After the recent spate of record-breaking contemporary auctions, it might be worth asking, is there an art market bubble? And if so, how far does it reach? Based on the auction results—Christie’s sold a record $691.6 million worth of art—and last year’s ubiquitous articles about the middle-tier gallery squeeze, it’s easy to assume that the money’s at the top. If you have a gallery or auction house selling Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol, there’s lots of money to be made. But those working with emerging artists, struggling to pay the bills? Well, if last summer’s articles on the shrinking middle tier are to be believed, there aren’t hordes of collectors for every price point. (The story was so ubiquitous that the Times even had war time correspondent Graham Bowley on the beat.)
But wait. Is that true? Within the last two years, Lisa Cooley, Bureau, Invisible Exports, On Stellar Rays, Rachel Uffner, Miguel Abreu and Canada have all moved into new, larger spaces. None of these LES galleries seem to be suffering badly. “From my point of view, there’s been steady development” on the Lower East Side, gallerist James Fuentes told me. He arrived in that neighborhood in 2010 after a three-year stint near City Hall, and was quick to point out that growth can be measured both by real estate and new business ventures. “This year, we’ve decided to produce books for artists, like a 500-page book for Joshua Abelow. Project Projects is putting out a book for Jessica Dickenson. And John Macallister—we’re putting that one out ourselves.”
Development also means more sales. “I can only speak for myself, but every year I’ve managed at least to double my sales—or more,” Allegra LaViola, a partner in Sargent’s Daughter, said, sharing a story similar to those I heard repeatedly. “At the same time, it’s feast or famine. One show you sell everything; other times you don’t sell anything. It’s hard to predict. Sometimes artists you’ve worked with before who have done well don’t sell.” And she’s not the only one that reports an increase in sales. “We’ve done better every single quarter,” Invisible Exports’ Benjamin Tischer told me. “There is growth. It’s in the numbers.”
So what accounts for the growth of this market? Nobody I talked to mentioned a boom, but Ann Fensterstock, the author of Art on the Block, a historical account of gallery migration in the city over the last 50 years, was quick to note the number of LES dealers that came to the job with an MBA and a business plan. “They are sophisticated and have backers,” she said. “It’s not a naive endeavor. You read their pedigrees, and most of them come out of five to eight years of experience.”
All this is true, but that may not make for a more stable network of businesses in the neighborhood. Rents on the LES are rising. “It’s at a juncture where expansion [on the LES] is becoming less possible or maybe getting harder,” Fuentes told me—and, upon doing so, reflected back my the original question about middle-tier galleries. “I think it’s a good conversation with real issues. After all, bigger galleries are bound to absorb artists who could be showing somewhere else.”
I guess I’m surprised Lisa Cooley didn’t ream you out for categorizing her as a middle tier gallery. Pretty heady stuff from that white cube.