Galleries showing work in unusual places

NEW YORK • Ms Stefania Bortolami still recalls the moment she decided to display her art in a smaller way. It was in May last year and the owner of the Bortolami Gallery in Manhattan was at the art fair Frieze New York - her sixth such gathering of the year.

"By then, we were fair-exhausted, and the hanging and rehanging of our booths had drained our souls," she said.

She began a series of internal conversations that resulted in Artist/ City, a project to move the artists she represents out of her gallery and into the world at large. It was meant to make their work feel less like a packaged product and "to bring the discourse back to art".

The received wisdom in the art world these days is that the markets through which artists interact with their audience are becoming increasingly ruled by commercial forces that focus more on the bottom line than on creative innovation. For at least a decade, mega-galleries such as Pace and Gagosian have dominated the fine-art landscape, showing work in Safeway supermarket-sized spaces and at international branches, as well as art fairs across the globe.

Smaller galleries have started looking for inventive ways to compete against such large rivals. The rebellion, in its reliance on resourcefulness and imaginative grit, resembles the battles that the Slow Food movement has waged against big agriculture or that some tech start-ups have opened against legacy businesses ( hotels) in the transportation and housing spheres.

Because the art world tends to place itself in the world's most expensive urban areas, much of the fight boils down to grappling with the issue of crippling real estate prices. "We live in an era when much of what you read about are mega-monster galleries that are very rich and powerful," said Mr Adam Sheffer, partner and sales director at the New York gallery Cheim & Read and president of the Art Dealers Association of America. "But that's only 5 per cent of the market. The vast majority of galleries are small single- or double-venue operations that are looking for creative ways to extend themselves into the community without feeling the need to engulf the world."

He said many small galleries are showing work in non-traditional spaces. "The gallery model is changing," he said. "And it shows a cooperative spirit among artists and galleries."

The Artist/City initiative is part of that spirit. Ms Bortolami said: "We thought it would be interesting to do... year-long, not primarily commercial, experimental projects in cities that are culture-rich but are not considered art hubs."

This winter, one of her artists, Tom Burr, plans to install his work for a year in the vacant former office of the Pirelli Tire in New Haven, Connecticut, a forbidding Brutalist structure originally designed in 1968 by architect Marcel Breuer.

The building is owned by Ikea. The terms Ms Emma Fernberger, associate director of The Artist/City initiative, struck with the company were budget-friendly: Ikea agreed to let her use the space for a year for only US$1 (S$1.39). The Bortolami Gallery is not alone in seeking alternatives to the push-the-product ethos that bigness brings. Mr John Berggruen, a California gallery owner, is showing works of sculpture on his estate in St Helena.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2016, with the headline 'Galleries showing work in unusual places'. Print Edition | Subscribe