Why Small Galleries Are a Vital Force in the Art Ecosystem

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Small galleries are the heart of the art world, and are uniquely positioned to unlock direct access to their local art scene. They also play a vital role in shaping the broader art world, providing collectors and institutions with the opportunity to discover and support emerging artists and galleries.

But the costs of running a gallery can be more pronounced for small galleries, where simple administrative costs can become a make-or-break issue. At London-based NıCOLETTı, gallery director Camille Houzé emphasizes that location can also impact the overall budget. Houzé mentions the difficulties that come with running a gallery in the U.K., which is currently dealing with high inflation and Brexit-related issues such as increased shipping costs. These factors have affected what type of installation work the gallery can accomplish: Ambitious, large-scale works require inventive techniques, can come at the cost of the gallery, and can often puzzle collectors. “One of the challenges we face as a young gallery is to support radical practices—or artists working with mediums that collectors are less used to acquiring,” Houzé told Artsy.

One of the ways in which this tension can be alleviated for such galleries is to have their emerging artists partner up with multiple galleries, especially larger ones who may be able to support their ambitious installation goals. KJ Freeman of New York–based gallery HOUSING echoed a similar sentiment when discussing her reason for partnering with Karma to support the work of Nathaniel Oliver: Both galleries would get to work with the emerging artist, giving him an increased platform to reach newer collectors.

But for some galleries, building these partnerships, as well as with collectors and the local community, can be difficult. Having a space in a small town without a knowledgeable collector base takes a lot of hard work and optimism to be successful, noted Richard Lally, founder and director of Espace Lally, which is based in Béziers, a commune in southeastern France. “Getting noticed and attracting a steady stream of visitors can be tough, particularly if the gallery is located in a less frequented area or lacks a strong online presence,” he said. Lally is combatting this by working more with a more locally focused program of artists and increasing his online sales to bring in new collectors.

Some galleries are abandoning a brick-and-mortar practice altogether. Curator and gallery director Storm Ascher runs a nomadic practice with Superposition, which stages shows in temporary spaces. “Once considered a niche concept, the nimble model has now permeated art discourse, and I’m very optimistic about this,” said Ascher. “I think this rising generation of gallerists exemplifies a new level of sophistication unparalleled in history.”

Lally echoes Ascher’s points that small galleries are, sometimes out of necessity, creating more flexible spaces as a way to attentively meet the needs of their artists and maintain their business. For Espace Lally, its former brick-and-mortar spaces were ecologically and geopolitically constructed. Lally opened the gallery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1992, which followed the 1991 coup-d’etat and embargo placed on the country. Its original location closed in 2000 and reopened in 2010, only to be severely damaged by the catastrophic earthquake that year. Espace Lally has begun again in Béziers in 2020, and while the reception to the shows with artists such as Fatima Mazmouz and Laura Labri Laborie have been well received, it has been a long road for the gallery.

Art fairs are another key way for galleries to meet new collectors and institutions. Houzé emphasizes that small galleries tend to exhibit more ambitious works at fairs as they are willing to take a risk on an artist’s vision, while Ascher asserts that larger entities like museums depend on the presence of small galleries in these spaces during the fairs as they are critical sites for discovery.

For example, museum acquisitions made during fairs are often in support of emerging artists, like when the Brooklyn Museum acquired a Diedrick Brackens tapestry from Various Small Fires at Frieze New York in 2019. Small galleries are routinely utilized as a discovery tool, as they are more closely connected to their local art scene.

“Small galleries have historically played a significant role in the art world by providing emerging artists with exhibition opportunities and acting as platforms for experimentation and creativity,” said Lally. “They often have more flexibility in showcasing unconventional and niche art compared to larger, more established institutions.”

Ascher echoes Lally’s position when stating what Superposition’s mission. “Our mission-driven programs are borne out of personal struggles and experiences that have galvanized us to create a transformative impact,” she said. “It’s grounded in a genuine love for the art community, our culture, and a willingness to shoulder the burdens that artists face as they reshape perspectives or reflect their time period.”

Small galleries also tend to forge tighter bonds with their artists. For Houzé, small galleries are a source for discovering new artists and supporting their practices. “A young gallery has the capacity to give voice to artists coming from more diverse backgrounds, as well as to ask questions and promote discourses that may have been sidelined,” he said. “To ensure its sustainability in the future, we need the support of press, collectors and institutions.”

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