A half-century after Yves Klein emptied the gallery’s interior1 and decades after Robert Barry opened three shows by closing their place of exhibition,2 the commercial gallery might now be the most interesting and sincere space for arts discourse. In March of this past year, filmmaker and founding member of Thread Waxing Space,3 Miguel Abreu opened a gallery on the Lower East Side. For the inaugural show, Abreu juxtaposed two rarely screened films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet with a new series of paintings by Blake Rayne. Like the handful of neighbouring art spaces, Miguel Abreu Gallery is commercial. Unlike the majority of art-related commerce in New York City, it functions foremost for the enrichment of its affiliated artists, curators, critics, and friends.
Historically, not-for-profit venues have made possible some of our most vital works of art. However, as arts funding increasingly emphasizes civic welfare over artistic autonomy, and as the resources used to establish and sustain such funding are often the product of the same capitalist practice against which much art positions itself, a small tide of critically engaged art galleries in New York have established themselves explicitly for profit. A block from Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York’s Orchard Gallery is another case in point. Functioning as a “cooperatively organized exhibition and event space,”4 in another era, Orchard might have opted to operate not-for-profit. However, given the opacity of, and limitations posed by non-profit funding, Orchard’s twelve directors have chosen to run their gallery commercially, explaining “it was a more realistic and honest option than affecting to transcend the market.”5
In a comment published in Artforum last September, Andrea Fraser wrote, “Representations of the ‘art world’ as wholly distinct from the ‘real world,’ like representations of the ‘institution’ as discrete and separate from ‘us’ ... maintain an imaginary distance between the social and economic interests we invest in.” We might now ask what agency there is today in operating from outside of the gallery? Or, given the fading ideological gap between the institution and its opposing avant-garde; between the art world and the autonomous art object—whether the idea of “outside” is, any longer, even a productive concept.
In this same article, Fraser retired the term she is credited with coining,6 going on to say that we (the artists, dealers, curators, viewers, critics, et cetera) are the institution. It’s inside of us. And as we can’t get outside of ourselves “[i]t’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.”7 Yet, since Fraser’s article was published, Chelsea’s plenum of mediocrity has grown no less underwhelming, while the curatorial motivations of several New York museums have not ceased to dishearten. How then can the elements within an institutional body best be rearranged to support the qualities that compelled us to critique the institution in the first place?
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About the Author
Caroline Busta is an art historian and critic living and working in Brooklyn, New York.