10.13.11 | The Contemporary Gallery

A Lesson in Relativity – Roles and Relations in Art Dealing

If I have gleaned one lesson from my experiences in the realm of visual arts and art history, it is a lesson in relativity. Throughout art history and continuing to modern day art dealing, there have been and still are specific roles, rigid rules, and established relationships when it comes to the handling of art and passing of its histories. The work is viewed and understood within its cultural, social, and political setting. Similarly, the gallery in which art is housed must be examined in the contexts of the visitor, the gallerist, and the artist.

Varujan Boghosian, Swan and Serpent, 2011, collage, 16 1/2 x 15"

I. The Visitor

I found myself at the Victoria Munroe Fine Art Gallery one dreary afternoon last week. The air down Newbury Street on this particular day in Boston was horribly humid and I was expecting an equally hostile, if not altogether stifling, atmosphere as I stepped into the gallery. Evidently my previous experiences in Newbury Street galleries had been less than warm and welcoming, rendering totally obsolete my desire to return. However, to my surprise, my entrance into the gallery was smooth, effortless, and dare I say it, even graceful. I was greeted by a whimsical display of collages and assemblages, romanticized images and scenes composed of swans, boats, old-fashioned maps, and the like. It felt less like a gallery visit, and instead reminded me of a shopping trip into a local Anthropologie store.[1]

As my eyes consumed the images before me, I took comfort in the familiarity of its contents. This aesthetic style was currently trending in the younger, hip, artsy circles. The marbleized papers, intricate floral patterns, muted tones, and mythological references to swans and Orpheus and Eurydice[2] hinted at memories of a time passed. The scenes were thoughtfully composed and delicately beautiful, but I could not help but wonder, this has been done before… Personally, these images reminded me of my friend Danielle Freiman’s works, which also conjure whimsical memories.[3] An image of this artist, Varujan Boghosian, began to form in my head; she was a young woman in her thirties, petite, with dainty features that hid behind large glasses, and a wool scarf around her neck.

I ventured further into the gallery, taking note of the spacious layout of the room. The gallery was designed with stark white walls, light-colored hardwood floors, track-lights that illuminated ten artworks around the room, and a front window display space that highlighted three additional works by Boghosian. Indeed, there was a private discussion area centered around a large table in a sectioned-off space toward the back of the gallery. An information desk was strategically situated at the entrance of the private area. It was there that I met the Victoria Munroe herself.

My initial interaction with Victoria was very much a pleasant surprise. I had thought that the slim woman in the electric blue shift dress was perhaps a gallery manager; little did I know it was the founder herself. Victoria was certainly involved in her own business, typing away furiously at the keyboard as she awaited a phone call from a lawyer. I quickly explained to her who I was—simply an art student interested in learning more about the gallery—and asked for a moment of her time to present a few brief questions. Luckily, Victoria granted me a quick “Yes! I think that is a great idea!” and instructed me to return in one hour. I was happy to oblige.

Varujan Boghosian, Orpheus and Eurydice, 2010, collage, 12 x 15"

II. The Gallerist

 Exactly one hour later, I was back at the gallery, waiting as Victoria continued her speed-of-light typing. She had business to attend to and was not about to let me get in her way. A couple of middle-aged women strolled in on two separate occasions, and that was the only distraction that Victoria allowed herself. She chatted with them nonchalantly about the weather, lunch, recommended masseuses, and matters of all sorts. They were clearly previously networked; perhaps Victoria had even sold artworks to these clients. In any case, it was evident how I ranked on the scale of importance: not very high at all. But then again, I was not the wealthy client who would bring Victoria’s artists fame and fortune.

