Some see the solidifying of a class society. “There is less support for the low end of the market,” said Rachel A. J. Pownall, who prepared the European Fine Art Fair’s 2017 Art Market Report. Dr. Pownall added that “the gap has become greater” between smaller galleries and large ones, which “are traditionally better positioned to reach a wider audience, sell at auction, present at art fairs and gain brand reputation.”
What is widening the divide? High-priced real estate in gallery neighborhoods like Chelsea, and the proliferation of expensive art fairs, where collectors now do most of their browsing and buying. Participating in an art fair these days can cost a gallery hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And rather than visiting individual galleries — and perhaps discovering new talent — collectors are focusing on market-tested trophy works carried by major dealers; are sometimes buying from Instagram or other online images without seeing the work in person; and are less willing to gamble on the emerging artists represented by small and midsize galleries.
The statistics bear this out. According to the art economist Clare McAndrew’s Art Basel-UBS art market report, dealers with business of less than $500,000 saw their sales decline by 7 percent in 2016; dealers with business of $500,000 to $1 million had a decline of 5 percent.
By contrast, those with business of $1 million to $10 million saw sales rise by 7 percent; galleries with sales of $10 million or more grew by 2 percent; and dealers with business above $50 million saw their sales increase by a whopping 19 percent.
But galleries are not only bowing out for economic reasons. “I really feel like I’m not doing some of the things I love most — it’s just a very different business at this level,” said Candice Madey, the owner of On Stellar Rays. “I’ve missed more of the spontaneity and the openness.”
Ms. Madey said she was also worn down by the “relentless” cycle of five-week exhibitions, which does not allow time “to work closely with the artists.” Instead, she has found interactions are rushed and utilitarian, given their focus on “What are we doing for this art fair or for your next show?”
To sustain a larger operation, Ms. Madey had to lean on her loyal collectors, which felt uncomfortable. “It strains the relationship when you’re constantly trying to sell to them,” she said. “Every day there’s pressure, with no end in sight to feed this bigger machine.”
CRG Gallery, which has operated for 25 years — most recently on the Lower East Side — closed at the end of the May. “There’s been a shift: the acceptance of art as liquid assets,” said Glenn McMillan, who founded the gallery with Carla Chammas and Richard Desroche. “It’s moved toward a much more consolidated equity investment vehicle, it has truly become an international business, it’s bringing to the art market an incredible volume of money, and it puts pressure on mom-and-pop operations like ours.”
Mr. McMillan said part of the problem is traffic; whereas Saturdays used to be the day when visitors poured into galleries, now crowds on that and other days have noticeably thinned, a decline he attributes to art buying through social media as well as the fatigue of “an art fair every month.”
“People are not coming to galleries,” he said. “It’s been a simultaneous perfect storm of the convenience and plethora of the art fairs and the Instagram mentality of seeing something and immediately having a yes or no response to something — it’s not the world we signed up for.”
What they did sign up for, many dealers say, is working closely with artists, carefully managing their careers and making sure that their work made its way into major institutions. Some question how large galleries with multiple locations can offer that kind of personal attention. “I ask myself, ‘How well do they know their artists?’” said Ms. Chammas of CRG. “Artists need nourishing.”
Stefania Bortolami, who moved her gallery to TriBeCa from Chelsea in May, wanted to reinvent it out of the shadow of the larger players. “Gagosian is Nestlé and I’m the organic farm-to-table grocer, and I’m fine with that,” she said.
When Ms. Cooley decided to close her gallery last year, she told ARTnews the drop in her sales “was like someone turned the faucet off” and that running a gallery the size of hers “is not a sustainable business right now.” (She recently joined Paula Cooper Gallery.)
Indeed, these dealers are not necessarily getting out of the art business altogether. Ms. Madey, for example, is beginning Stellar Projects, which will consult on collections and continue working with artists on projects. On Stellar Rays’s upstairs space at 1 Rivington Street will remain open by appointment.
Similarly, while Ms. Rosen rocked the art world with an email in February announcing that she would no longer “have a typical permanent public space,” she also said that she planned “to stay connected” with her stable of artists.
“I am excited about the future, where things that are important are not necessarily so tied into a monetary system,” Ms. Rosen said in a recent interview. “I’m very interested in other models.”
Joel Mesler and Zach Feuer tried merging as Feuer/Mesler in 2015, but in January announced that, too, would close. Mr. Mesler, an artist as well as a dealer, has left New York City altogether, opening his own exhibition space, Rental Gallery, in East Hampton, N.Y.
Some argue that it has always been thus; as prices for art have continued to climb, weaker galleries have fallen away. And that even though many galleries are closing, there are still more over all now than there have been in the past.
But for the gallerists closing their doors, the decision marks the end of an era. “It was not an easy decision — we’ve been in business 25 years, and the three of us have worked with galleries for a very long time,” Ms. Chammas of CRG said. “The economics just don’t add up anymore.”
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the Team Gallery. While its Wooster Street space recently closed, its main gallery on Grand Street — and its business — remain open. The error was repeated in a picture caption.
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