Hard Truths: An Art World Crisis Is No Time to Be Coy

My gallery cash flow can be frighteningly white-knuckle-tight at the end of each month.  A few of my artists have steady sales that keep things afloat, but getting invoices paid can drag on. Though we make sales of all sizes to individuals and institutions, truth be told, I only have three “angel” collectors who carry the weight. Shortly after things shuttered in March, I sent emails and PDFs to them, and only two responded with nice (if short) messages. It was worrisome, but I figured they were in their summer homes waiting out the virus. A few nights ago, I had a Zoom “quarantini” with a dear friend who directs a Madison Avenue gallery, and she mentioned that they just closed a seven-figure sale to one of my biggest collectors! I played it cool with her; however, this has been eating away at my soul. I don’t think that my collectors really grasp how much I need them in this pivotal moment. What is the best way to tell them that they are crucial to the survival of my gallery and the livelihood of all my artists, without it sounding like a frenzied SOS? 

You wake every morning still tired from that same chilling dream of a world gone wrong. The details are hazy, but some images just won’t go away: venerable, empty museums transformed into nothing more than overpriced gift shops and cafes; shuttered Lower East Side galleries that have returned to being yarmulke shops and Tui-Na pain centers; pop-up art fairs held in Waffle House parking lots; auction houses breaking records with Garfield mug sales. In your dream, you are flying over nonprofit art spaces that have been converted into methadone clinics, accredited art schools rebranded as Trump Universities, and barren artist studios that became bustling brothels overnight. Where did all the artists go? They are now police storm troopers.  And it is cold, very cold.

Wait, what was that all about? This nocturnal vision doesn’t just represent the burbling of your unconscious, it is a timely prophesy of what a world without collectors would look like. COVID is destroying life as we know it, but collector patronage has been both the virus and antidote for art’s survival since the days of the Medicis in the original olive garden of old-world Italy. The financial success and sustainability of any thriving artist, gallery, or institution has always depended on their most moneyed backers. Would the art world exist if a collector had never paid to stick a giant hunk of marble in their courtyard? What kind of culture would we have if the ultra-rich had not invented tax write-offs? The fact of the matter is that without committed, big-hearted benefactors all artists might be house painters and gallerists would most definitely be plastic surgeons. We cannot let this happen.

Gallerist, it is time to WAKE UP from your walking nightmare. You must be honest with yourself first and with your collectors second about what the gallery needs to survive—namely, their support right now. So fire up Facetime and get them on the horn. This call certainly won’t be pretty, but you actually are frenzied, and it is a desperate SOS. Be real, explain that all galleries, and most especially yours, rely on them to stay in business. Buying art is an urgent community service at this point. Show them how their patronage is essential and transformative, not just for their powder rooms, but for everyone in the trickle-down art ecosystem who benefits from their capital and generosity. Maybe you could DM an Instagram post by an artist they collect who is on the verge of homelessness to illustrate your point. It would also be good to remind them about how their donations and loans make art history accessible to everyone. You’d think that collectors already know this (they do), but everyone is confused and forgetful in these dreadful times, when we don’t know what day of the week it is anymore.

Whether you are an art proprietor or a government official, it is mandatory to speak out when there are hard truths that demand being shared in this crucial moment. People may not like what you have to report, but don’t they need to hear it since we are all in this together? Imagine what Fauci would tell us if he didn’t have to stand next to Donald Trump. Would he say that injecting llama spit after destroying your 5G Samsung Galaxy will make things better? No, he’d give us medical facts that, like it or not, might help improve all our lives. With next month’s rent coming up quick, there is no time to mince words or be coy with PDFs.

My gallery’s Instagram went into the toilet once coronavirus hit, so I’m guessing they laid off their social media person. They are only making one lame post a week, and it’s usually a wide-angle install shot that doesn’t show any details. The captions have no information, and the voice is super cringe given our crisis and lockdown. The front page of their website still has a placeholder image for a show that never opened, and they haven’t set up an online viewing room. It’s like time completely froze in early March. I want to be a team player, but it’s a serious strain to give an obligatory “like” to these posts. I sensed things were a little shaky before shit hit the fan, and now I know for sure. How are they going to survive and support their artists in the new virtual economy? Seriously, how do I tell my gallery that their Instagram game sucks?

Whether you are a blue-chip gallery with a sociopathic social media strategist or a mom-and-pop art storefront still stealing Wi-Fi, now is the time to turn on, tune in, or drop out. There is very little to like here because your gallerist needs to go virtual or get on the unemployment line. You owe it to yourself and all the other artists on the roster to say something. To help you, we have directed our paid digital marketing intern to create silver bullet “Hard Truth” memes that will effectively communicate a strong message on your behalf. DM these to the gallerist to start a conversation, or post widely so that your fellow artists can pile on:

Meme of grey cat showing its teeth with a caption above, "I can has better gallery."

Meme of man tapping his head and a sly look with a caption underneath reading, "You can't be a bad gallerist if you don't have a gallery anymore."

Questions? Email hardtruths@artinamericamag.com. 

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