Art On The High Street: Why We Should Encourage It
Purchasing original art has never been more accessible. From the 1980’s when Pullman editions and Athena made buying art posters more mainstream through high street accessibility, reproduction and pricing structures, we now have Whitewall Galleries, Artique, Castle Galleries and the like dotting our high streets doing the same for original art. How far we have come since the days of Medici patronage.
It is a sign of the times. Households have more disposable income; along with homemaking, an original painting hanging at home is a sign of middle-class – a sign that you have ‘made it’. Buying art was never in the psyche of the masses before, but now it is an ‘everyday-luxury’.
But what does this commercialisation and mass-marketization of art mean for the art market? Is it good for independent galleries and how do artists fit into this ever more competitive and tiered environment?
The customer of a commercial gallery has a very different motive and journey than that of an independent gallery. Commercial galleries often rely on walk-ins, while independent galleries not on the high street attract art collectors already in the know, those who possibly have a little more to spend or who have more of an idea generally of what they like. It is like a customer perusing wine from Tesco Wines rather than Yapp Brothers Wines – the more learned customer is likely to go to Yapp. You feel more in your comfort zone in Tesco than you do speaking to a consultant at Yapp.
As an art collector recently said to me: ‘I tend to buy art because I like either the artist – or the subject matter means something special to me. I want to know about the artist and feel some connection to the subject matter, and what it means to the artist.’ Nowhere is this easier to achieve than in these chain galleries. If you want to collect wall art, and are not sure where to start, these galleries are way more accessible and approachable the Cork Street when it comes to exploring the possibility of purchase.
And it is in duplicate: you can even walk in to two separate towns on two separate weekends and see art from the same artist in two branches of that chain. The more you see something the more familiar and attainable achievable it becomes. It also means that the public can develop their artistic appreciation more swiftly and determine what they do and don’t like according to their style. A far cry from the exclusive Cork Street galleries, reserved only for those in the know or special appointment.
Not only are we more exposed in everyday life to these chain gallery artists, the artists represented in these chain galleries have all hit upon a visual formula that works in the mass market. It is often a repeatable model, which appeals to a lot of people and has commercial viability. Mackenzie Clark, Danielle O’Connor Akiyama and Paul Kenton have very definable styles, very definable repeatable offerings. And this is clever, there is purpose in this. You very quickly determine what you do and don’t like. It develops your cultural barometer.
Just as entry-level bottles in the wine market complement the wine at the top end, the commercialisation and ‘everydayness’ of original art at these high street chain galleries strengthens the industry and enhances the whole art market. For example, the presence of cheap prosecco strengthens the prestige and kudos of top flight champagne; the presence of Bob Dylan’s prints at Castle Galleries serves a mass market and is easily attainable, clients looking for something bespoke or something really rare will look elsewhere to London’s independent Eames Gallery (print experts), or London’s Beetles + Huxley (contemporary photography art gallery).
Art has always been seen as an investment piece – as with wine, it is an alternative commodity albeit risky and knowledge-based. These chain galleries can’t proclaim to make art an investment commodity but can feed into this trend especially when interest rates are so low. Knowing about these alternative investments takes years, and But as with wine real investment comes with the finite supply of a revered product. The truth is there is just too much product at these chain galleries
Fine wine has never been so closely correlated with mainstream commodities, and the reason is China. This circumstantial correlation should not continue much longer as the finite supply of fine wine is not mass market. This is also true of fine art. True fine art takes years to build up and kudos is harder to
Circle of Life
In sum, while real art collectors do not buy works from these chain art galleries on the high street, we should recognise these institutions serve a purpose for fuelling the industry and raising the game of art as a commodity. It satiates the appetite for art on all levels of purchase.