Helene Winer on Closing Metro Pictures: The ‘Specter’ of Mega-Galleries Was a Factor

During the mid-’90s, if four art dealers could help it, Chelsea was not going to be a second SoHo. Barbara Gladstone and the two women who’d founded Metro Pictures gallery—Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring—had been in business in SoHo for 15 years; Matthew Marks, who already had one Chelsea gallery and wanted another, had been around for five years. All of them had seen retail’s decimation of the SoHo scene, with rising rents driving out the galleries that had popularized the area in the first place. So in 1996, when Chelsea was largely still an industrial warehouse-scape, the three galleries went in on the purchase of a 29,000-square-foot warehouse on West 24th Street.

The dealers’ bet paid off. As rents rose in Chelsea, galleries came and went, some decamping for the Lower East Side, but the trio persisted—until earlier this week, when one of the three, Metro Pictures, announced that, after 40 years in business, it would close toward the end of this year. In a statement accompanying the closure’s announcement, Reiring and Winer said the gallery was shuttering because of “the anticipated arrival of a very different art world.” Even though Metro’s Chelsea space wasn’t going anywhere, it turned out that the art world was shifting toward a model where, to keep up and to keep artists, galleries have to go everywhere.

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Metro Pictures was more than a gallery; it had become synonymous with an entire, arguably ongoing, chapter in art history, the Pictures Generation that was born in the 1980s, providing crucial early support to artists like Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, both of whom stayed with Metro for 40 years. In a phone interview, Winer said that closing had been on the table well before the pandemic, but when Covid hit, she and Reiring had a chance to wind down in a way that would give them a chance to help their artists find new spots. Shortly after the pandemic hit, both dealers decamped to their respective houses in Palm Springs, and for the past year, their staff has been running the gallery in New York, with only as much contact with the two women as was absolutely needed.

“We had no pressure to close or stop business or anything of the sort,” Winer said. “But there was a certain assessment of the realities of this world we operate in.”

And then another option arose. The two women began discussions with Friedrich Petzel, a dealer who worked for them in the early 1990s before opening his eponymous New York gallery in 1994, and who had more recently collaborated with Metro on shows of Robert Longo and John Miller. The arrangement would not have been to absorb Petzel’s gallery, but instead to have Petzel effectively take over Metro. But the deal fizzled, Winer said, because she and Reiring “couldn’t predetermine that the artists that he very much wanted would go with him.” (Winer declined to name which artists she was referring to.) And if not the artists, what would Petzel be getting? “Just our name and reputation and maybe some of the people that work here and our records.”

“I would have loved to do it,” she said of the merger. “I really wanted to do it, and so did Janelle, and so did Friedrich.”

The discussions, Friedrich Petzel told ARTnews in an email, were about “a future collaboration wherein they would shutter Metro Pictures, with Petzel absorbing a number of their artists and potentially overseeing a proposed foundation that would offer grants.” Petzel said he’s “still in conversations with some of [Metro’s] artists and I’m looking forward to finding ways for us to work together.”

The gallery’s announcement of its closure appears to have been hastened by Cindy Sherman’s finalizing a move to the mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth. “When their decision was made, but still before it was announced, things progressed rather rapidly between H&W and myself,” Sherman said in an email. “But I must say, when I saw the actual announcement of Metro’s closing and the reactions to it, it made me profoundly sad. 40 years together is an exceptionally long time to stay with one gallery and we had all really become family.”

In the move to Hauser & Wirth, Sherman is leaving not one but two galleries that have represented her since the 1980s. She began showing with Monika Sprüth in Cologne in 1988, and stayed on the roster as the gallery became Sprüth Magers (in a partnership with dealer Philomene Magers), moved to Berlin, and expanded to London and Los Angeles. Sherman’s announcement comes less than a month after her exhibition of new tapestries opened at Sprüth Magers’s Los Angeles branch. The show runs through May 1. Sherman said she told Sprüth Magers that there is potential to collaborate “down the road,” but that for the moment she is exclusively with Hauser & Wirth.

Many have claimed that mega-galleries such as Hauser & Wirth are making business difficult for mid-size galleries like Metro Pictures. Winer called that the phenomenon of mega-galleries “a specter that is hovering over the commercial art world.”

“We are not situated to finance big exhibitions at museums,” Winer said. “We just cannot be an open-ended resource. And that was a consideration. We can’t say to our artists, ‘Here’s your open bank account. Here’s your five assistants to help you.’

“Financially,” Winer continued, “artists really cannot say no to the kinds of opportunities or offers these mega-galleries can make. They can’t afford to—and they shouldn’t.” As for the multitude of locations had by the David Zwirners and Gagosians of the world—“selling pods,” as Winer called them—Metro Pictures couldn’t offer that either.

The other reality she found her gallery increasingly confronting over the years was the never-ending cycle of international art fairs. Even artists who once shunned fairs are starting to gravitate toward them for the exposure they provide, Winer said. Even though members of her staff enjoyed fairs, and even though her gallery did well at them and came to rely on them to a certain extent, she found them “horribly expensive” and overly demanding.

Metro Pictures fits into a category of gallery that is large and established, but has not grown. Winer said expansion was simply “not in our DNA.” Her co-owners on West 24th Street, Matthew Marks and Barbara Gladstone, have expanded, but not dramatically. Marks opened in Los Angeles, and Gladstone operates several spaces in New York and one in Brussels. This past fall, when Gladstone took on Gavin Brown as a partner in her gallery after he closed his own gallery of 25 years, she told ARTnews, “The goal of our gallery does not involve having a global presence, which seems to me a core idea of a ‘mega-gallery.’ We do not need an outpost in every city like a retail shop; rather my gallery remains attuned to the granular movements and energies that best serve artists and the spirit of their intentions in a localized and nuanced way.”

When it comes to succession plans, for art galleries, the question hinges on whether the next leader can recreate the aura engendered by the founders. “It’s a huge responsibility,” Winer said of working with artists. “And we really feel it, all the time. We are always worried about them.” She said she continues to “love all the artists and [will miss] seeing their next shows, especially the younger ones that will be doing new things. And I regret that, but it’s not a reason to keep going indefinitely.”

Source: artnews.com

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