Last week, when the Swiss art dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth announced the abrupt closure of his eponymous Basel gallery in an emotional letter, an outpouring of surprise and sadness from the art community spread out across social media. At a time of mounting challenges for smaller art galleries, the letter struck a chord with its cri de coeur about the “alienation” Freymond-Guth felt from the art world’s “growing demand in constant global participation, production, and competition,” which led him to question a system that “works only for a tiny amount of artists and galleries.”
Since establishing his gallery in Zürich in 2006, the young gallerist had built a reputation for his strong intergenerational roster and curatorially driven program, regularly making appearances at Frieze and other top art fairs to promote artists like Sylvia Sleigh and Virginia Overton to the cognoscenti. Only last year he had relocated from Zürich to a new 800-square-meter Herzog & de Meuron-designed space in Basel—an investment that made his sudden closure even more of a surprise.
To find out more about the thinking behind the decision, artnet News’ Henri Neuendorf talked to Freymond-Guth about why he lost faith in his own gallery model, and why the turn of events actually makes him optimistic about the future of the art business.
Why did you close?
It was because I couldn’t really see a long-term perspective for the gallery in today’s climate. And, to be honest, also the long-term economy. It was a personal decision that I made after speaking to a lot of artists, collectors, and my team.
In your letter you raise questions about the current structures of the art world. What about the current structure do you take issue with?
We either sell for $3,000 or $300,000, and that’s a development that has increased over the last few years, especially since moving to Basel two years ago. I think it creates a situation that’s precarious for galleries, to constantly produce and be even more dependent on sales. On a more existential level, you have no stability or middle ground to rely on, but you still have to constantly produce and speculate about what you might sell, and what we sell is not necessarily what we show. And that’s a development that I thought was very unsatisfactory for myself and my program.
When you say that what you sell is not what you show, does that mean that you were relying on secondary-market sales?
No, not at all. That’s something that we did on the side, but more because we were buying works back that were offered to us from clients. What I mean is that although we’ve been in a very privileged situation where we sell mainly to institutions, these are often larger complex works where the negotiations take months and months, and it doesn’t necessarily correspond to what we show in the gallery because these complex pieces often come from biennials, estates, et cetera. It’s wonderful to work with them, but it’s not always in relation to what we’re showing in the space.
Would you say that your recent expansion to Basel was too ambitious?
Actually, it might be a surprise, since that would be the most obvious reason, of course, but our overhead has actually gone down since we moved away from Zürich. For many years I was doing every fair I could because it was important to get known, since we had a program that is not really established and artists that often didn’t have other galleries, and also because we were in the periphery and not in one of the major cities. It was important to do all these fairs and bring a really specific presentation that corresponds to our program, which is very specific to one kind of collector or museum. And yes, we reduced the number of fairs we attended, and the space in Basel was an incredible deal, and we had incredibly generous landlords, so that wasn’t the case actually.
What was the ultimate calculation that made it clear to you that the gallery could not continue on its path? What one factor, or combination of factors, made you realize it was untenable to proceed?
There were multiple factors on personal and financial levels, but it was mainly the analysis and observation that the business has diverted into either $5,000 or $500,000 sales, neither of which is stabile enough on its own.
What would have allowed you to succeed?
The question is always, what is success? For example, we work with the estate of Sylvia Sleigh, and I worked with her when she was still alive. At the time of her passing, we tried to donate works to major American institutions, because she was a mostly American artist, and nobody wanted to accept any donations because they didn’t know about the artist, and some didn’t even reply. And now in the last years we’ve had a European show and shows in the US, and now those museums are accepting the pieces we offered and are showing them. There’s a large painting at the Whitney that has been on view for a year, and that’s success. For the artists I think I’ve succeeded, but as a business structure it’s relative. What would have helped? I don’t know. You can’t change certain dynamics in the art world.
The world is polarized between extremes and people are afraid, so they’re looking for safety even in their behaviors of consumption. I don’t know, maybe if people weren’t so afraid? People are buying from brands now rather than artists. They’re buying from branded galleries that are able to generate an overall identity. To defend your own strategy next to that is not easy.
What’s next for you? Are you looking at alternative models?
Well, it’s not like I can just quit my job and walk out of the office on my last day. I will be personally, emotionally, and financially involved with my artists even after I close my gallery space, and I’m still going to be involved in some long-term projects. So I’ll still continue to work for these people and those projects for now. I haven’t really thought too much about it, actually.
It’s important to say that I don’t at all think these developments are regretful in general. I don’t think it’s a tragedy. But one of the reasons I wrote this letter is because I think we need to discuss and renegotiate structures. I’m not the first and unfortunately won’t be the last, but it also opens up a lot of potential for improvement and innovation. So I think it might actually be a very good moment if we try to define things differently, not only for the people and artists that I work with, but also for a lot of other people. I don’t think it’s sad—it’s actually quite exciting.
Do you plan to be part of this change?
I guess I already am. There are a lot of very interesting models like Condo or Paris Internationale or Paramount Ranch, where people organize themselves and get back to a certain DIY culture, and I think that’s always good because there’s different segments in the market. The secondary market has different structures and requirements, et cetera. But in the field that I work in and a lot of my colleagues work in, I think it’s good to have change and invention, and I hope to be part of it. Yes, definitely.