Freymond-Guth, the art gallery founded by Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth in Zürich in 2008, is abruptly closing, the founder announced in an email sent to his mailing list today.
A highly regarded dealer who recently relocated his operation to a pristine new space in Basel, Freymond-Guth—who we named as one of 11 young dealers revitalizing their local art scenes earlier this summer—was known for his connoisseurial eye, working with emerging artists like Hannah Weinberger, mid-career artists like Virginia Overton, and historical figures like the late painter Sylvia Sleigh, whose reputation he did much to revive.
In his letter regarding the closure, the gallerist refers emotionally to business hardships and the challenges of making ends meet in the evolving art economy. Here, below, is the letter, in full.
I’ve been advised to write a more neutral letter. But I find myself in the position, maybe as always before, not to be able to speak of something so dear to me in a more neutral way. Not at this point. Now that the gallery is closing the day after tomorrow. I cannot remain objective in my choice of words, just as I could not be objective in my choices of which art to show and under which circumstances. Maybe my choices weren’t always right. Possibly they were seduced by idealistic vision rather than commercial reality too often.
But those choices came from an urgency that initially sparked me to open Freymond-Guth Fine Arts, and that nourished every chapter of it so far. It is an urgency that is based on the belief in the value of sensation and reflection, a belief in creation and contextualization, a belief in collaboration and community.
Today, I dare to say I even believe in failure. As only by allowing failure to be part of a process, we allow experiment and from that true invention of thought, emotion or reality.
Maybe, quite possibly, I paid my attention more towards process, rather than results. But if the provisional results of this process today might seem as failure to some who depend on its success, I do hope they are also reminded of our achievements in the past.
Much has been said about how the art world has changed in the last years. I will not repeat it here. The consequences for art in an increasingly polarizing society ultimately built on power, finance and exclusion are clear. What I would like to address though nevertheless is a sentiment closest described as alienation. Alienation in all relationships between all participants. Alienation in a climate where space and time for reflection, discussion and personal identification with form and content of contemporary art have become incompatible with the ever growing demand in constant, global participation, production and competition.
As described before, my motivation all throughout has been quite the contrary. The decision to end this chapter of Freymond-Guth Fine Arts thus is obviously a result of this conflict- on personal, conceptual and financial levels. It is however probably the hardest decision I have made as an adult.
I fear the loss of friendship, community and recognition. I fear the results of the breakdown of a business, and the monetary loss my decision today causes some of my dearest collaborators. I fear the void that will replace the structure I have built with every element of my life in the last 10 years or more. When people asked me in the past years how I was, I used to joke: „Never been this old, fat and broke before!“. Well, it’s quite true now.
And yet, my anxiety is comforted by my trust in the importance of what we have created in these past years, independently from momentary results or even my direct involvement. Despite the existential tremor those close to it and myself are experiencing now. I trust that every moment of Freymond-Guth Fine Arts is valuable soil for further inspiration, reflection and collaboration- and also very much the creation of values.
Today, I feel we need to urgently address questions to ourselves and our environments: What are the circumstances and ideals we—artists, gallerists, collectors, curators and writers—want to work in today?
What are our reciprocal responsibilities and options?
And more specifically: Why are we all supporting a system built in an entirely different market that today works only for a tiny amount of artists and galleries and for the rest is based on self-exploitation or privilege?
If we consider ourselves to be part of a free world and art being one of its great achievements, how can we accept structures that are so contrary to the idea of freedom on a most personal level?
What is the difference between creation and entertainment?
And for whom in a game where power and participation are spread so unevenly?
Though much has been said about the conflicts of a contemporary art world, little have there been proposals of alternative models for galleries to support artists in every stage of their career. I trust this current state of crisis and confusion bares an immense potential for invention. My personal decisions are certainly made around that. In that sense Freymond-Guth Fine Arts will continue its mission long after the current form.
Old ideas, new roads.
But, despite all beautiful words, I would like to express my deepest regrets for any losses my decisions have caused, also financial ones. I hope that both the values in the past and the potential for the future we have created together will produce relief, if I cannot personally do so at this point.