When Victoria finally made herself available to me, she brought me into the staff room, complete with kitchen and couch, to chat so as to not disturb any potential clients who could walk in at any moment. It was then that I learned Victoria had graduated from Radcliffe College[4] in 1975 with a degree in art history. There, she studied old master drawings and worked at the Fogg Art Museum. Upon graduation, she was employed at the Impression’s Workshop and Gallery in Boston. Six years later, she launched her own gallery in New York City with the intention of promoting new and upcoming American artists. In 2001, after moving back to Boston due to her husband’s new job offer, Victoria opened the Victoria Munroe Gallery on Beacon Hill. After four years, the gallery relocated to Newbury Street, where it thrives today.[5]

Victoria is what we would consider a “mainstream dealer”: one tier below the branded dealer, typically representing 15-25 artists at a time, and earning commissions of about 50% of the selling price of an artwork.[6] Each of the twenty artists on her roster is granted a solo show every 2-3 years. Victoria’s collection also consists of a wide range of European drawings and contemporary American drawings, paintings, and sculpture.[7] As a gallerist, Victoria seeks to exhibit drawings from various cultures and perspectives, as well as contemporary paintings and sculpture. Generally speaking, dealers hope to place the artworks they represent into museums, branded private collections, and with reputable collectors[8]; I would assume that Victoria also hopes to meet these goals.

As for the artist Varujan Boghosian—who as it turns out is an 86-year-old man[9]—he is a collage and assemblage artist who draws influences from Braque and Picasso’s works from the 1910s, Dadaist and Constructivist collages from the 1920s, and Rauschenberg’s combine paintings from the 1960s.[10] Victoria only shows work from a small group of artists, rather than looking for new artists to represent, and her gallery is currently representing Boghosian. For Boghosian’s solo exhibition, electronic invitations were sent out to the large, voluntary e-list that the gallery has compiled throughout the years. Paper press releases were not mailed out to the general public, but were in fact sent to professional curators.[11] The Victoria Munroe Gallery serves a clientele of which over 50% is based in the Boston and New England areas. The gallery does not have a prominent international presence.

In terms of supporting the artist’s career after his solo exhibition, Victoria was hesitant to definitely confirm a continued relationship. She offered that each case was specific to the nature of the relationship between herself and the artist. The partnership would end and the artist and gallerist would part ways when it seemed that they could no longer serve each other’s best interests. In other words, there was no standard timeframe; each relationship was unique.

As I steered the discussion toward the role of the gallery in the current economic recession, Victoria abruptly declared, “Are we done here? I am going to speak with her now…”, referring to another woman who had just walked into the gallery.[12] I was, however, able to find that clients were buying less art, and being more careful and less spontaneous with their purchases. Thus, my conversation with Victoria Munroe came to a halt. I left the gallery shortly thereafter.

Varujan Boghosian, Music, 2011, collage, 17 x 11"

III. The Aspiring Young Artist

After mulling over this interaction with Victoria for the few days after the incident, I decided to share my experience with Danielle Freiman, the aforementioned friend whose artworks I was reminded of by Boghosian’s images. I was certain that Danielle would have interesting thoughts on the topic.

Danielle Freiman, Scent Composition, installation, 2009

Danielle graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design with a BFA in the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) in May 2011. She worked mostly with installation, assemblage, and performance to convey ideas of home and memory.[13] Danielle was currently preparing for her first solo show titled A Study of Keeping at Gallery 263, an artists’ cooperative located in Central Square in Cambridge, MA.[14] After this show, she hoped to continue looking for exhibition opportunities with galleries and apply for residency programs across North America.

When I quoted Thompson, “Artists who do not find mainstream gallery representation within a year or two of graduation are unlikely ever to achieve high prices, or see their work appear at fairs or auctions or in art magazines,”[15] Danielle replied that while it was hard to hear such things (“especially in such a harsh way”), she knew that they were partially if not mostly true. She added, “I’ve definitely heard of galleries closing, and I’ve seen artists work in jobs far from what their intended goals were. The idea of making money from my art was never something I wanted to rely on, especially for this reason.”

