Commercial galleries Interview Market USA

Backing dealers for 50 years

The executive director of the Art Dealers Association of America on fairs, ethics and the calm after the storm

Blumberg co-ordinated the planning of Christo and Jean-Claude’s project “The Gates” in Central Park in 2005

The Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA) this year celebrates both its 50th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of the Art Show (6-10 March), the annual fair for its members. The non-profit organisation represents more than 175 dealers across 25 US cities, ranging from specialists in Old Masters to cutting-edge contemporary. Members, who join by invitation, are expected to contribute to the wider arts community by engaging in lobbying efforts or issues such as public policy, co-operating with museums, advising other members and assisting the FBI and other law enforcement agencies with investigations. A president is elected every three years, along with officers and directors.

“When we started,” says Linda Blumberg, who joined the organisation as its first executive director in 2007, “the organisation was focused on [North] America. For the short term, that’ll probably continue. But who knows? I can picture it being the Art Dealers Association of the Americas, but that’s just my imagination.”

Nonetheless, there are certain advantages to being a national network. The organisation was quick to react when Superstorm Sandy devastated galleries in Chelsea, New York, in

November, setting up an emergency fund that enabled it to distribute significant grants to 27 galleries over a five-week period. Many of the worst hit were mid-tier dealers, and the ADAA is “talking about helping to stabilise that market—we have the means to do such things, as a national organisation”, Blumberg says. “Do we want to establish a fund that helps them, for example? We can’t prop up galleries that are doomed, but we can give a helping hand to those struggling, with the long-term view that they’ll be OK.”

The organisation was due to announce its second wave of post-Sandy funding as we went to press. The fund has received large contributions from major dealers, including David Zwirner and Pace Gallery. “I was really happy that the community got itself together,” Blumberg says. “They see that middle range as absolutely vital to the ecology of the art world. Otherwise you have a very sterile environment of the same artists being circulated around the world in big-box stores.”

The main goal of the organisation “is to protect and expand the purview of dealers, and we have influence in the legal fields and in Washington”. It has ambitions to take on a more consolidated role so dealers are better able to compete with the auction houses. “We looked into group health insurance for employees, because it’s so expensive for small galleries to cover, but nobody would take it on. The problem is that we cross state lines, so it has to be state by state. And insurance companies only deal with massive groups of people,” Blumberg says. But with the introduction of President Obama’s healthcare law, which sets out to make health insurance available to all US citizens, the organisation “may have more chance. We intend to revisit it.”

The auction houses are a major threat. “They get much more publicity because people are interested in wildly high prices, but what our dealers do in developing and documenting artists’ careers, organising museum shows and developing collectors is an essential part of what we promote as [an] organisation,” Blumberg says. “It’s not easy, because all [dealer] sales are private and people aren’t shouting about the amount of money being spent.”

The promotion of ethical practice and scholarship are two of the organisation’s main areas of focus. During his tenure as president, Roland Augustine, the co-founder of Luhring Augustine gallery, introduced a code of ethics for members. Although this is laudable, questions remain as to how enforceable the code is (it is worth bearing in mind that the now defunct Knoedler Gallery, currently mired in lawsuits for allegedly having sold fakes, was a former member of the ADAA).

Blumberg says there are lessons to be learned. The organisation, which runs its own appraisal service, has warned dealers exhibiting in this year’s Art Show that there will be a process for dealing with works of questionable authenticity. “We have handled things by encouraging people who have not met our ethical standards to resign, in a quiet way without humiliating them. If there’s a question of authenticity, we will enquire into the background information, the provenance, the paperwork, and if we’re concerned, we’ll ask you to take that work down. We haven’t had a case where someone refuses.”

The Art Show itself “began as a local show—but local in the best zip code in New York, so we did very well”, Blumberg says. Its core constituents remain well-heeled New York collectors. “It’s the oldest running art fair in America. We’ve always been a boutique fair, which is an asset.”

A recent threat is Frieze New York, on Randall’s Island, which launched to coincide with the May auctions last year. Does Blumberg see a gravitational pull towards Frieze (10-13 May)? “We were sceptical about Frieze—I’m a New Yorker and Randall’s Island seemed the last place you’d want to go. But they did a fabulous job. My feeling has always been that there’s enough room for everyone in this art world.” Would the Art Show move its dates to run alongside Frieze? “For the moment, we’re staying where we are. I would never say no to anything. In this environment, one has to be flexible.”

Dealers are “challenged nowadays”, Blumberg says. “We don’t know where it’s going to go. Are fairs going to replace galleries? I rather doubt it, but it’s our role as an organisation to make sure people understand why galleries are so important. We’re keen on getting that message out.”

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