We will kick off our TQC Q&A Series with a question and answer session regarding the current environment of the art world, market, and related subject matter, with Suzanne Geiss. Ms. Geiss brings over 25 years’ experience in the industry advising ambitious private and corporate collections and curating gallery & museum exhibitions.
In 2010, Geiss founded the Suzanne Geiss Company, specializing in post-1960s artworks and private collection building paired with a dynamic public exhibition and performance program. In addition to her activities as a curator and consultant, Geiss currently serves as President of the Board of Performance Space New York and is pursuing a graduate degree in art, performance, and social justice.
tQc: Before delving into our subject matter, please share with us how you established yourself in the art business?
It was never my objective to be on the transactional/advisory side of the business and own a gallery. My intention was to be an artist. However, following my college graduation in order to convince my parents that I was doing something “productive”, I got a job at the Andre Emmerich Gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side, as the receptionist.
It was the mid 1990's, the art market was experiencing a downturn; sales were few and far between. One afternoon a gentleman came in inquiring about works by Hans Hofmann. The gallery director thought it was just a "tire kicker" so they sent me - the receptionist - to deal with the visitor. I thought to myself, why are they sending in a 22-year-old to try and sell a painting, but I figured, what the hell, let me give it a go. So I picked out a Hans Hofmann painting, with a title that particularly resonated with me and I just riffed on it. To my own disbelief, and the disbelief of most of the other people that I worked with, I sold the painting for a record price (for a Hofmann) at the time. Magically, my title changed from secretary to "assistant director." It was a unique opportunity and one that would be unlikely to happen in today’s art world.
tQc: Generally, what are some of the biggest changes you have witnessed in the art business since beginning your career almost 30 years ago?
The art market has become more professionalized, more corporate. When I first entered the business, it was a much smaller ecosystem centered around a core group of collectors making Saturday afternoon gallery visits. Presently, collectors are increasingly using art as a financial instrument and thus require analysis based on criteria that is often mutually exclusive from the art itself.
Of course, the other big change has been on the technology side. The internet shifted the balance of power away from all but the very largest galleries. For the first time collectors could easily research and compare prices between galleries, access previous auction results, and observe what other market participants (collectors, speculators, dealers, etc) were collecting. Offering work through email was revolutionary. (Previously if you wanted to connect with a client outside your city you mailed them a slide or transparency)!
Lastly, social media has given artists a medium to connect directly with their audience, squeezing out more and more intermediaries.
tQc: “Conservatism” and art seem to be at loggerheads. Can an individual be both "conservative" and "accepted" in the art world today? If so, how? If not, do you consider that hypocritical of what the art world espouses to be?
Good question and not one I’ve been asked before. Thinking about “conservatism," well yes, it seems to be diametrically opposed to art. I am generalizing here but I think it’s fair to say that most artists are interested in more progressive issues, while some collectors land on the more conservative end of the spectrum. That said, the art world is unique because you have a place where these communities come together. Artists are often at the forefront of social and political engagement putting them in a position to be effective change agents. Sometimes (again I want to be clear that this is an oversimplification, I’ve met and dealt with many progressive collectors) collectors are at the other end of the social or political spectrum. Art provides an opportunity for people that might not otherwise mingle to do so. That is wonderful.
tQc: Many artworks are too expensive for all but wealthy collectors to purchase. How can people of modest financial means access a wider range of work?
I absolutely encourage people to start small and start local. Seek out artist run spaces. This is a great way to discover new artists at a stage in their career where their price points are more accessible. I'm always interested in what other artists are looking at. Artists have their finger on the pulse of who's doing the most interesting work.
tQc: How can a collector find "value" in today's market?
Finding value in art is probably like finding value in real estate or the stock market: look where others are not and allocate a lot of time to the process.
For example, women artists have historically been overlooked since the beginning of recorded art history. The discrepancy in the market was - and in some cases still is - huge between important women artists and their male counterparts. Take an artist like Helen Frankenthaler, compared to her peers, or Lee Krasner, or Joan Mitchell. A work by one of their male counterparts can be 30 times more expensive. This gap is now closing. But these are the types of inefficiencies in the market you might look for. You can do that across genres, you can do that even within an artist’s career.
tQc: Many pundits discus the process of acquiring art, what to buy, where to buy it, good value, etc. Little if any time is spent discussing the contra side. When do you know it’s the right time to sell a piece?
The best time to sell a work is when you don’t have to! You want to be in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, many reasons people sell have to do with the three Ds: debt, divorce, and death.
Again, art often behaves similarly to stocks and or real estate. Generally, the best strategy, particularly if you are a very discerning collector, is to collect and hold long term. Of course, not every artist's work is going to continue to appreciate (or ever appreciate).
