Fine Arts & Exhibits: Art Galleries Rethink Their Strategies as Art Fairs Proliferate

“We’re like a Silicon Valley start-up,” said Adam Sheffer, the president of the Art Dealers Association of America, speaking of gallerists generally. “We’re going to try some things, and some things will work, but you can’t adhere to the same principles of sitting in your gallery like a garage attendant waiting for people to buy art.”

Mr. Sheffer, a partner in the New York gallery Cheim & Read, noted how the galleries P.P.O.W. and Galerie Lelong last year joined forces in representing the artist Carolee Schneemann and how David Zwirner and the Maccarone gallery now share representation of the sculptor Carol Bove. “We are embracing the change as opposed to being afraid of it,” Mr. Sheffer said.

Similarly, the longtime dealer Andrea Rosen shocked the art world this year by announcing that she was closing her Chelsea space and would share representation of Felix Gonzalez-Torres with Zwirner.

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Brett Schultz, who helped organize Ruberta, a collaborative exhibition space in the Glendale section of Los Angeles, after closing his Mexico City space Yautepec. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

To some extent, the art world is responding to the kind of consolidation that is occurring in other creative fields, like the music industry, and scrambling to adjust. Several Latin American galleries, for example, have come together to form Ruberta, a collaborative exhibition space in the Glendale section of Los Angeles:Galería Agustina Ferreyra (Mexico City and San Juan), Lodos (Mexico City), Proyectos Ultravioleta (Guatemala City), Carne (Bogota) and Bwsmx (Mexico City).

“What galleries need at this point is a more varied ecosystem for exhibiting internationally, connecting with curators and collectors,” said Brett W. Schultz, who helped organize Ruberta after closing his Mexico City space Yautepec (which he ran with Daniela Elbahara since 2008) and before opening Bwsmx.

“Art fairs are very important, but they’re gutting the small to midsize gallery sector; it’s stressful, it’s tiring, it’s expensive,” Mr. Schultz said. “Hopefully we can demonstrate that there are different approaches to promoting ourselves and connecting with others and encourage other people to try new models and keep experimenting.”

Ruberta, which operates in a converted three-car garage owned by the adjacent gallery the Pit on Ruberta Avenue, will host one group exhibition that involves all of the participating galleries, followed by five two-month residencies, one for each gallery.

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The Ruberta group in front of the exhibition space. Credit Jake Michaels for The New York Times

“There is something to be said for smaller galleries finding new ways to work together and hoping that can give us some kind of advantage in what’s becoming a difficult environment business-wise for us all,” Mr. Schultz said.

Mr. Schultz, who is also a founder of the Material Art Fair in Mexico City, said the economics for this new approach were compelling, given that five galleries would be sharing a monthly rent of $700 as opposed to each spending (on top of rent) $15,000 to $20,000 on an art fair — considerably more for larger galleries — “and there’s no guarantee you’ll see a penny of that back.”

“The numbers make more sense to us,” he added.

Ceci Moss, a curator who started out at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, in September created the itinerant art space Gas in a converted truck in Los Angeles. “Starting a brick-and-mortar space did not really seem to make sense,” Ms. Moss said. So she cleaned out the truck in time to present her first group show int September, which looks at the concept of hope in the Trump era, featuring work that was almost all produced since the election.

“I’m Interested in a conversation about mobility in contemporary art — obviously this is a mobile space,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to reach a lot of different audiences.”

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Ceci Moss, a curator who started at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, in September created the itinerant art space Gas in a converted truck in Los Angeles. Credit Molly Matalon for The New York Times

Ms. Moss said she planned to mount three shows a year, each of which would be on view for three months, with some of the artworks existing only online.

“Just as artists will make work regardless of the challenges,” Ms. Moss said, “people who organize shows will also find ways to do them.”

This summer marked the first Condo New York, a collaborative exhibition by 36 galleries across 16 New York spaces, organized by Nicole Russo of Chapter NY and Simone Subal of the Simone Subal Gallery.

“Galleries don’t dream of doing art fairs,” Ms. Russo said. “They dream of doing exhibitions.”

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Blaize Lehane at Ramiken Crucible. Credit Rozette Rago for The New York Times

The event was modeled after Condo London, started by Vanessa Carlos of the London gallery Carlos/Ishikawa in 2016 to offer international galleries a site for collaboration and exchange.

“The visitors hail from Shanghai, Detroit and Los Angeles and cities in Latin America and Europe,” wrote Roberta Smith in The New York Times, “a kind of art gallery Airbnb” or decentralized underground fair.

Adam Lindemann has turned over the programming of his Los Angeles space, Venus Over Los Angeles, to the Lower East Side gallery Ramiken Crucible, run by Blaize Lehane and Mike Egan.

“The smaller galleries, they want to keep their artists,” Mr. Lindemann said. “This is a way for them to keep their artists and not have everyone they represent get stolen from them.”

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Mike Egan at the gallery Ramiken Crucible on the Lower East Side. Adam Lindemann has turned over the programming of his space, Venus Over Los Angeles, to the Manhattan gallery, which is run by Mr. Egan and Blaize Lehane. Credit Rozette Rago for The New York Times

To be sure, many of these collaborative enterprises are borne out of struggle — an attempt to stay in the game and continue to engage with art, even as the economics have made operating galleries prohibitive for smaller operators. But Mr. Sheffer said people in the art world were accustomed to the ups and downs of the art market and were innovative by nature.

“It’s not the first time they have seen some broken glass on the ground — they’ve seen the ebbs and flows over time and have a longtime perspective on the market,” he said.

Rather than bemoaning the state of the art business, Mr. Sheffer suggests that the art world needs to stay nimble and keep adapting; the Saturday gallery crawl that galleries used to be able to count on is a thing of the past.

“It’s up to the dealers to understand that times have changed and their ways of maintaining relationships with collectors is different — you can no longer talk about art for an hour on a Saturday morning over cup of coffee,” he said. “Sometimes, if Mohammed is not coming to the mountain you have to bring the mountain to Mohammed.”

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