I arrived at Sutton Gallery just as one of Gordon Bennett’s large canvases, “(Abstraction) indigene” 2011, sold for $38,500. The gallery assistant goes over the wall and sticks a red pin in to the wall beside the painting. Sutton Gallery would get about half of the $38,500 sale price on the Bennett canvas – what do they do that is worth $19,250? Commercial galleries are at the business end of the art world. They are galleries reviewed most often and that sell the most art to major art galleries and collections. And they control the art cannon through promotion, authentication and appraisal.
“The museums are run, more or less, by the dealers. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art is completely in the hands of the dealers. Obviously this is a manner of speaking, but it’s like that. The museum advisers are dealers.” Marcel Duchamp to Cabanne (p.98)
There are about 100 commercial art galleries in Melbourne; it is hard to identify them precisely as there are several types of commercial galleries operating. You can see the obvious differences – a designed gallery space, the staff area and office space. The two big differences about commercial galleries that are not immediately obvious are the staff and the stock room. The staff and gallery director know what they are doing and what they are selling – art. They know their products and they knew their clients, they have been cultivating some collectors and corporate clients for years. They may also have a gallery space featuring examples of work from their stock room.
You can’t see the gallery’s business plan and there are degrees of the commercial nature of the gallery and a variety of particular business plans. Most commercial galleries do not focus on a particular type of art but try to balance their exhibition program – some like, Paul Silverman Gallery only exhibit a certain type of art, in this case animation frame art. However, for the purpose of this post I will focus on high-end commercial galleries that are part of ACGA (Australian Commercial Gallery Association) as these are the galleries that have the close relationship with the institutional art museums, the art magazines and the remaining broadsheet newspaper reviewer.
Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne is a notable example of a commercial gallery that regularly sells work to the NGV and other institutions. It has regularly rotating exhibitions from artists represented by the gallery. They represent their artists not just during exhibitions but the whole time they represent the artist. They do this by documenting their work, pursuing ongoing sales and exhibition opportunities for the artist outside the gallery including commissions. The gallery advocates for and monitors the artist’s interests and legal rights. And the gallery collaborates with the artist on competition, grant and commission submissions; explaining why their artists receive the bulk of these opportunities.
“ACGA members represent and exhibit Australian artists, driving standards, excellence and innovation in the representation and presentation of contemporary Australian art. ACGA members represent artists in the full sense, developing and promoting their interests with honesty and integrity over their professional careers.” (ACGA website)
The ACGA website has some interesting documents about green gallery practice, authentication, guidelines for art prizes and competitions.
(For more information about other types of galleries see my post about Types of Galleries).