However, there are moments when certain markets or artists start to, shall I say, run hot. There might be an exhibition or an opportunity to showcase the work in a prominent way which in turn drives the prices for that artist up or something on social media might go viral. In an instance like this, I might work with a client to discern: is this momentum sustainable or is this a "bubble"? If we make the determination that it is the latter, then I advise the client to use the distortion as an opportunity to sell at a price they might not see again for a long time, or ever.
tQc: Talk to me about "inside information" in the art market. Might an adviser learn that a specific artist will be featured in a magazine, be displayed at a museum, or shown at a tier one gallery and pass on that information to their best clients in order for them to buy up some of those pieces before the aforementioned information becomes public and then be in position to "flip" them for a profit?
The short answer is yes, there is "inside information." The art world is very social. Everybody is talking to each other. You may hear from somebody that an artist is having a retrospective at a museum before it is announced. Word might get around that an influential collector will be offering a lot of inventory for sale and or is interested in buying up the work of a particular artist. Professional speculators attempt to acquire and use this information to "flip" work for a profit.
Like any market, it is certainly good to know what is happening, who's buying, selling, what artists museums are planning to show and what galleries are potentially singing / showing an artist. All of that helps in making decisions but it is far from a guarantee. I've seen artists where theoretically; their markets should have gotten a bump from a career retrospective and nothing happened. It does not always pan out. The most interesting and daring collectors follow their own instincts!
tQc: What percentage of an artists’ success has to do with his or her technical skill set vs. their ability to market themselves and network?
Interesting question. It is hard to break it down to a "percentage." Of course, being a superior technician matters but in no way does it guarantee success. Furthermore, some artists who might be under-average technicians may work in a more mechanical technique, or they may work with fabricators or their work may be digital or new experimental mediums. They too can become both important and successful artists. It is also becoming increasingly important for artists to possess the skill sets of business and thought leaders who can clearly and effectively articulate their vision and inspire people.
tQc: Will digital art / computer generated art be accepted as a true art form?
Digital and computer-generated art is already accepted as a true art form. The bigger question is how it will be gauged and valued by the market over the long term. There remains a reluctance among collectors to engage with more challenging mediums.
tQc: What genre of the art market do you view as overvalued and which do you think is currently out of favor but due to recover?
Contemporary Art is probably overvalued. That is what people are buying, that is where there is strong demand. Let’s revert back to your question on value, I stress it is important to look where the crowd is not. Right now, I am very excited about Old Master paintings. There is tremendous value there if you can successfully navigate the potential pitfalls of buying in this genre (condition, provenance, attribution, and authenticity all play a role).
tQc: What is the future for brick and mortar art galleries?
Having had a gallery myself for a number of years, and shuddering it, I very clearly understand the challenges faced by small and midsize galleries. Fixed costs are high and mega galleries are becoming nimbler at finding younger artists.
In cities where real estate is expensive, like New York or London, the economics of a brick and mortar space are becoming increasingly challenging. Galleries are paying overhead on real estate, staff, insurance, marketing, shipping, plus the cost to present monthly or bimonthly exhibitions and yet, in many instances, most of their collectors have never set foot in the gallery. Gallerists interact with collectors at art fairs. The cost to participate in an art fair is substantial. A booth at an art fair could cost, for a smaller gallery, upwards of $30,000. Add travel, shipping and all the logistics involved, and the bill rises substantially. For small and midsize galleries to attend a fair they are taking a tremendous financial risk. Gallerists question: why do I even need to have this very expensive physical space when most of the business is consummated at fairs? The answer is that to get approved for booth space, most art fairs require a gallery to have a brick and mortar location. However, the model appears to be changing. Auction houses are accelerating the shift online. For the first time, Art Basel Hong Kong is allowing exhibitors to apply who do not have a physical space. Given the costs associated with running a physical space and the capital outlay to build robust online platforms, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the larger galleries re-evaluate the necessity of multiple spaces and channel those resources towards technology instead.
It is going to be interesting to see how brick and mortar galleries navigate the post-Covid world. There have been predictions that up to a third of art galleries will close within a year. The first real test of the market will be the Christie's and Sotheby's sales in late June/early July with live online auctions.
tQc: What is the role of art?
Art is a mirror. Art pushes us to think and see in new ways. Art is transformation. Collecting art is a process of learning to understand how you as an individual respond to art. What is it that you connect to? What is it about art that you find interesting, aesthetically, intellectually, conceptually? Discovering that involves spending time with art.
tQc: Is there anything you would like to add. How can our readers contact you if they would like to learn more?
It is important that as an industry we use this time to be self-reflective and think about the ways in which we may need to change some of our business practices. I would like to see a more inclusive model for the art market. Some of the most interesting work that's being made today is in this sort of hybrid space between traditional genre distinctions, which requires a total re-examination of how to support artists working in this space.
If any of your readers have any questions I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
tQc: Thank you Ms. Geiss.