‘The Power of the Gallery’ by Chad Swanson

9 Jul



In 1917, Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal for a gallery exhibition and in the process created what has sometimes be referred to as the most influential art piece of the 20th century. Specifically, Duchamp’s Fountain showed the power of the gallery to take something ordinary and use the sanctity of the gallery to validate it as high art.

Following in Duchamp’s footsteps were the like of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Damien Hirst who built careers about using the gallery to change the context of creativity in order to make art out of things not usually considered to be art. In fact, the process of using the gallery to make art out of the ordinary inspired Sarah Thornton to write in her book Seven Days in the Art World:

 “In Britain , the press never tires of the question, “Is it art? “

 While the gallery may have been the temple of 20th century art, in the 21st century, it is in trouble. As stated by art critic Brian Sherwin, “In the past, galleries– specifically high profile mainstream galleries in large cities– were the only way for an artist to gain wide exposure. If you were not in a gallery you would not end up in art magazines or be talked about outside of your peer group. In other words, if you were not in a gallery you did not exist– you were not even a dot on the art world map. The Internet changed that.” http://theabundantartist.com/brian-sherwin/

The declining importance of the gallery not only has significant implications for the commerce surrounding art, it also has significant implications for what we define as art and the process by which art is validated. For example, critics of Damien Hirst used to point out that his work could be done by anyone. In response, Hirst would say, “But you didn’t did you?”

Hirst’s retort really wasn’t really fair considering that not everyone had someone like Charles Saatchi prepared to fund the creation of art and the connections to make it a success. In fact, just getting into a gallery and having work seen by powerful people was almost impossible for most artists.

Now that the internet gives the average artist a platform, they can make art like Damien Hirst and expose their art to others. Of course, when the art audience sees that everyone is able to make art like Hirst, and many in fact do, the likes of Hirst lose their lustre and ability to be seen as innovative.

Just as the gallery has lost much of its power to validate art due to the internet, so has the traditional art media. Where once it could set discussion over questions like “is it art” because it had a monopoly on the market, the internet is showing that perhaps many audiences are looking for more innovative discussions.

Reflecting the new era, we have seen a change in the career pathways of many internationally renowned artists as well as the type of art they produce. For example, the work of Shepard Fairey and Takeshi Murakami seemed to have changed the framework of pop art. Instead of taking iconic imagery and using a gallery to tag with an artists name, Fairey and Murakami create iconic imagery and spread it through the population on clothing and fashion accessories. In another example, graffiti artist Banksy has used the streets and the internet to gain exposure and it was only after gaining exposure outside of the gallery that he chose to exhibit within it. Finally, Andy Goldsworthy has made the environment his gallery and shown his work via art books and documentaries.

Even though galleries are having difficulties, my experiences at the 798 gallery district in Beijing gives me confidence that they can survive if they change their business model and appreciate that the world has changed. Just like art can’t be stuck in the same old processes, neither can galleries, but how galleries needs to change is perhaps saved for another post.



You can find out more about Chad and his art here:


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One Response to “‘The Power of the Gallery’ by Chad Swanson”

  1. chuff80 July 9, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    Thanks for the link to The Abundant Artist. Its certainly very interesting that gatekeepers decry the “loss of culture” that the Internet has brought about, while at the same time artists are building up mass followings through the power of distribution. Instead of culture being monolithic and decided upon by a few, culture is discreet and niche, decided on my groups.

    Personally, I think this is better.

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