Art market journalist Georgina Adam and gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin during the keynote address at Talking Galleries Barcelona 2019. © Xavi Torrent. Courtesy of Talking Galleries.
At this year’s Talking Galleries symposium in Barcelona, the debates boiled down to a few core issues.
Last week, globe-hopping gallerists, auctioneers, and art advisors converged on Barcelona for the city’s seventh annual Talking Galleries symposium, billed as a “think tank for galleries.” But unlike many art-world conferences, people didn’t just sit on stage for hours and politely agree.
The two days of presentations and panel discussions, which featured contributions from dealer Emmanuel Perrotin, Independent art fair founder Elizabeth Dee, and legendary auctioneer-turned-adviser Simon de Pury, among others, dug deep into a plethora of hot topics.
But the possibilities for disruptive change ruled the proceedings, whether that change originated in technology, new business models, or shifting demographics and mindsets. And after reflecting on my time there (disclosure: I was both an audience member and a presenter), it seemed there was no better way to recap the symposium than to highlight the four most productive tensions that emerged—tensions that will undoubtedly shape the art market for years to come.
1. CENTRALIZATION VS. DECENTRALIZATION
Given art dealing’s frequent (and historically accurate) portrayal as a cult of personality, the last thing you might expect a major gallerist to say in 2019 is that the key to success has been making himself unnecessary to his organization. Yet that is exactly what Perrotin did in his keynote. The Parisian gallerist recounted how a serious motorcycle accident in 2001 forced him to delegate responsibility to his key staff to a degree he would previously never have considered. He now credits his relationships with his team as being nearly on par with his relationships to his artists, because the former enables the latter. It was a striking story of a dealer gaining ground by letting go—at least, to an extent.
However, Perrotin also demonstrated how integral technology has become to his organization. In one of the symposium’s buzziest moments, he walked the audience through the custom software he uses to manage his web of six international galleries, which collectively house over 100 staff members. He explained that he first began building the software at the tender age of 18 and now employs 12 engineers to maintain and refine it. The program acts as the central nervous system of the gallery, allowing him to set deadlines and follow up on priorities with employees, as well as see all works currently on reserve to specific clients (including at what price, and at what size discount).
Later that day, Jewish Museum digital director JiaJia Fei batted away the bromide that technology will inevitably make the art market more democratic. In a presentation about social media, she noted that the world’s app usage has consolidated in a dramatic way. A few years after the art-tech bonanza led to the creation dozens of native apps, such as those produced by individual museums, the average user now spends 80 percent of their screen time on their top five apps, which are usually familiar heavy-hitters like Instagram and Twitter, as well as all-purpose “super-apps” like WeChat. In short, it’s now better for galleries to build their followings on other platforms than to try to seed their own.