The Gallery Challenge

Commercial Art galleries are a curious device, over many years I have been to many looking at exhibitions, checking out all manner of works from wild and outrageous avant garde project type shows, to demure decorative works.

Over time some galleries have faded into obscurity, the victim of tough economic times, or simply due to retirement of the directors. All along though they have had to deal with varying challenges.

One of these challenges as I see it is the changing face of gallery promotion and the face to face visitors.

About 25-30 years ago I started dropping in to see what each gallery in Melbourne had to offer. These days I don’t get to them as often as I might prefer but that’s a combination of my own personal situation and time challenges. Back in the ‘early days’ it would be quite common to find a bunch of people doing a ‘gallery crawl’, dropping in to the same galleries as each other. At times there would be a friendly swap of information about what they had seen that I had not etc.

These days I have noticed a lack of people dropping in to visit.

While this may be a product of the internet age where people can see so many artworks online from all over the world, I feel the viewer is missing out on the total experience to be had getting face to face with artworks.

As I walked around the galleries today there were sculptures on a large scale that needed to be seen and indeed experienced in 3D to get the full effect. Other works pinned to a wall in one gallery showed a delightful contrast in the texture against the smooth wall behind the work. Vivid colourful works in another space again challenged me with the details, vibrancy and scale. At every turn there was a great reason to check out the works live, rather than from an online image.

But there’s more to the challenge. The Global Financial Crisis of a few years back has left its mark, with people pulling in the purse strings the galleries have often had to rethink how they go about ‘doing what they do’.

In basic terms the gallery acts as a ‘portal’ for the artist to present and sell their work to the world, it’s a commercial venture in the main, with the main driver being $$ (no cash no business) then comes the concept of presenting the artworks as a philosophical statement of some kind.

What happened in the past was galleries would have 3-4 week shows of an individual or a group show of artworks connected in some way, over the summer period there would be a slow down in gallery visitors as visitors flocked to outdoor activities, this often meant a group show of works from the gallery’s stock room. Then back to the usual round of shows for the next year.

Now there seems to be a trend to do things a bit differently, some galleries are choosing to cut back on their mail outs, preferring to email invites (makes sense) BUT the mail out of luscious catalogues seems to have ceased… now let’s face facts, emails often don’t get opened but quickly sent to the trash, whereas the catalogue and or postcard were more challenging to ignore.

Another aspect which has altered is the broader run of group shows ‘curated’ works by the gallery with the aim of presenting a mix of works to the viewer. I find this somewhat challenging.

Call me old school but I often liked seeing a full solo show, where the visual concept has been given a run for its money, the critics can have a field day and the gallery has to hope it has a sell out on its hands.

Yes I realise the gallery Directors are in business, and they will hopefully make suitable decisions about the most effective way to promote the artists in their stable. Yes I also realise that in a down market those who are new or for some other reason vulnerable to quieter market forces will go out of business if they don’t make solid commercial decisions.

I could then jump in and suggest that galleries team up and create a cluster of art spaces so viewers can see a few in one spot (saw this done in Sydney a few years back in a warehouse setting, seemed to work well for the viewers at least.) Then there was Albert street in Richmond which had about six galleries in the street to choose from. Parking was (and still is an issue) but it seemed to be a mutually beneficial situation, rents went way up for some so they moved or packed up, some wanted to rationalise or alter what they were doing and so moved on our out.

Enough of my information sharing the point I want to make is that the gallery experience needs people dropping in to make it work, it seems there needs to be a change in the way galleries present themselves promotionally and entice people to visit, I think it’s time to innovate or we may well see more galleries disappear off the radar.


Steve Gray


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