Ultimately, what I would like to share most of all is my gratitude to those people near and far I have been privileged to share a part of their life with. I want to thank you for your trust, support and inspiration in the creation of what I see as fundamental aspects and values of our society that are unquestionably needed for a more differentiated experience of it.
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.
Yesterday, as part of this year’s Art Business Conference in London, Georgina Adam hosted a panel called “The Gallery Think Tank: The Evolving Gallery Model.” That title may have been a little homely, but the sense of urgency was clear. And, in a season that has seen a drumbeat of high-profile gallery closures, all eyes were on panelist Vanessa Carlos.
Carlos, of the gallery Carlos/Ishikawa, is also the creator of Condo, an imaginative space-swapping initiative which has been touted as a rare, proactive example of forging new models in a difficult climate. While her fellow panelists—the antiques dealer Lennox Cato, and Preston Benson, managing director of the new gallery complex known as Cromwell Place—offered their own bits of wisdom, we have broken out some of Carlos’s most thought-provoking observations. Here they are:
1) “More Than Half” of Galleries Are Losing Money
The fact that the punishing cost of real estate in art capitals like London or New York is harming the gallery ecosystem comes as no surprise. Yet Carlos has gone beyond that general feeling to take stock of the problem more concretely:
“I pulled out all the public records for results in 2014 of London galleries, and I presented [the data] anonymously. It was really interesting because more than half of the galleries were in red. Which I think is one of the problems now: that of keeping up appearances and not being honest and open to your artists.”
The solution? Honesty. “I think it depends on what you are in it for as a gallerist,” Carlos continued. “If you are in it for sincere discourse, your artists will stay with you for that reason, and you don’t have to become Chanel. That’s a pressure that lots of galleries have, because they are less committed to the art itself than to this branding exercise, and they get themselves into a lot of debt. It was really surprising to see how very few galleries were making any money.”
From left to right, the panelists Preston Benson, Vanessa Carlos, and Lennox Cato, and the moderator Georgina Adam. Courtesy the Art Business Conference.
2) But It’s Not Just About Money
“The challenges of small and mid-sized galleries are well documented: we all know that overheads and the expectations compared to the prices of the works for sale are very unmatched,” Carlos began.
“For me, the problem is the lack of responsibility on every level—from galleries, collectors, and artists—in terms of how we support artists and galleries at every stage of their career. Everyone likes to be very shocked when galleries close, but it is very simple.”
Carlos read an excerpt from the emotional farewell letter recently penned by Basel dealer Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth, in which he described the sense that a system that catered mainly to an isolated elite had become alienating in a way that didn’t merit sacrifice.
“It’s not just about rents and fairs being expensive—we know that,” Carlos said. “It’s about a general attitude about what is art, what do we want out of art, and how do we have a responsibility to ensure that we get that.”
3) The Online Revolution Is Overrated
For years, web sales have been touted as the solution to circumvent the problems posed by the brick-and-mortar model. Yet, when asked by Adam about the importance of online sales, Carlos was supportive—but not overenthusiastic:
“Online sales are important, and in fact a lot of my sales happen online through .jpgs and .pdfs. But a physical space is always going to be important for me because an artist makes a lot of the work in the gallery space, which is also a place for experimentation. And of course, the physical experience of art is one of its greatest joys, so why would you want to remove that?”
“Having said that, online is definitely important,” Carlos added, “although I don’t think that any of the online platforms have cracked the formula yet.”
4) The Condo Model Is Successful, and Spreading
The Condo initiative, which sees galleries in a target city team up to host out-of-town galleries for pop-up exhibitions, has been much-touted as an “elegant solution” to the crisis.
Condo answers, said Carlos, not just to the financial problems with the system, but also to the lack of excitement that comes with having to play it safe: “I started by thinking about how art fairs limit the level of experimentation and risk that artists and galleries can take.”
