A lively debate is now on about the management of art galleries, as the coronavirus crisis adds to the tough times that they are presently facing.
We had a chat with Francesco Badia, author of monographs and features for Italian and international magazines, professor of Cultural Economics and Management at the University of Ferrara, and an expert in the management of cultural systems.
Galleries are definitely struggling today, and have now been for a long time. This seems to be due to structural rather than circumstantial reasons. You have long been stressing how crucial it is to change the business model of art galleries. As an expert in cultural management, could you tell us what has changed in the past few years?
The impression is that the situation has not changed much, as per the evaluation system presented in a 2015 work with Valentina Schiano Lo Moriello. Large international behemoths (that we identified as “brand galleries”) have consolidated their dominance, whereas mid-sized and small galleries still struggle to find viable business models in the long run.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, many positively welcomed the closedown of several “worn-out” businesses, no longer able to remain on the market. Today, Italy counts more art galleries than China. May the crisis that we are getting ready to face be yet another moment to “clean house” without any major regrets?
The way I see it, the closedown of a business can never happen without regrets, since it implies the failed projects – and sometimes dreams – of one or more entrepreneurs, besides precarious financial conditions for all employees and collaborators involved in said projects. While this is generally true, applying it to culture – the expression of the deepest creativity of a human being – can be even more disturbing, a loss that might potentially harm not just those directly involved, but society as a whole. This is why appropriate efforts to support the entire cultural sector, which risks being one of the hardest-hit by the upcoming crisis, should be the focus of the political agenda of governments all around the world, in my opinion.
Galleries seem to be visited by the “wrong” people today – art enthusiasts, and the usual visitors at openings. Only few collectors, museum directors, or any other professionals from the world of art. Is it possible to start addressing different targets?
I believe that broadening the audience is never a problem in cultural businesses. There is no such thing as a wrong audience, since broadening it means enhancing a gallery’s visibility. As to your question specifically, I have a feeling that especially in Italy, the contemporary art sector struggles to have a productive dialogue with other branches of the world of art and culture, sometimes because of the latters’ mistrust. Reflecting on how to create a system that can work more cohesively, instead of thinking in watertight compartments, is one of the challenges where everyone – professionals, policy makers and experts – will have to be involved most after the Covid emergency.
Few economic sectors have the same competition rate as contemporary art, which becomes a critical factor when supply exceeds demand. May the time have come for art to turn to business combinations, clusters and networks?
If the issue is a supply and demand misalignment, I would say that the solution is not networking or merging, as such tools should have different goals – sharing expertise, planning integrated communication policies, and reducing certain fixed costs. While all of this is necessary nonetheless, acting on the demand probably means changing culture too, and this can only be fostered by a system able to educate youth, inform the large public, and draw more people to contemporary art.
A few days ago, Carlo Fuortes, the superintendent of the Rome Opera Theatre, suggested to introduce a bond for art and culture. Would it be feasible for public and private cultural institutions to issue bonds?
I read superintendent Fuortes’ proposition, as well as Pierluigi Battista’s one, which he explicitly refers to. I personally find that Fuortes’ suggestion might clash with the problematic fact that it would benefit those institutions most capable of attracting the public, which are probably those that will survive this crisis nonetheless, somehow, although not without some difficulty.
On the other hand, what is coming up risks jeopardizing the stability of all those mid-sized and small businesses from the cultural and creative sector, which can only rely on the work – sometimes even volunteer work – of many young art and culture professionals.
I think that the most important challenge awaiting the world of art and culture in the near future will be to radically reconsider the public and private financing system, by identifying clear, meritocratic funding criteria able to recognize that “the motivations and benefits linking the community to art and culture are never economic” (in Fuortes’ words), and to duly acknowledge those businesses and professionals striving to promote a sociality that does not make profits in the short run, but allows us to collectively evolve toward a fairer, more open and respectful society, which is also the basis for a long-term, long-lasting economic growth.
 Badia F., Schiano Lo Moriello V., (2015), “Evolution of the business models for contemporary art galleries. Current situation and future challenges”, in IFKAD 2015, Culture, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Connecting the Knowledge Dots, Bari (Italy), June 10-12, 2015, London: Arts for Business, ISBN 9788896687079, pp. 1567-1581.