In 2008, Damien Hirst dodged his long-time dealers and took a complete exhibition of his work straight to Sotheby’s. The unprecedented sale surpassed all estimates, bringing in roughly $200 million (of which his galleries at the time, Gagosian and White Cube, did not partake), and raising a major question: Do artists need galleries to sell their work?
Hirst’s auction house stunt was made possible by his significant history of commercial success. But a number of emerging artists are toying with the same express route to market, bypassing their dealers in a quest for a greater share of the earnings, a need for quick pocket-change, or the desire to test their e-commerce earning potential. These artists often position their sales as a critique of how the art market functions; taken together, they suggest a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional gallery sales model.
Snagging a gallery was once a watershed moment in an artist’s career. Galleries cultivate a collector base, host public exhibitions, take work to art fairs, supplement or advance fabrication costs, and produce publications about the artist, with the goal of ensuring them a place in art history and selling their work. For their efforts, the dealers typically keep 50 percent of the proceeds from a work’s sale.