“I thought that we all have these beautiful spaces that we are renting, so instead of also hiring these temporary booths around the world, I asked a group of London galleries to act as hosts and share their spaces with visiting international galleries. And it’s a nonprofit project, so hosts offer their spaces in kind. […] It’s a much smarter way to show in a city where you might have not that many contacts, as the hosts are also offering their networks, which they have built over many years.”
“So we launched Condo in London 2016 and there was amazing energy. Some dealers told me that it reminded them of why they had opened in a gallery in the first place. And what’s really exciting is that New York approached, so we did it there in the summer, and now we are going to do Mexico City in April. I want to do Asia [a Shanghai iteration is in the works], Europe, North America, South America, and maybe Middle East.”
From left to right, Preston Benson, Vanessa Carlos, Georgina Adam, and Lennox Cato. Courtesy the Art Business Conference.
5) The Age of the “Pointless Art Fair” Is Over
“Condo won’t replace art fairs, but it replaces the pointless art fairs… I hope!” Carlos said. “Collectors want to go either to a big, top-quality fair like Art Basel, or to a small, carefully selected one. What they don’t want is to go to 10 mediocre fairs. And likewise with galleries: galleries don’t need to do more than three or four fairs a year, but some are doing one a month.”
6) But It’s Still About Elite Branding
The only unsolvable problem that Carlos has found in the new model, she said, is scale:
“By definition, Condo has to be quite small. I can’t include everyone who wants to be included. More and more people are asking me to take part, but for me the whole problem with a lot of fairs is that it is too much: I can’t look, and see, and digest all of that. And with Condo I wanted to create something that facilitated looking and meaningful conversations, and that’s why it can’t be enormous.”
That doesn’t mean that the idea, however, can’t go farther. “What I’ve been trying to do is, when other cities where I don’t want to do a Condo contact me, I suggest that they do their own version, and I’m happy to help. I just don’t want it to be under the Condo name.”
On the eve of Berlin Art Week, the excitement sweeping the city was dampened by news that Micky Schubert—a mainstay of the Berlin scene—would become the latest mid-size gallery to close its doors.
But the eponymous dealer, who opened her gallery in the trendy district of Kreuzberg in 2006, is not throwing in the towel just yet. She already has a new initiative in the works aimed at supporting other mid-size art businesses—and, hopefully, helping them avoid the same fate.
Micky Schubert represented the likes of Ketuta Alexi-Meskhishvili, Thea Djordjadze, and Sue Tompkins. The gallery’s final show, of work by the Romanian artist Marieta Chirulescu, closed on July 22, before the summer break. Monopolfirst reported the permanent closure after noting that Schubert was conspicuously absent from the list of participants in Art Berlin, which opens later this week.
Confirming the closure in an email to artnet News, Schubert said her motivations were personal. “The gallery made enough money to survive, but that’s just not enough for a healthy living,” she said. “I close without any debt, clean and clear like I always ran it.”
Asked if there is a future for mid-size galleries such as her own, Schubert was pragmatic. “I don’t know,” she said. “Obviously not for me and many others. I guess time will answer this question.”
Schubert’s next venture, already in the works, is an effort to make the art-dealing business more sustainable. She is teaming up with another former dealer—Janine Foeller, the co-founder of former New York gallery Wallspace (which closed last summer)—to launch Grand Army Collective, a flexible space for short-term projects and exhibitions.
The Brooklyn-based initiative, which launches on September 22, is a response to the very challenges that forced its founders’ galleries to close. It seeks to provide a “support network of peers and artists by providing flexible and affordable exhibition platforms that encourage sustainability, risk-taking, and curatorial rigor.”
The Prospect Heights space will debut with presentations by New York galleries Bureau and Real Fine Arts, Paris-based publishers Onestar Press and Three Star Books, and a series of exhibitions and performances organized by Schubert and Foeller.
Over the next six months, the venue will also host Berlin’s Supportico Lopez, London’s Herald Street, and Shanghai’s Antenna Space, among other galleries.
On Grand Army Collective’s website, the former dealers say that the project is “about reigniting the camaraderie, diversity, and experimentation that was once so integral to the overall health of the art world.”