|Sean McSweeney and Writer (Photo: Paddy Benson)|
The epicentre of the Irish art market is a car park off Kildare Street in Dublin 2. Park your car there and you will find most of the major players within a radius of 200 metres. These include the big three auctioneers: Adams, de Veres and Whytes and three of the most prominent commercial galleries: Taylor Galleries, the Kerlin Gallery and the Oliver Sears Gallery. The RHA is nearby and the lower end of South Frederick Street has a cluster of smaller galleries including the Leinster Gallery where I once picked up a gem by George Campbell. As well-fed and watered barristers wend their way back to their Mercs from the clubs and restaurants around Stephen's Green they may be distracted by the sight of a Paul Henry in the window of Adams; or further down Kildare Street they might catch a glimpse of one of Sean McSweeney's moody bogscapes in Taylor Galleries. Lubricated for artistic appreciation and careless of cost some may arrest their progress to add to their collections.
During the good times the juxtapositioning of these auction houses and galleries formed a lucrative nexus. The auction houses made money both from dead artists, like Yeats and Dan O'Neill, and from the resale of such popular living artists as Robert Ballagh and Donald Teskey. A Ballagh painting entitled My Studio was sold at Whytes for €96,000 in 2004. At the galleries prices were adjusted upwards (mostly at the artists' behest) to reflect what they were achieving at auction. And so the art boom was born. Such was the feeding frenzy that the government was forced (Ballagh was a prominent advocate) to introduce a droit de suite scheme (artists get a percentage of auction price) to redistribute some of the largesse from the auctions. The scheme was confined to living artists however and to work sold for more than €3,000. Its net result was to make rich artists richer. An irony not appreciated, I suspect, by the left-leaning Ballagh. The single biggest beneficiary from the scheme was the hardly impecunious Louis le Brocquy (while he was still alive).
But those halcyon days are over. The former profitable symbiosis between gallery and auctioneer has broken down as both parties struggle to capture their share of a dwindling market. The recession has hit very hard. Slower to slump than the property market it has now surpassed it in the severity of the decline. Most involved would agree that prices have dropped by more than 50%. The hardest hit has been work by living artists (there are exceptions, Basil Blackshaw's work continues to do well), and of those the more abstract suffer the most. For example, a Felim Egan bought for €10K in 2007 sold recently at de Vere's for €3.5k.
But the hard times are much harder for the galleries. Art continues to sell briskly at all the auction houses - albeit at sharply reduced prices. The same is not true for commercial galleries selling contemporary art. Galleries cannot just reduce prices for prominent artists as to do so would cause real problems with previous purchasers of these artists. Some galleries will sustain the illusion of maintaining prices but will be quick to do a deal at a substantially reduced cost. Face has been saved, and reputations secured. However, the buying public in general are looking for bargains at auctions and neglecting the galleries.
So how are the galleries dealing with the sharp downturn in their fortunes? Surprisingly there have been few casualties in Dublin. The Rubicon has moved the centre of its operations to Brussells but still maintains a Dublin office. Otherwise all the main Dublin galleries are still trading although many have cut down the number of solo shows and there has been a plethora of group shows featuring gallery artists - a kind of greatest hits approach. Cork has not been so lucky. Its two commercial galleries, the Fenton and the Vangard have perished in this chill wind - although other factors influenced the Fenton's closure. These galleries frequently hosted sell out shows during the boom times - showing artists such as Tony O'Malley, Charles Tyrrell, and Sean McSweeney. It's a sad sad situation that our second city, and erstwhile European City of Culture, can't sustain a commercial gallery.
The galleries that have survived have had to adapt. It was customary for Taylor Galleries to sell out shows by its celebrated roll call of artists. These days the red dots are sporadic at best, although there's still the occasional exception such as Sean McSweeney's last show. John Taylor acknowledges the decline in the market and maintains that both his gallery and many of his artists are "living off the fat" of the good days. . He relies on the Irish market almost exclusively and has had to devise strategies for the changed times. He is reluctant to reduce prices as he feels this would be unfair to earlier buyers. However some of his artists are changing to smaller formats to make their work financially accessible. He also plans to open an original print section some time in 2014. This would sell etchings and lithographs made by gallery artists and selected outsiders.
