in New York and surrounding cities, so it is a huge opportunity.” If no one sees his show, he says, it will be “disappointing, but I have perspective. Everyone in the world is under such great distress, and my little disappointment is just that.”

For now, no one has come up with a compelling alternative to the crowd, though several organizations have tried. Art Basel isn’t the only fair with online viewing rooms, where pictures of artworks are set against a virtual white wall. Frieze, which canceled its May fair in New York, has done the same thing. Gagosian,Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, and other major galleries have online exhibitions or viewing rooms. And then there’s Instagram, which has become a potent force in recent years for the discovery and popularizing of new artists. “Instagram is a social place, and if certain important or influential people who have opinions post , that counts for something,” Hertling says.

And yet, many say they’re simply trying to maintain the status quo, albeit through nontraditional methods. Hertling has been FaceTiming with his artists to stay updated on what they’re making in their studios and having coffee over video chat with collectors.

Heyler says her organization hasn’t purchased any artworks since the pandemic began. But Deitch says that, during this time, he’s made several secondary market sales. “I’m very reluctant to make offerings,” he says. “I’ve found it’s almost insulting to people who have more serious things to worry about now.” Instead, he’s been spending his days making calls. “Our field is based on relationships, so I’m connecting with people with whom I have significant relationships.”

Hertling is doing the same, though he’s hoping things return to normal soon. “We’ll survive if we can’t do studio for two months—that’s definitely OK,” he says. “But if we were never able to travel again, it would be extremely difficult.”


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