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A salutation posted on recently-closed gallery Freymond-Guth's website. Photo courtesy Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth.

The Manifestos of Embattled Art Dealers

Niru Ratnam

Gallerists facing the untenable pace of the contemporary art world are issuing impassioned statements about their cause.

A salutation posted on recently-closed gallery Freymond-Guth's website. Photo courtesy Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth.

As modern art drifted from the strident rhetoric exemplified by the writings of Wassily Kandinsky or André Breton towards the more playful, ironic, and self-aware mood of contemporary art circa the 1980s, the artist’s manifesto gradually faded into the stuff of history. Kandinsky opened his seminal 1911 text Concerning the Spiritual in Art with the line “Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions,” while Breton’s first Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924 asserted that in art “one proposes to express…the actual functioning of thought…in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.” The passionate language of such pronouncements has been making a surprising comeback of late though, and from the unlikeliest of sources: commercial art galleries, and specifically gallerists who have recently chosen to cease their operations.

Two days before closing his gallery in Basel, Switzerland at the end of last August, the young and visionary dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth released a polemical statement that circulated from his own mailing list to the press at large. One line in particular stood out: “If we consider ourselves to be part of a free world and art being one its great achievements, how can we accept structures that are so contrary to the idea of freedom on a most personal level?” His letter only briefly touched on any economic or personal reasons that might have been behind the decision to close, and instead focused on addressing an art world that he described as “built on power, finance and exclusion.” Freymond-Guth asked a number of other searching, rhetorical questions: “What are our reciprocal responsibilities and options…What is the difference between creation and entertainment?” His impassioned text read like a throwback to a time when artists would pen similar questions about the role of art.

Manifesto specialist André Breton, ancestral father and permission granter to contemporary artists everywhere, in 1924. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Galleries have been dissolving at an alarming rate for the past three years. Like many of us, they too have been impacted by the economic uncertainty caused by fluctuating markets and rising income inequality. Some shutter quietly—Marc Foxx, which opened in Los Angeles in 1994, recently shuttered its doors with little fanfare—while others are writing texts that, like Freymond-Guth’s, have all the bombast and flourish of a real manifesto, including candid questions and personal revelations. When she closed her gallery in February 2017, Andrea Rosen wrote: “I have come to realize that in order for me to be fearlessly open and responsive to our times and the future, requires mobility, flexibility and the willingness to change.” She described her decision as the action of “an active, kind, and connected citizen” who wanted to live “without ethical compromise.” Her invocation of ethics is seen in other recent closing statements. The Copenhagen-based gallerist David Risley wrote of what he saw as the sidelining of artists in his closing statement last month: “We need to remember that without artists there would be no art fairs, no sponsors, no collectors, no consultants, no critics, no magazines, no museums, no transport companies, no gala dinners. No Art World.”

Ironically enough, it’s the art dealers that seem to be the ones with the most to say about what art should be at this point. Across various declarations, there’s a repeated yearning for an art world that is less glamorous, less corporate, anchored to a sustained and intimate engagement with ideas and aesthetics. Their sentiments echo a line from the sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s signature proclamation of 1961: “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.” Have faith; in the mounds of crap we all feel like we’re wading through sometimes, there’s still gold in them there hills.