Hidden behind a discreet door in a lane off South Anne Street, the Kerlin Gallery is (according to Lonely Planet) "the ultimate statement in cool". It doesn't exactly employ a barker to draw in the casual passerby. Art for them is a serious business. I remember an early visit when I was puzzling over some work by abstract artist Sean Shanahan. "This is not for beginners" I was informed by director David Fitzgerald. And he wasn't joking. Inside you'll find mainly conceptual and abstract art from a mixture of Irish and international artists. Sean Scully is the jewel in their crown but you'll find work by fashionable conceptual artists such as Liam Gillick also. A lot of the work it shows is more suited to museums than the domestic market. You could surmise that the Kerlin has been the least impacted by the recession of all the Irish galleries. It has always looked abroad for sales and it regularly attends art fairs in London, New York and the European mainland. They are currently showing work by Willie Doherty, Liam Gillick and others at Art Basel and by Sean Scully in Mougins in the South of France. They also have a substantial backer in share holder Patrick McGillen, which may insulate them from total dependence on the market place. Requests for information about how they're managing in the current climate are ignored by director John Kennedy. Their published accounts take advantage of the veil available to small companies.
The Oliver Sears Gallery is the new kid on the block. It has taken over the old Ib Jorgensen premises on Molesworth Street - opposite the Masonic Lodge. The gallery opened in 2010 in the teeth of the economic gale. It has built up a stable of substantial contemporary figures such as Hughie O'Donoghue, Colin Davidson, Patrick O'Reilly and Donald Teskey. The latter has been one of the best-selling artists in the country over the past five years. Although trading has been tough they have still managed to turn a profit in 2012 - albeit a "modest one" according to its owner. Sears is not afraid to mix his media, frequently showing furniture and recently putting on an entire craft-based show. A straw in the wind for a change in the market direction may be the opening of SO Fine Art Editions beside Keogh's on South Anne Street. This is being run jointly by Sears and Catherine O'Riordan, late of the Graphic Studio Gallery. It specialises in original prints, photography and sculpture. The owners are hoping that art lovers loath to make the big investment in oil paintings can find satisfaction in these less expensive options.
Outside the Golden Triangle around Stephen's Green (or now perhaps, as Oliver Sears suggests, the Bermuda Triangle) other commercial galleries are trying different things. The Kevin Kavanagh is increasingly looking abroad for sales as is the Green on Red - attending art fairs and putting in the hard yards. The Cross Gallery, on Francis Street, has opened a coffee shop to get people onto the premises. Hillsboro Fine Art in Parnell Square is not solely dependent on the Irish market or on Irish artists. Over fifty percent of the artists they sell are non-Irish and include such luminaries as Anthony Caro and Gerhard Richter. Of their Irish artists Michael Warren continues to sell well in Europe. Also, owner John Daly finds that his core Irish buyers remain loyal and continue to snap up certain artists - he cited Paddy Graham as an example. Other artists attached to his gallery are working on a smaller scale, or on paper, to keep prices down. Daly's biggest financial headache is his handsome property which he bought at the height of the boom.
The key difference between the auction houses and the galleries is that art is purely a commodity to the auction houses. They are not interested in developing and nurturing the reputations of living artists. A vibrant gallery scene is important for the continuing health of Irish art. Without them our artists will blush unseen and many will become discouraged. Times like these separate the dedicated from the dabbler. Living off the fat of the good years is not a viable long-term model for the galleries. They must now work harder to promote their artists. Most have upgraded their web sites to extend their reach internationally. Searching out markets abroad and providing less expensive options for buyers are the primary strategies for survival. It's too early to tell whether these are sustainable tactics.