How We Decide What the Best Galleries Are

The David Zwirner gallery during the Gordon Matta-Clark & Rirkrit Tiravaniga exhibitions in 2007 (photo Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
The David Zwirner gallery during the Gordon Matta-Clark & Rirkrit Tiravaniga exhibitions in 2007 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

What makes a fine art gallery in New York City great is somewhat unsurprisingly not a matter of intense public debate. If we take as evidence of the foregoing assertion a sampling of print and web-based media accounts of “the best” art galleries in the city, the metrics for greatness are readily apparent. Looking at Gothamist, Artsmart, and Timeout, the metrics are generally consistent among them. It is true that these publications represent a populist rather than scholarly readership, but then a publication would need to have a middlebrow inclination to render an argument for attention and value in listicle form.

For a gallery to be designated one of the “best” in NYC there are certain character traits that make it so. In the above publications these traits are broken down into repeating or overlapping descriptors that point to a particular, necessary attribute. For example, “wildly popular,” “prominent,” “trend-setting,” “head-turning” are the adjectives that mark out a space that is a hotbed of viewer admiration and au courant trendiness. Closely related to notoriety, but more forthrightly placing the emphasis on the talent, are terms like “roster,” “biggest names,” “superstars.” This is why sports franchises lavish millions on high-profile athletes, even when they are unproven: fame brings fame in its wake. Other descriptors highlight the history and provenance of the gallery, as if to claim that the enterprise will not succumb to the vagaries of fashion: “blue-chip,” “reputable,” “museum quality,” and “well-established.” These terms lend an air of gravitas and unflappability. These words are used with reference to galleries in Chelsea and in the area of West 57th Street, such as: David Zwirner, Cheim and Read, Gagosian, Luhring Augustine, Jack Shainman, Peter Blum, Mary Boone, and the Pace Gallery. One or two of the galleries in this group are also recognized as distinct in their ability to set “auction house records.”

In a somewhat different vein, galleries are recognized as members of this elite coterie because they are, “unconventional,” “unexpected,” “[have a] funky aesthetic” or “international” (which seems to mean providing artwork that is other than the usual fare). Among the galleries described this way are: Mixed Greens, Eleven Rivington, and Lisa Cooley. Some galleries are lauded because they were pioneers in transforming a neighborhood such as, Pierogi in Williamsburg or On Stellar Rays and Canada Gallery on the Lower East Side.

So, what makes these galleries worthy to visit and desirable to have represent you, if you are an artist, is that they have status. Other than that, it’s possible that the work they show may surprise you. Other than the frisson of delight in the unconventional, the formula for success seems to be: status + prestige · (well-known artists) = greater status.

What if the metrics for judging the worth of galleries were the nebulous yet important measure of how much they are in tune with the zeitgeist, or the degree to which they shape or recalibrate the conversation around a particular topic? These yardsticks are not necessarily mutually exclusive. One of the best exhibitions I saw last year was Nick Cave’s Made by Whites for Whites, which was an incredibly powerful and moving reassessment of the meaning of keepsakes and the historicity of material objects. I propose that the next time one of these lists is compiled that at least one of the criteria should be impact on the public discourse. Otherwise, the prospect of yet another celebration of celebrity seems truly disheartening.

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