Can Gagosian’s New Streaming Service Help the Mega-Gallery Keep Up with Big Auction Houses?

It’s probably not an accident that Gagosian Gallery announced the launch of its new digital event initiative Gagosian Premieres—an attempt to re-create the excitement, exclusivity and novelty of a gallery opening for our pandemic-challenged times—on the eve of Christie’s hybrid New York evening sale. In a very short span of time, the art market has inverted from a world that prized exclusivity and access to one that has begun to attract a broader (if not to say, mass) audience through events broadcast on the web and through social media.

To be broadcast on YouTube and done in close collaboration with select artists from the dealer’s roster, Gagosian Premieres will showcase a new kind of programming that brings artists alongside a series of collaborators from film, music and media. In a statement, the mega-gallery said the series will “present intimate music performances inspired by and composed in response to the work of featured artists, as well as in-depth conversations that explore how the profound challenges and conflicts we are facing in society today resonate through contemporary art. Artists to be featured in the upcoming series include Mary Weatherford, Gregory Crewdson and Titus Kaphar, each of whom have exhibitions scheduled for this fall, to be paired with collaborators such as writer Malcolm Gladwell, and musicians Jeff Tweedy and Thurston Moore.

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One part group hang, two parts creative showcase and one part special event, Gagosian Premieres is meant to address the growing success of auction house live-stream sales. You read that right. These special events are a response to the growing visibility of the biggest art auctions.

Why is that? Although auctions have been freely available on the web for more than a decade, the audience has previously been limited to interested parties. For some reason yet to be explained, the conversion of the marquee auctions from live events broadcast on the web to broadcast-only events has unleashed a substantial wave of outside interest. Suddenly, live-streamed auctions are getting stadium-sized audiences where once a great turnout would have meant enough viewers to fill a large theater.

Why does this matter? One of the key features of the art market is that it mimics other forms of cultural production where the response to the product is a central part of the valorization and marketing of that product. You go to see a movie because of the buzz from its opening-weekend box-office take. You used to be attracted to a new musical artist because you heard the song on the radio. Now, you hear it on someone’s playlist or at a club. Either way, the song is publicly recognized on the Billboard charts. The same goes for books you see on the bestseller lists. Visibility translates into social capital which translates into cash money.

Titus Kaphar is among the artists featured in programming by Gagosian Premieres.

Titus Kaphar is among the artists featured in programming by Gagosian Premieres.

For this process, art mostly has auctions. A big number at an evening sale validates social capital for a painter or sculptor. If you’re a global mega-gallery, these are the kinds of artists—living or not—that you want to work with. Sometimes the art world also has art fairs and gallery openings to do this job but as long as we’re under the cloud of the pandemic, neither of those events are going to take place. Which brings us back to Gagosian Premieres.

In a global pandemic, Gagosian has a problem. The problem isn’t selling art to the ultra-wealthy. With their 18 gallery spaces around the world opened or closed, the Gagosian team can get art work in front of buyers—and sold. It doesn’t take that many people to view a painting in private. Wear a mask; wash your hands; get in and out in an hour. There isn’t much of a problem. What Gagosian and other galleries are missing in the sales process is what the auction houses now have because of the visibility of their live-streamed sales, a marketing event.

Here’s why the gallery opening was such an important tool for sales. For much of the late 20th century and throughout the 21st century up until now, the world’s top art galleries, including Gagosian, have managed their clients through a series of ascending experiences that center around the ritual of the gallery opening. Prospective buyers who are known to the gallery might get an invite to the opening where the frisson of seeing the artist across the room, bumping into other artists or art world grandees and generally being admitted to the “scene” can have a heady affect on buyers. If they’ve ponied up for the artist’s entry-level works, they might get waved over at the opening for a brief grip-and-grin with the artist. Buying bigger works will get our collectors an invitation to the gallery’s dinner after the opening. And, if they’re really ready to spend on a major work, they might get seated next to the artist during the festivities. The final rung of the gallery ladder is a chance to go hang out with the artist at her studio, see the work in progress and understand the process. Maybe, too, our collectors might espy a work among the racks or almost finished that they fall madly in love with.

The problem with this whole process isn’t whether it is an effective sales tool. It is. It’s very, very effective. The problem is that it doesn’t scale. For years we’ve known that there’s demand for art. At the big-four level of gallery sales—Gagosian, Pace, Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth—the demand has mostly outstripped the supply of art. So it made sense to use the gallery-opening social sales funnel to increase the value of the works that were available to sell.

With the auction houses beginning to reach larger and larger audiences, Gagosian can see a new threat on the horizon. If tens of thousands of viewers continue to tune into the auctions, these branding events are going to shift toward the auction house away from the galleries.

Like the auction house, a gallery is just a distribution network. Gagosian long had the biggest distribution network in contemporary art. Over the years, the auction houses, which have a bigger network across more categories, have begun to catch up to Gagosian. The other big four dealers have also begun to corporatize with better internal systems and a more professional approach to managing clients. Gagosian has always been very good at that. The gallery’s secret was to focus on the buyers when others were fixated on the artists.

During the pandemic, client demand has remained quite strong (possibly grown stronger). That has allowed Gagosian to shift its focus slightly more toward the needs of its artists. Selling art, one has to be reminded often, is really only one part of the service or support a gallery provides to its artists. A good gallery—the best galleries—also manage their artists’ reputations, legacies, and audiences. In the old days, that meant creating publications that memorialized shows and organizing scholarship and academic armatures for the artist’s legacy. These days it’s more about creating meaningful experiences.

With the auction houses looming, Gagosian Premieres is an attempt to build out the best of both worlds. The artist gets an impactful creative statement employing a little borrowed interest from another cultural figure but one that can be seen by a much bigger audience that could ever fit into a gallery event. Whether Gagosian can pull these off to make them appointment viewing is really a matter of the skill and creativity of the collaborators. But there’s no doubt that we’re all going to want to watch.


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