Danielle further explained, “In terms of making money, my ideal career would be doing freelance window displays for unique or established retail companies like Anthropologie or Follow the Honey.”[16] Having worked as a design intern at Follow the Honey this past summer, Danielle was well versed in the inner workings of the small business. She described:

“In the beginning, it was very refreshing to find a group of people who, like myself, wanted to create a space that took people into an environment that they wanted to be in and to explore… We really wanted to make small-scale assemblages… to create this narrative of history and agriculture and the importance of the role of bees in our current industry. We’ve worked with local beekeepers, bakers, botanists, and artists to build a space that’s both aesthetically pleasing and informative, and I think that the passion and enthusiasm from everyone is what’s driving the business now. It’s definitely an alternative exhibition space, even though its main function is a retail space.”

It seemed that more and more artists’ collaboratives were forming and these alternative exhibition spaces were emerging with increased demand. Perhaps the large-scale success of the Anthropologie chain and recent local interest in Follow the Honey would continue to influence the relocation of art to the alternative exhibition space.

Follow the Honey, 2011, in-store installation at 1132 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA

IV. The Future of the Gallery

As a younger generation of artists’ collectives and collaborative art spaces emerges, it is interesting to consider how they will fare when held up against the standard of traditional, well-established, and well-funded art galleries. Hybrid exhibition and performance spaces seem to be sprouting throughout the greater Boston area. While the non-profit Mobius organization for experimental art has existed in Boston since the late 1970s,[17] more recent multi-sensory spaces such as Yes.Oui.Si.[18] and Cavity.Lab have emerged.[19] These spaces break down rigid, categorical roles and dramatically alter relationships among visitors, gallerists, and artists. Anyone participating in the experience may take on a hybrid role; she may become the visitor, gallerist, and artist—all three at once. In these alternative art spaces, participants may become involved in all aspects of the communal space, whether it be attending performances, curating exhibitions, submitting artworks to group shows, organizing events, and much more.

However, while alternative spaces seem to allow art to become more accessible for the general public, especially the student population, they simply cannot compete with traditional galleries in terms of art handling and dealing with the auction houses, the reputed gallerists, and other significant players in the international art market. In a web of economics, networks, and reputations, the traditional galleries undoubtedly have a major stake in the contemporary art world. The art gallery has already secured its position in this realm. It becomes apparent that visitors such as myself, gallerists such as Victoria Munroe, and aspiring young artists such as Danielle Freiman are mere pawns in this grand game of art and art dealing.

[1] Anthropologie is a retail store chain that specializes in the sales of women’s apparel, accessories, home goods, and gift and decorative items. Its stores are known for hiring professional artists and art students to create intricate installations for window displays and sales floors. For more information about the retail chain and samples of Anthropologie‘s aesthetic style, please visit: http://anthropologie.com.

[2] The story Orpheus and Eurydice is a Greek tragedy of art, music, love, and loss.

[3] I will comment more on this later in the essay.

[4] Radcliffe College was an all-women’s liberal arts institution in Cambridge, MA. In 1999, it became fully integrated with Harvard University.

[5] “Gallery Info,” http://victoriamunroefineart.com/gallery_info.htm, Sept. 2011.

[6] Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 42.

[7] “Gallery Info,” 2011.

[8] Thompson, 42.

[9] My initial assumptions were clearly very wrong.

[10] “Varujan Boghosian” Press Release, Victoria Munroe Fine Art Gallery, Sept. 2011.

[11] Victoria explained that curators have come to expect this sort of “cold-mailing.”

[12] This woman was presumably another one of Victoria’s friends.

[13] Danielle Freiman’s work may be viewed on her personal website: http://daniellefreiman.com.

[14] According to Thompson, artists’ cooperatives are display spaces in which the artists themselves share the costs of exhibition. (Thompson, 43.)

[15] Thompson, 42.

[16] Follow the Honey is a small retail store that offers bee-inspired products. Its first location was recently opened in August 2011. For more information, please visit: http://followthehoney.com.

[17] For more information, please visit: http://mobius.org.

[18] Yes.Oui.Si. was co-founded in 2010 by two graduates of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Berklee College of Music. For more information, please visit: http://yesouisispace.com.

[19] Cavity.Lab was launched at its current location in East Boston in May 2011.

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