Gallery People

May 1, 2022 / Alexia Zurovec

I spend my Sunday afternoons playing both docent and saleswoman — and wondering all the time if my job isn’t a bit ridiculous.

On Sundays, we open at noon and the day is slow. Visitors trickle in from surrounding restaurants, motivated by a post-cocktail curiosity to see what’s inside the big gray building with the green door. The answer is art: paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, and prints. And me, waiting to greet and guide them. But it’s Sunday and curiosity wanes; most stroll through once and leave with few words. For them, a gallery is just another kind of museum, meant for looking and leaving. For others, those with the interest and, more importantly, the means, it’s a store – and the merchandise is art. Sometimes the lethargy breaks and such people come to grace me with a sale. As a result, I spend my Sunday afternoons playing both docent and saleswoman, and wondering all the time if my job isn’t a bit ridiculous.

I’ll relay something one of my bosses, Kathryn, told me a few months ago: “With the nature of our inventory, people don’t really try to rob us.” How strange that is. Take one stroll through our space and you’ll confirm what is so infamously known in common culture: fine art is stupid expensive. Why, then, can our gallery and others store millions of dollars of merchandise on-site with hardly any fear of robbery? The answer, as Kathryn said, lies in the “nature” of our inventory, or, as the man who delivers and installs work for us more frankly put it: “Our product has no inherent value.”

It’s difficult for me to acquiesce to this position; as an art history student and artist myself, my first and strongest instinct is to shout from the hills that art in all its forms is the most valuable thing humans have to offer. But responding in this way would be willfully missing the point. He was talking about the monetary value of art, and he’s right. Ignoring aesthetics, putting aside philosophy, and focusing solely on economics, a work of art has no real worth until someone says it does. Look at it this way: we have pieces worth thousands of dollars in every window, but the only thing I have to hide away at closing is the owner’s laptop. What would a thief do with a four thousand dollar painting if the only people who say it costs that much are the artists and us?

Why we – or I sould say, my bosses, as I am not involved in the process – decide to price it that high is the next logical question, but it’s a difficult one to answer. To some extent, it boils down to the fact that this is a business, and these works of art are our product. Revenue must be high enough to sustain the running of the gallery and the salaries of those who manage it. And one mustn't forget the artists; nearly everyone we represent is an artist full-time, and the money made from selling their work is what they live on. The price of the art must reflect that.

Yet it’s still puzzling to most people, including, to some extent, myself. Everytime friends come to visit me at the gallery, they repeat some form of the same line: “So much for this?” I’ve progressed from sheepishly nodding to actually attempting an explanation like the one above, but it’s a hard pill to swallow, especially for fellow college students who can’t imagine shelling out five months of rent for one painting.

But our clients can. And not only do they have the means, but, as I’ve learned, it’s actually a sound financial decision. Buying a work of art is among the most secure purchases one can make because it doesn’t depreciate, even though, or perhaps because, it has “no inherent value.” Its assigned worth will never be diluted by age or the arrival of a new model, as in other industries. Even works that we’ve had for years don’t decline in price as time passes. I sold a charcoal drawing last month that was made in 1990; it went for the inflation-adjusted price it was originally given over thirty years ago.

Perhaps you wonder how we could justify having a piece on display for that long. The answer is we didn’t; it was in storage at the artist’s studio. Many works that haven’t or don’t seem likely to sell are sent back to the artists, but still more are here at the gallery. Did you notice my choice of words a few paragraphs ago? “Millions of dollars of merchandise on site?” That’s no exaggeration. We have about 80 to 90 works on the walls at all times, at least one for each artist we represent, but what you see is only a fraction of what we have available. Tucked away in the closets and built-in shelves of our rickety basement are thousands more pieces waiting to be seen and sold.

One of my first tasks when I was still an intern was checking that every piece in storage was where our catalog said it should be. I spent hours combing through the inventory, carefully flipping through tightly packed works protected by layers of plastic wrap and cardboard. It was unsettling in a way; I came across some truly exquisite works of art which, after their location was noted, went straight back on the shelf where no one could see them. Isn’t art meant to be looked at? Maybe I’m an overly sentimental art student, but it broke my heart to see these lovely things hidden away. If a piece isn’t being exhibited, it remains indefinitely in these crawlspaces unless a prospective buyer sees it on our website and asks for a viewing. Its fate as a work of art is not dependent on its beauty or its truth, but on its likeliness to sell.

The storage conundrum is only one facet of a greater paradox at the heart of the industry. A gallery is a lovely place to admire art, but it is still a business – one that requires a large collection of high-priced works to operate successfully. Some may argue that money and art shouldn’t mix; that assigning price to a painting degrades it to a mere product. The only viable response here is that art is sometimes a product, but that this doesn’t have to be a degradation. If money is – for better or worse – how we assign value in our society, perhaps a gallery asking thousands for a work, and a client agreeing to pay, is a sign that art is valued very highly indeed.

Whether art’s relationship to money is toxic, fruitful, or just absurd, I’m still undecided. But I do know this: a divorce is impossible. If art is to be viewed, you need money to rent a gallery space. If that space is to be managed and its shows curated, you need money to employ gallerists. And most importantly, if art is to be created at all, you need money to furnish the livelihood of its creators. Our artists would be the first to tell you that they’ll gladly saddle their work with a price if it means they can do this for a living. Yet I still feel some discomfort when talking about art in terms of “inventory” and “depreciation.” And a part of me still mourns for the paintings that are consigned to the oblivion of the basement simply because no one’s thought to buy them. ■

By: Alexia Zurovec

Photography: Jessie Curneal

Videography: Alec Martinez

Layout: Jaycee Jamison

Stylists: Marta Broseta Castelos & Cat Hermansen

Marissa Kapp & Lane Rice

Aaron Boehmer & Jillian Le

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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