State of the art

As art fairs boom and galleries struggle, is there hope for artists (and the art geeks who love them)?

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Ben Kinmont distributing flyers in Kassel for Moveable type no documenta during Documenta 11, 2002
PHOTO COURTESY OF SFMOMA

arts@sfbg.com

YEAR IN VISUAL ART Maybe it's the Mayan calendar thing. Large cycles and turnings, old giving way to new, and all that. But in thinking about 2012, I can't help but think about big seismic shifts and changes to infrastructure that are moving large pieces of the art world around, setting adrift transformations that won't settle down for some time.

So, at year's end I've written here something more like a love letter of hopes and apprehensions for my chosen profession as it evolves into whatever comes next. For to be sure, 2012 saw the structures of the art world (whatever that term means to you) a-changing.

From the viewpoint of commerce, never before has the term "art market" seemed more apt, as the art fair circuit has seized firm control over art buying, in environments that feel much more like a Tangier spice bazaar than any kind of dispassionate white-walled arena for ideas.

But forget that old definition for an art gallery anyway. The new one for 2012 and beyond is this: a storefront for itinerant consultancies who are measuring their time until touching down in the next art fair booth.

Given that, it's completely logical, and also disheartening, that larger numbers of Bay Area galleries truncated their hours in 2012. Why be open for more than 10 or 15 hours a week? As one gallerist told me this year, "The storefront is just for hospitality. We don't really sell anything out of here." Indeed, increasingly Bay Area galleries sell on the road in Miami, New York, Basel, Hong Kong, or somewhere else at one of the large art-fair conglomerations that now define the selling calendar.

For people like me, for whom wandering in and out of galleries is necessary for our peace of mind, this emerging scenario really bites. The nascent, creeping practice of keeping gallery hours only on Saturday, possibly Sunday with maybe another weekday thrown in (and you know who you are) does nothing to bridge the widening gap between the commonly held outsider perception that galleries are not for ordinary people and the dawning insider suspicion that, well, maybe galleries are not for art people either.

There has always been a divide between inside and outside the art world, but that has largely been a matter of self-identification. The insiders have always been the weirdos who bothered to care, who got geeky about the poetic language of objects and situations, tracking artists and galleries the way other people track chefs and restaurateurs. What worries me is that us weirdos are losing bandwidth in our own scene; until recently "insider" has included the art-viewing-and-talking public, and not just the art-buying class. The forming idea of what an art constituency is has rapidly shifted, and though I'm not exactly on the same page as ex-critic Dave Hickey, who very publicly "quit" the art world this year (with statements like "Art editors and critics — people like me — have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It's not worth my time."), I get where he's coming from.

If the work is increasingly being shown and promoted elsewhere along a rarified travel route, what recourse are the rest of us empty-pocketed onlookers supposed to have? But all signs point to this continuing and accelerating. In 2013 we'll see the market further consolidate around global cities and travel plans, and for local galleries, "risk-taking" will increasingly have less to do with ambitious, place-aware programming and more with stretching budgets and maximizing production to keep pace with the expanding endless summer of art fairs.

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