Camaraderie, backstabbing and the gallery system

During some recent water-cooler chat, a colleague of mine was lamenting the death-grip of the gallery model. In fact, he was arguing that galleries stop artists from collaborating  altogether and force them to compete with each other instead.

As we’ve heard in countless articles, lectures and podcasts on the subject – galleries as we know them are dying. The idea of a program of exhibitions and a roster of artists is fast becoming outdated thanks to a generation who are happy to buy their art straight from Instagram. But have we overlooked another big problem staring us in the face? The gallery system has also done a number on the way we nurture and think about artists.


“Freeze” opening party, showing (left to right), Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch, Fiona Rae, Stephen Park, Anya Gallaccio, Sarah Lucas and Gary Hume

With the help of the market, a certain roster of big-ticket names have become trophies for the rich and famous, and the gallery model has scrambled to reflect this method of buying art through its relationships with artists. In the most delicate way possible, the gallerist-cum-kingmaker must convince their artists to make stuff that will fundamentally sell.

Of course to be an artist by nature you also need to be able to blow your own trumpet and sell yourself a bit – it’s just part of the game. Some of the most famous artists have been some of the best marketeers – just take a look at Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. Which ever way you spin it, making art is a competitive affair. But does that mean it has to happen in isolation?

Damien Hirst with Sarah Lucas, Colony Room, London, 1999

Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst at the Colony Room Club

Speaking of Damien…

The last time Britain saw a group of artists transcend the gallery model and lift each other up in the process was the YBAs (Young British Artists), led by an ambitious Hirst. This raucous and fearless collective erupted out of Goldsmiths in the ’90s and challenged the establishment by putting on their own exhibition called ‘Freeze’ at the Surrey Docks in south-east London. Little could they have known it would be one of the defining moments in 20th century British art.

Before the YBAs there was Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and friends swilling whisky in Soho’s dingiest clubs and bars. And before that were the avant-garde artists sheltering from war along the windswept coasts of Cornwall with Barbara Hepworth and Peter Lanyon. These groups possessed an innate rivalry and passion that spurred each other on and created some pretty spectacular artwork along the way.


Timothy Behrens, Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews having lunch

In London there are a few artist-run spaces where a supportive network allows artists to get a fair showing, including CGP in Southwark Park and Dilston Grove, Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects and Beaconsfield Gallery just a hop skip and a jump from Damien Hirst’s place in Vauxhall. These galleries liberate artists from stuffy dealers, who would dictate the work shown on their walls and give young artists a chance to cut their teeth at curating and exhibiting. Instead of answering to the market, these artists answer to themselves and their creative instincts alone (with one eye on the money of course).

It’s fair to say that the gallery model is tough. Getting represented by a gallery worth its salt is tough. And by in large, a lot of artists fall through the cracks, least of all because not every artist can afford to attend an art school where they are seen by a gallery with enough capital and clout.

But how would it be if we banned the gallery altogether and encouraged artists to turn to each other for help instead? Would we just become a generation of Instagram hoarders? We shouldn’t let a market and an antiquated gallery model keep artists in a stranglehold for cash or worse – in isolation. Great art was never made in a vacuum and we all love a story of an embattled group of artists waging war on the establishment.


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